San Antonio Spurs: At a loss

“They were hungrier than we were, and we started the game sloppy, and it, we, set a tone. “

Just a taste of what the Spurs’ head coach Gregg Popovich had to say after seeing his team fall to the Knicks 128-115 on Tuesday night, but none more true or appropriate. Not when when speaking to long-term success, at least.

Popovich would go on to make sure he didn’t discredit the Knicks early-season, crown jewel accomplishment—hanging the fifth loss on a team in the midst of a historic start to the season (30-6)—making sure to acknowledge the aggressive and physical nature of their counterpart and how his team lacked that same kind of disposition, play. But make no mistake, the loss was on his team, his players—his coaching?

In the immediate aftermath of Tuesday night’s game, I can’t say the loss to the Knicks particularly stuck in the craw or had me all that upset. The Spurs are going to lose games, teams will just be flat-out better some nights; the Spurs will have games where they just flat-out can’t get it done others. It’s a long season and ebb and flow is inherent in basketball. Sometimes you’ve just got to tip the ol’ cap and keep it moving (otherwise the Knicks would still be scoring).

So it’s easy to say,”Hey, what can you do? The Knicks were unconscious,” and keep it moving. Move on to the next city or game and burn the tape somewhere in between. But when the goals are as lofty as this Spurs team, it’s not quite as easy.

Each game is an opportunity to learn, grow. They’re an opportunity to sharpen and hone a team’s play and skill for a championship endgame—and they reveal and expose plenty about a team in the process.

The Spurs were swept out of last year’s Western Conference semifinals primarily because of their inability to match up to the smaller and faster Suns. Duncan was too immobile for the defensive switches and the Suns’ “smalls” were bigger and more athletic than than that of the Spurs. Often Duncan would find himself being pulled away from the basket to contest a midrange jumper or 3-point shot by Grant Hill, Jarred Dudley or Channing Frye, leaving the board vulnerable for second-chance points and/or the rim unprotected once the first line of defense was beaten. The Spurs played from their heels, scrambling as best they could to contest and contain, but they were always behind the 8-ball—the loss of Bowen and Duncan’s physical decline led to the demise of a once-sound game plan for the Suns.

altTuesday night only helped to strengthen and reinforce that point. The Spurs did as they had done for years with the Suns successfully—and most recently, unsuccessfully—going under screens and switching willingly, eagerly.

In years past, that strategy had success because of attention to detail—facing the Suns had a way of making a fan feel as if their team was standing in the NBA’s Hurt Locker: one false move and the whole thing could go up in smoke. But the Spurs had the ability to both control the Suns’ point of attack and backboard. They could disrupt Nash’s vision and playmaking with Bowen’s length and speed or they could dictate where Nash’s shots would come from by simply going under the screen; they could control the paint and tempo with their superior rebounding.

Times change—personnel, too.

Even as the Spurs acquiesced to a degree, picking a poison an altering their game plan and attack for the Suns, they still dictated the terms. They had the means to give a little to take more—the  ability to keep themselves within striking distance to capitalize on the opposition’s mistakes at the most opportune of times. Their versatility was disciplined, and plenty capable.

Juxtapose that with the team currently donning the Spurs and the ones who found themselves bounced just after four games in last year’s second round of the playoffs, and you begin to understand how the Spurs could look so inept defensively just coming off one of their best defensive stretches of the year. Matchups—this Spurs team still can’t match up defensively with the high-octane, small-ball offense that’s defined D’antoni’s coaching career.

Simply put, the Spurs no longer have the personnel to dictate the terms or game-plan against a team like the Suns or Knicks the way they used to. And with their inability to do so, well, there will be nights like last Tuesday (even if the next lunar eclipse comes before the Knicks shoot that well again).

But it’s not as cut and dried as saying they don’t have the personnel. The Spurs are capable of winning a game or series against a similar outfit, just not the way they used to—and that goes to coaching.

altTone. How does one establish it, with your players and the opponent? Popovich decided to go back to his Phoenix Suns’ well for a game plan—even after seeing the type of results it had netted recently—and decided to switch and go under the screen. He put his team in a reactive mode from the jump, not a proactive or resourceful one. And given the type of personnel they employ and the kind of defense they have had success with—swarming and engaged, not physicality and size to be heavily percentage-based—asking the Spurs to concede shots or pass off responsibility to the next guy on a switch, right off the bat, doesn’t seem a recipe for success.

