The Beautiful Game is not gone. Every Spurs game you can find multiple examples of excellent motion offense that's a step above the rest of the league. I've highlighted more than a few in the Spurs Playbook series. But as pointed out by many and discussed in length in PtR's recent installment of the Superfluous Poppycock podcast, the Spurs starting unit has largely played at a slow pace featuring a heavy dose of post ups. With the addition of LaMarcus Aldridge and emergence of Kawhi Leonard as an offensive star, the Spurs have played 3 out 2 in and used mismatches and pace to their advantage. They have also been preparing for Golden State, and know that the ability to make the Warriors defend their style rather than trying to out-beautiful a 73 win team will be key.
And yet, the Spurs second unit has continued to display masterful motion offense sets. The second unit, juxtaposed with the iso-heavy way Kawhi carried the Spurs in Game 3 and in stretches of Game 4, has people wondering which approach is best. It's hard to argue with the flow of the second unit, especially thinking back on the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat when the starters were utilizing this method with historic success. Furthermore, looking at OKC's struggles in fourth quarters is reason to feel worried about relying on guys to make individual plays in crunch time.
But fear not. San Antonio's ability to juggle both styles is why I believe they are so dangerous. You can't take plays off against them. Against most teams, when they go to their bench, you are able to rest. With the Spurs, the pace and intensity increases, and this is often when San Antonio extends their leads. Then, when the starters come back to finish the game, you have to be able to defend Aldridge in the post, Kawhi all over the floor, and hall of famers Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili (if he's in for Green) as third, fourth, and fifth options.
The Beautiful Game
A key distinction in the Spurs second unit is the use of the 4 out 1 in. Notice how the paint is open and there is room to make plays:
Even with two bigs in the game, the lane is free. David West comes high for the screen and Boris Diaw stays at the high post. When Patty Mills fakes the pick and roll and drives right, he has daylight. With Memphis collapsing, Boris Diaw is wide open at the high post, and the play continues from there. There is a pattern with this unit: attack an open lane and force teams to scramble into help. Memphis rotates from Mills, to Diaw, then tries to close out on Kyle Anderson, and he finishes the play.
The next play is a variation of the weave play.
Here you have the same dribble hand-off between Mills and Ginobili but the added element is the screen from David West. As discussed, the weave (typically a series of dribble hand-offs) creates the same effect as a pick and roll. But with Lance Stephenson playing off Ginobili, the first action doesn't create separation. This is where West comes in, briefly screening Stephenson and giving Manu just enough of an advantage to drive, collapse the defense, and find Diaw in the short corner. As in the last play, this forces Memphis to completely collapse on Diaw, and David West is forgotten at the high post where he drills the mid-range jumper.
The Spurs will go as far as Kawhi takes them
When the Spurs are clicking on all cylinders, games do not come down to individual plays. But when games are closer, as they were in Game 3 and in the second quarter of game 2, the Spurs will rely on Kawhi to make plays. They don't want to risk turnovers and bad decisions in critical moments, so they feature more isolation in these moments.
Here, with the game not yet put away before halftime, Kawhi plays with Stephenson:
There is no movement on this play. With 15 seconds left on the shot clock, the ball is given to Leonard and the decision is his. The other four Spurs are spaced into the four corners.
Game 3 was the most competitive and it took 32 points from Kawhi Leonard to pull away late for the win. Moving forward there will be games in which he has to step up and repeat this. He is certainly capable, but he is also not as seasoned as Westbrook and Durant at having to carry his team under a ton of pressure.
Here, against Tony Allen, one of the best defenders in NBA history, Kawhi makes something out of nothing:
If the Spurs were relying on Kawhi Leonard exclusively, then I don't think they'd feel great about their odds going up against the Thunder and then the Warriors or Clippers. Those teams just have more talented isolation players at this stage of their respective careers. But Kawhi is certainly a good enough one on one player to seal a close game late with his playmaking ability. Leonard's play, coupled with Aldridge and the beautiful game of the second unit, is a combination no other team has. The Warriors of course have incredible depth and individual players, but their identity is pretty consistent between units. The Spurs make their opponents prepare gameplans for two distinct attacks, and that may be their greatest edge.