The days of the foreign legion are gone in San Antonio. With only five players born outside the United States on the roster, three of whom played college basketball here and another who has yet to suit up for the main squad, the rhythm and flow of the international game has nearly vanished from the Spurs’ offense. There are glimpses here and there of the team’s beautiful game, but the sequences are shorter, the highlights less jubilant.
And yet, amidst the smoldering ruin of stagnant post ups and difficult isolations, the Spurs have an evolving two-man game that evokes a little of the old magic. Jakob Poeltl has more assists to Patty Mills than to any other player, and only two players have received more assists from Patty than Jakob.
The two linked up for some improvisational magic several times in last night’s victory over the Nets, including three three-pointers, that all had the same backyard football “just get open” play call feel. They started, innocuously enough, with a Patty staple.
Patty sprints towards a hand off from Jakob at the top of the key. With DeAndre Jordan dropped almost all the way down to the restricted area as he attempts to play centerfield, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot knows that giving up the hand off is trouble, so he works to beat Patty there. Unfortunately for Cabarrot, Patty’s got better brakes and quickly changes directions back to the left wing, where Jakob finds him for an easy three.
A little over a minute later, they used essentially the same move, though in a much trickier manner.
As Marco Belinelli passes the ball to Jakob at the top of the key, Derrick White attempts to seal his man while Patty quickly pops up from the corner to the left wing. Garrett Temple smartly jumps out to deny the pass, so Derrick moves towards the ball while Patty fades to the corner. That forces David Nwaba to follow Derrick while Temple switches onto Patty.
In most cases, that would’ve been the end of this part of the play and the Spurs would’ve transitioned into a hand off for Derrick followed by a pick and roll. But not this time. Jakob shows off the touch by lofting a soft chest pass right right over Temple’s head as he recovers just in time to have an up close view of Patty’s second three pointer of the night.
A few possessions later, Rudy Gay found Jakob with deep position in the paint.
Nwaba is in good position to cover Patty’s baseline cut out of the right corner, but still ends up half a step behind. Jakob uses a nifty little fake to get Jordan to lift slightly before dropping a perfect bounce pass to Patty, who uses the slight advantage he has to create contact and draw a pair of free throws, though he missed both.
Late in the 3rd quarter, Jakob found Patty one last time.
Much like their second connection, Jakob is clearly looking to get Patty the ball, though this time it’s on the right wing. Cabbarot denies the hand off, so Patty fades back to the corner and Jakob leads him to an open spot with a soft little floater. When Patty’s shooting like he was in this game, that’s really all it takes.
That three-pointer kicked off a run of 15-straight points where Patty either scored or assisted on every bucket. He followed it up by hitting Jakob on the roll for a layup out of the Spurs’ Hawk set. Then, after Jakob’s 3rd block of the night (and push up the floor in transition), Patty drilled another three off a cross court pass from Lonnie Walker IV. On the next possession, while working out of the pick and roll with Jakob, Patty drew a three point shooting foul on Temple and knocked down 2 of his 3 freebies.
The Spurs went back to that same pick and roll the next time down the floor and Patty found Derrick relocating to the top of the key for a pull up three of his own. To close out the quarter, the Spurs went back to their Hawk set, where Patty rejected the screen, drove baseline, faked the pocket pass to Jakob and layed it in off the glass for the Spurs’ first lead of the game.
It should come as no surprise that the Spurs played so well with those two on the court. The team has a net rating of +16.8 in the 321 minutes they’ve played together. Their offensive rating of 114.3 is the highest of any of the Spurs’ two-man lineups that have played more than 300 minutes and their defensive rating of 97.5 is the lowest. It is not a stretch to suggest that this particular foreign connection should get a lot more playing time.