The Phoenix Suns asked Tony Parker to hit a jumper once upon a time. He did—again and again and again. And if you’re going to challenge a star player or good shooter to do the same, they’ll oblige more often than not. Certainty breeds comfort; comfort breeds confidence; confidence breeds death.

So when the Spurs went into Tuesday night with a 29-4 record and an opponent that wouldn’t pose much of a threat on the defensive end, some complacency set in. They were looking to score where and when they wanted, forcing action not needed to be forced, when, with patience, the Knicks were more than willing to give.

Turnovers and transition, that’s what the complacency and poor decisions led to. And combined with a soft, reactive defense, the Knicks found some confidence and rhythm-building scores—gasoline meets fire.

Popovich has taken a good amount of heat in recent years for throwing in the towel early (he’d receive it again against the Knicks, conceding the game with over 3-minutes left to play), sitting out players or seemingly sacrificing games for what he believed to be a Big Picture purpose. And while there’s certainly enough logic to be found in many of those decisions, it all goes back to that idea of “tone”—why was it that Ginobili and others were so adamant about getting the Spurs off to a fast start and that the coaches avoid the same lineup and scheme-tinkering of a year ago? Had it only been about a few extra losses, maybe some seeding, or had it been detrimental to the team’s urgency and competiveness? Had it gotten to a point where players were always looking ahead and finding themselves—as  a team and individually—a step behind once it was time to put their best foot forward?

Four championship rings affords you the benefit of a doubt, not the absence of scrutiny. And when the stakes are as high and a team’s Golden Age of basketball and a franchise’s single greatest player’s career is winding to a close, a doubt’s benefit has a funny way of becoming doubted.

If you want a defensive identity, play defensive players. If you want to combat complacency, employ schemes and challenges that require players to engage, compete. If you want to set a tone, it’s done with actions, not words.

And when your team drops back-to-back games for the first time all year in much the same defensive fashion—playing soft at the point of attack, constantly chasing defensively and neglecting to play your best defensive personnel—actions speak louder than words ever could.

Moving Forward

If only the Spurs’ defensive problems were relegated to a small-ball few—If  only. Because, in truth, the team’s record and statistics are more gaudy than indicative of their league-standing.

Something seems to get lost in translation when short-term success is discussed within a long-term outlook—criticism often being dismissed and viewed as nothing more than the nitpicking of a naysayer—but seeing is believing, and it doesn’t hurt to have the right perspective.

The Spurs have been in need of a perimeter defender to guard the bigger scoring guards for two years now. Likewise, they’ve needed a defensive compliment to Tim Duncan. If the Spurs were going to ascend to the top of the league again and capture their fifth Larry O’Brien, addressing those concerns—needs—would have to take place. But have they?

The simple answer is, well, no. No they haven’t. As a matter of fact, not much has changed other than health and continuity—the Spurs have started the same starting-five for thirty-six consecutive games; last year saw thirteen lineup changes in the same amount of time.

altSure, they’ve improved—adding key potential contributors in Splitter and Anderson and the revelation that’s become Gary Neal—but their improvement hasn’t been as drastic or amazing as the record would seem to indicate—they weren’t that far away from contention then, and they aren’t the world-beaters they’ve appeared to be until now.

The Spurs are a very, very good team. They’re essentially the same team most thought and expected them to be upon acquiring Jefferson, one that was “back in the mix [for a championship],” as Popovich said prior to last year.

Such a perspective affords a fan the ability to enjoy the 30-6 record this San Antonio Express has rolled to without worry for the light at the end of the tunnel. The 2007-08 season ended a chapter of Spurs’ basketball that could have very well proved to be its final, being “back in the mix” two years later ain’t such a bad place to be—the separation of church (Spurs’ basketball) and state [of mind].

So if we’re to speak to “state,” the actual business of Spurs’ basketball (championship  aspiration), it begins and ends with defense. And given they’ve yet to address their needs, or have yet to see them met or fulfilled by returning players or acquisitions, this team still has some work to do—some that may even include the help of their front office.

