Thursday, April 3, 2008

Down The Stretch: The San Antonio Spurs

We call them boring.

We call them dull.

We call them dirty.

We call them "no-fun."

And yet, we call them Champions.

And the road to this year's Championship will go through San Antonio, most likely. All season long I've spoken about San Antonio's ability to ebb and flow in spurts, in order to save their energy accordingly. They're wrapping up their last dominating spurt before most likely cooling their jets for the playoffs. They need to, seeing as how they're collective age is somewhere near the length of the Mesozoic Era. They'll sit Parker and Ginobili, probably Duncan for long stretches. Pop will test Udoka to make sure he's really, really for real ready to shoot the long ball in the playoffs, and see if Vaughn can add some buckets off the bench. Mostly, though, they'll try and position themselves for homecourt, and then they'll wait. Because if there's one thing the Spurs can pride themselves on, it's their patience.

Last year during what would have been one of the best playoff series in history were it not for the epic screwjob that took place, I wrote something on my notes that I've never articulated, but that stayed with me. Last night, as I saw Stephen Jackson and Monta Ellis repeatedly pull up and stop in transition, setting the halfcourt offense up for an inevitably contested shot that would rattle out of the rim, I was reminded of it. Last year I wrote, simply,

"The Spurs refuse to indulge, even for a possession."

And that really epitomizes them. Against teams that are considered by both casual and passionate fans as "fun," the Spurs are amazingly good at resisting the style. An interesting aspect of the Suns and Warriors isn't just their ability to get out on the fast break, push the edges, drive and kick, dish and dunk, up and down over and over, it's their ability to get you to do the same. You can be a half-court, slow it down, ready, set, go offense entirely reliant on the post, and they'll goad you into it with porous defense and wide open lanes off of the constant transition. They dare you.

"Go ahead. Take it. Come on. You can do it. You're wide open. Shoot that breakaway three. Go for it. Come on. Shoot the jumper. It's fun. Go ahead. You know you want to."

And teams fall for it. It's primarily the reason the Mavs have had such difficulty with the Suns in the last two years. They took the Mavs out of their efficient, more defensive mindset, and brought them back to the run and gun, which doesn't suit their personnel anymore. The Lakers have succeeded against the Suns this year by outdoing the Suns at that very thing. Two-man, three-man breaks, run quickly and efficiently, then back in transition.

The Spurs will have no such foolishness. They won't take what you give them. Oh, they'll run allright. Parker and Ginobili can navigate the lane on the break like few in the game. And Ginobili is especially partial to the pull up jumper in transition. But never because you've given him it, and never because you've nudged them into a transition game. It's because they decide to run. And when they decide the silliness has been enough? Screech. Everything grinds to a halt. Whenever they can, they'll get out in front of you in transition and force you to surrender the break. And on those rare, but becoming more frequent, times in which you actually manage to get out in front of them? They'll use your own speed against you.

Last night I saw the same defensive sequence on three buckets that I realized I'd seen a million times in the Spurs-Suns showdowns. Ellis gets the ball on the break at mid-court, spins around a defender, and takes to the lane. Parker's back in transition, but can't get to the perimeter in time to stop the drive. And an interesting thing happens. Instead of getting in front of Ellis and just challenging the shot, Bowen moves behind Parker to the paint. Parker uses the few steps he has in front of Ellis to cut Ellis off, but he doesn't stop. He leaps in the air as if to to block the shot. This forces two possible reactions. Ellis can either pull up and retreat into the half-court set, or he has to increase speed to get around him and adjust his shot. Ellis goes for the latter, and misses the layup.

How many times have you seen a team miss an easy layup against the Spurs. Stop and think about it. They don't just force you into hard shots, they turn easy shots into hard shots. They have an uncanny ability to either deny you your primary talent, speed, or force you into actually going too fast. This exact same happened last year with Leandro Barbosa. Barbosa had been a beast in the playoffs, yet missed layup after layup because of how the Spurs rushed him into attempts.

So while the Warriors and Suns are goading you into a fast pace game, the Spurs are dictating the pace at whatever level they choose. This is why the Mavericks present such an issue for them. The Mavs offense isn't reliant upon system, but talent. And they have tons of it. But with the loss of Diop and Kidd still struggling, even that becomes an issue.

I'm not entirely convinced the Spurs are going to win it all, but I'm not willing to bet against them, either. Yes, LA has historically had an advantage in terms of catching breaks against the Spurs, and undoubtedly the Western Conference playoffs are going to be a gauntlet that only ends with the winner getting the "reward" of facing the Juggernaut Celtics or the Albatross Pistons. But in the end, the Spurs have faced the same questions of their age catching up to them, the grueling struggle of the West, and the superstar power of the East, and emerged victorious before.

Finley is going to have to contribute heavily, especially now that it appears Horry's not going to be healthy for a while. And they absolutely cannot blink in the first round, unless they get the Nuggets. They're used to pacing themselves, and they no longer have that luxury.

Either way, expect a lot of falling down from Manu and Parker, a lot of sweet bank shots by Duncan, a lot of dirty kicks and clutch threes from Bowen (as long as he's not guarded), and precision like this league has never seen. Expect them to play like champions.

Oh, yeah, and their D-League team is better than yours.

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