Game 2 of the Spurs’ semi-finals series against the Rockets offered yet another example of why coaches are never to be trusted, ever, based on the answers they give to press conference questions. Gregg Popovich, a fine, honorable and conscientious man in most respects, is the exemplar of this. He was asked after Game 1’s blowout loss whether small-ball could be an adjustment in the offing to combat Houston’s run-and-gun offense and he replied that the Spurs hadn’t played small against the Rockets all season. Then, in his presser prior to Game 2, he started Pau Gasol in David Lee’s place and joked that he made that tweak mainly so reporters couldn’t accuse him of not having made any adjustments.
Oh, Pop, you wily rascal.
Some may recall a story I wrote on Mar. 31, shortly after the Warriors all but decided the race for home-court advantage, in which I chronicled the results of the Spurs’ brief experimentation with small-ball during the season.
Using NBAWowy!, I looked at all the Spurs lineups featuring Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge but without Gasol, Dedmon, Bertans, David Lee and Joel Anthony.
The result: 87 minutes, a 122.0 offensive rating and a 97.8 defensive rating, a 24.2 net.
There was some debris in those numbers, to be sure. The five minutes worth of lineups featuring Nicolas Laprovittola are no longer useful for our purposes, and I had the hunch that Parker was dragging the numbers down a bit, too. So I put them in the “off” pile, along with all those bigs.
Now we get 62 minutes of Leonard/Aldridge goodness at the four and the five, respectively, and it was good for a 128.9 offensive rating and a 96.3 defensive rating, a 32.6 net.
Oh my. /fans self
Let’s replace Aldridge with Lee, who had the next most minutes as the sole big working alongside Leonard, with 34. Having a 6’8 guy as the biggest dude on the floor doesn’t seem like the best idea, conceptually, and even worse when he’s got the defensive reputation that Lee’s got. But in lineups with Leonard and without Aldridge, Gasol, Dedmon, Bertans, Anthony and Laprovittola, the Spurs have had a 131.9 offensive rating and a 88.4 defensive rating, a 43.5 net.
You didn’t see that coming, right?
(Of note, Parker was on the floor for just two of those 34 minutes.)
Next on the list is Gasol, who had 21 minutes with Leonard but not Aldridge, Dedmon, Bertans, Anthony and Laprovittola. They managed to scrape together a 130.8 offensive rating and a 100.0 defensive rating, for a 30.8 net.
I decided to dig into the Spurs-Rockets match-up specifically, using Popcornmachine.net to pore over the lineups. It turns out that the Spurs played 34 minutes and change of small-ball against the Rockets, split over 13 separate lineups.
Spurs-Rockets Small-ball lineups
|Lineup||Minutes||Off Rating||Def Rating||Net Rating|
|Lineup||Minutes||Off Rating||Def Rating||Net Rating|
10 of the 13 were successful, representing 30 of the 35 minutes. To be fair to Pop, we do have to add some context here. Nearly 22 minutes of that 35 came in the very first meeting of the four regular season games, way back on Nov. 6. And the Spurs lost that game, 101-99. Tony Parker was out that night, as was Houston’s counterpart Patrick Beverley.
There was considerable noise in that game. Nicolas Laprovittola played 14 minutes in Parker’s absence. Davis Bertans also logged 10 minutes, and wasn’t particularly effective. It’s entirely possible that Popovich sorts Bertans in the “small-ball” box and that part of his reservations with playing small have to do with the way his Latvian rookie has dragged down certain lineups. If you consider Bertans a big, however, and thus ineligible for the small-ball discussion, the lineups look a lot better.
Here’s the thing: In a game the Spurs went on to lose by two points, their small-ball lineups against Houston were +16 in 21:49.
A week later, the Spurs played at Houston and had their most convincing win against them of the three they’d eventually get, 106-100. It's worth noting that they played small for just the final 10 seconds of that one.
The third game, also at Houston, played out in mostly similar fashion, except this time the Spurs trailed 96-83 with 4:39 to go, playing exclusively big. They closed the game with a 19-4 run, to win 102-100, and in that run they played small for the final 3:32 of the game, outscoring the Rockets 14-4 in that time.
