AT&T CENTER–Calling Saturday night's matchup between the San Antonio Spurs and Indiana Pacers a possible NBA Finals preview would seem disappointing, given a shellacking the Spurs took at the hands of the Pacers that was far worse than the 100-111 final margin would indicate.
Yet, tread carefully when trying to extrapolate information from a game like this. Through roughly the first 15-20 minutes of the game, the San Antonio Spurs executed at the highest levels of basketball on both ends of the courts, putting up 28 points in 20 possessions against the NBA's best defense in the first quarter. The Pacers scored 20 points on just 38.1 percent.
Roughly halfway through the second quarter the wheels came apart for the Spurs, coincidentally around the same time Tiago Splitter's did. A strained calf limited Splitter to eight minutes, which is about 10 minutes less than the amount of time the Spurs remained competitive
That's not to say that the Pacers win is largely attributable to Splitter's absence, the Pacers were the better team tonight and have been all season. Still, the disparity in the box score is hardly indicative of the gap between these two teams. The only thing a loss like this proves is that in a game against championship-level teams, even the slightest misfire from one component of a team can be leveraged to devastating effect.
The 2013 NBA Finals will be remembered as a tightly contested masterpiece, but games swung radically as the Spurs and Heat found momentary flaws in the other to exploit. Perhaps the biggest flaw the Heat capitalized on was the Spurs inability to stay in their big lineups against Miami lineups featuring LeBron James as the power forward.
San Antonio has established themselves as an elite defensive team, even if a little below the lofty, league-leading standards the Pacers are setting right now. They have done so on the strength of the Tim Duncan-Splitter-Kawhi Leonard front court. That Splitter (+6) and Manu Ginobili (+5) were the only Spurs players to have a positive +/- during relevant minutes doesn't tell you everything you need to know about Saturday night's game, but it tells you something.
During the first 12 minutes of the game, both teams held to form, limiting the other to the sort of inefficient long two-pointers that are difficult to build a consistent offense around. Tony Parker's ability to connect on such shots early (4-5 from midrange in the first quarter for eight of his 13 points) helped to open some other spots on the floor up, while the Spurs used their length to congest driving and passing lanes to deny attempts in the paint. Notice the shot chart from the first quarter below.
It would be foolish to credit Splitter as the reason for the Spurs success, but he plays a vital role in the Spurs' system, and his absence degrades that system more than most simply because his length and mobility aren't readily replaceable. While the Spurs can and have managed Splitter's various injury stints during his time in San Antonio due to their system and execution, the more stress an opposing team puts on the Spurs defense, the more the ramifications of his loss trickle through everything else.
Without Duncan and Splitter on the court, the Spurs require more bodies to pack the paint and keep the ball on the perimeter. This means their defensive rotations have to be far more precise, and inevitably become far more chaotic. Offensively, there's a substantial difference between a Boris Diaw or Matt Bonner diving to the rim out of pick and rolls from Tiago Splitter. Parker is perhaps the only Spurs player that can get the ball in the paint of his own volition, and Splitter's ability to collapse defenses by diving aggressively towards the rim helps keep the Spurs system humming in Parker's absence.
Putting the amount of strain on the Spurs system necessary to collapse it, even without Splitter, is no easy task of course. And it's not something the Pacers would've been able to do even a season ago.
The reason a team like the Miami Heat or San Antonio Spurs can turn a small flaw into such gaping leads is because they have enough versatility to change tactics and attack that flaw, and enough depth to keep coming in waves. A year ago the Pacers didn't have that versality because they lacked a dynamic off-the-dribble presence, with power forward David West perhaps being their most efficient source of shot creation.
Today, the Pacers have that in Paul George, who has taken an incredible leap from a season ago and now stands as, arguably, the third best basketball player in the world. Perhaps because the Spurs-Pacers ties that brought Kawhi Leonard to San Antonio, or maybe because they're of simllar age, position, and comparable statistics (when comparing similar points to their careers), George is sometimes used as somewhat of a template or measuring stick for Leonard.
This is a mistake. George combines the same defensive mindset with great length and far more explosive athletic ability. His offensive versatility, while still raw a season ago, was still more dynamic than what Leonard displays. Leonard might still be on the path to stardom, but currently he appears to be more of a Luol Deng/Shawn Marion hybrid than the prototypical wing star George appears to be now.
George finished the game with 28 points and six assists, bombing away from deep (4-4) and utilizing his athleticism and a newfound grasp of how to manipulate spacing and change of direction. The Spurs simply had to commit too many resources towards George, and left too many vulnerabilities elsewhere. All seven Pacers that scored, scored in double figures.
And while Paul George's defensive is always exemplary, his offense also factored into the Pacers' defense. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich noticeably altered his rotation, matching Kawhi Leonard on Paul George minute-for-minute. This altered the Spurs second unit, limiting the amount of time the successful Ginobili-Marco Belinelli combination had on the court. Again, it's these little shifts in advantage that work their way through the entire makeup of the game.
If there's any consolation, it's that Leonard himself had a quality game, scoring 18 points and finally connecting on two three-pointers. He showed an ability to exploit mismatches in the post, and even managed a dunk off a dribble drive against the Pacers half court defense.
These Pacers are an elite team, and with the Spurs not putting their best foot forward, they appeared to be anything but. It's a disappointing outcome, but arriving at any conclusion about the Spurs themselves, other than this is what happens when you don't have your best game against an elite team, is foolish.