If the team is to stay as it is and not acquire any outside help, the team’s change will have to be real, lasting. Popovich won’t be able to go back and forth schematically—at a moments notice—defensively and his default position can’t be that of the successful counterpuncher he’s been for years. He’ll have to go “all-in” with this offensive locomotive and opportunistic, gambling defense.

Conventional wisdom seems to suggest that the Spurs will look a little different come springtime. More specifically, Tim Duncan will—his knees being preserved to bear a greater and more significant responsibility come the playoffs. And if that is the case (and you’d be hard-pressed to find much argument), it leads one to believe the Spurs’ pace will slow on its own; and a slower pace means fewer possessions—a more conservative approach from the coach seems almost an inevitability.

This is where Popovich would truly have to change his stripes. The Spurs aren’t equipped to win in the half court against a healthy Lakers or Celtics team. Their greatest potential is to be a running team—a more offensive outfit—that happens to be able to play in the half court, fully capable of getting stops at the right time—consistently offensive with streaks of defensive disruptiveness, dominance.

altWednesday’s loss to the Celtics provided a prime example of where the team’s greatest deficiencies lie defensively—size and savvy—and could be summed up in two words: Bonner, Hill.

Matt Bonner and George Hill have found themselves in the unenviable position of being asked to play beyond their means. Frontcourt players have the comfort of knowing they’ll be able to get just about any shot they want with patience against Bonner and that they’ll have an easier time on the boards. They know if they involve Duncan in a screen, their guards will have free reign to the basket, resulting in a quality shot either by the initial play or from crashing the board. On offense, they know that running Bonner off the 3-point line is akin to what the Spurs accomplished against the Celtics late in Wednesday night’s game—switching their bigmen off onto Allen in order to prevent an uncontested three or catch-and-shoot opportunity—bogging down an offense. They turn Bonner into a driver and decision maker, which might as well be the same “Why-do-you-keep-hitting-yourself-in-the-face?!?” tactic employed by an adolescent’s loving, elder brother.

In Hill’s case, it comes down to size, savvy and footwork. In contrast to Bonner, Hill can be a defensive dynamo at times, wreaking havoc and putting together dominant stretches like the one he authored Dec. 28 at home against the Lakers. A 6-9 wingspan belies his 6-2 frame, affording him the ability to play much bigger than his actual size, but he remains undersized if being relied upon to be the primary defender against the bigger and more skilled shooting-guards and wings. His size disadvantage could be better compensated for with a little more savvy and knowhow, but he hasn’t developed that just yet—it takes time, seasoning. It was on full display in Wednesday night’s loss to the Celtics and his matchup with Ray Allen. alt

Ray Allen is a future Hall-of-Famer and one of the league’s all-time greatest shooters. And even at his advanced age (35), he’s still one of the best the game has to offer when it comes to utilizing the screen—the Celtics’ offense is predicated upon his movement and shooting prowess. But no matter the resume or how difficult the cover—especially when a lack of size limits your margin for error—certain principles and guidelines must be adhered to: stay attached to your man, take away space; get over the screen; and know your help, defensive scheme or play-call. What you can’t do is shoot the gap consistently—attempting to beat your man to his spot by taking a shortcut—or be cognizant of your surroundings and circumstance, two things Hill found himself guilty of. Whether it’s righting the wrong of a teammate’s defensive error or being able to react to a called switch you may have missed before seeing your teammate switch off onto your man, those are the type of read-and-react plays a team defense needs—Duncan switching on the screen to deny Allen a shot while Hill fails to account for the man (Glenn Davis) Duncan switched off of, can’t happen when the game’s on the line. It’s those types of mental lapses that end up costing a team dearly; and they’re not unique to Hill, either.

Suffice to say, Bonner, Hill, Jefferson, Blair and Neal—possibly Splitter and Anderson—are not the complimentary players Horry, Bowen, Jackson, Rose or Elie were. Not at this point, anyway. They lack either the size, savvy or both, to execute a percentage-based defense to championship success.

It’s not inconceivable the Spurs have what it takes to win No. 5; suggesting this team is capable of playing and coaching as they have in the previous four successes is.

If you want a defensive identity, play your best defensive personnel—acquire or trade for better personnel, if need be. Otherwise, it’s time for the coach to heed the San Antonio Express’ call:

All-in. All-aboard.

Follow Nick Kapsis @Kap10Jack

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