Finally, the Spurs played small for 8:43 in their fourth and final regular season game against Houston, a 112-110 win at the AT&T Center. They trailed 39-23 after the opening quarter and used small-ball as part of their rally in the second period, outscoring Houston by five over the final 8:30 of the half.
Fast-forward to Wednesday's Game 2. The Spurs played almost 18 minutes of small-ball against the Rockets including the final 11:22 of the second half before Mike D’Antoni threw in the towel. The interesting twist wasn’t that Pop resorted to small-ball but that he did it mostly with Pau Gasol as the only big after trying it for just 41 minutes all regular season. It was wildly effective in that time, with a 143.0 offensive rating, a 97.5 defensive rating and a 45.5 net.
Pop used Gasol as his small-ball hub for 12:58 against Houston and the Spurs were +9 in that time. Only 4:58 of that was with James Harden in the game for the Rockets, and in retrospect you can kind of understand Pop’s thinking. The agility-challenged Gasol has more of a fighting chance to protect the lane against drivers who aren’t Harden and it's easier for the small can help against drivers who don’t have Harden’s otherworldly play-making skills. The Gasol small-ball lineup was -2 in that 4:58 against Harden and +11 in the 8:00 when he was on the bench. The veteran Spaniard was a monster on the glass at both ends and had four huge swats too, proof that a big man can be a huge asset even on a night where he shoots 3-of-13.
Further buried in the lineup minutiae is that surprisingly Kawhi Leonard played 7:08 in small-ball lineups with Harden off the floor —the Spurs were +4 in that time — and that the Rockets only played Harden for 32 seconds against a Spurs small-ball lineup without Leonard on the floor. Kyle Anderson was on instead and the Spurs went -4, prompting a quick Popovich time out and a sub. The Spurs were +8 in 6:52 in small-ball lineups where both Leonard and Harden played and +9 in 3:19 where neither played. (And, yes, I was pleasantly surprised by that fourth quarter lineup that had Jonathon Simmons at the small-ball four.)
The Spurs had relative success with LaMarcus Aldridge — +5 in 3:56— and even David Lee — +3 in 0:57 — as their small-ball pivots as well so it’s fair to assume that this is a tactic they’ll keep using the rest of this series, especially when Harden rests. It lets them switch and keep track of shooters easier on defense and unlocks their offense if nothing else.
Of course what casts a pall over everything was Parker’s season-ending injury. I’m pretty confident, given Parker’s pride, drive and work ethic — we’re not talking about Charles Barkley here — that he’ll make a full recovery eventually, but that optimism is of little use to the Spurs right now. Let the record show that The Wee Frenchman went out on his shield like a proper warrior and that he proved a lot of skeptics (okay, me) wrong these playoffs. He was enjoying a terrific postseason and was great in Game 2 before suffering a torn left quad on a seemingly innocuous-looking play in the fourth quarter. If nothing else, our lasting impression of Parker in 2016-17 will be a positive one.
The games must go on, however, and I'm of the opinion that it would be a mistake to abandon small-ball just because they're a small shorter now. Manu Ginobili and Patty Mills will have to play more, sure, but Pop has to fill some minutes with Anderson and/or Dejounte Murray too. It goes without saying that neither of those guys is Parker, but they can make things tougher on Beverley, Lou Williams and Eric Gordon with their size and length and I’m intrigued by the different permutatations and combinations they can trot out there. Remember, Pop played the lion’s share of the Spurs’ small-ball in the regular season against Houston in that first game when Parker was out. Laprovittola is not on the roster anymore, granted, but Murray can be a reasonable fascimile.
Here’s hoping that Simmons continues to get steady minutes too. Considering the stakes, Game 2 was the best game of his professional career. It’s all about finding the right balance of being aggressive but not reckless with him, like a young Ginobili. Maybe Parker’s injury will force Pop to let Simmons play through his mistakes. He has a tendency to get tentative when he gets yanked.
A blowout home loss prompted Pop to make the first adjustments of the series. Parker’s injury will force his hand to make more. This series is primed to get more fascinating as it continues.