Flawless Execution: Balance Key in 41 Point First Quarter

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The Spurs routinely struggle to open games well, a frustrating trend for a team that is one of just a few legitimate title contenders. Head Coach Gregg Popovich has talked about what he sees as a lack of early energy and focus several times this year, even in wins. After scoring just 17 points in the opening quarter of the team’s first road loss of the season in Chicago, Pop bluntly assessed the season-long pattern of slow starts.

“Our opponents have outplayed us physically and execute-wise in most first halves for most of the season, and somehow we pull it together in the second half and play harder and smarter than we did in the first half.”

Popovich probably talked to his players about the need to start strong and play 48 minutes, and the Spurs responded with an offensive explosion at the expense of Brooklyn on Saturday night. While the Nets aren’t exactly Eastern conference contenders, they are exactly the type of opponent that can help a group of players get their mojo back.

San Antonio got back to their beautiful game roots, and took what the defense gave them on a night when the defense certainly gave them plenty. They set season highs by scoring 131 points and notching 38 assists, led by Kawhi Leonard’s 30 points in just three quarters of work. However, it was Tony Parker’s aggressive play that jump-started the Spurs 41 point first quarter clinic.

Parker ran the offense on almost every possession in the first seven minutes, scoring or assisting on 16 of the Spurs’ first 20 points. Kawhi Leonard took a back seat while Tony ran eight pick and rolls resulting in five made baskets, attacking a Brooklyn defense that was not prepared for the mid range shooting of LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol.

Parker is at his best with fresh legs and the ball in his hands, and that hasn’t happened too much this season. Parker has been nicked up, and Leonard continues to establish himself as an elite ball-dominant scorer leaving less room in the offense for Parker’s penetration-based attack.

Kawhi’s touches were few and far between as Parker picked the porous defense apart, and that might have actually helped the Spurs. Leonard’s court vision has improved, but Tony still gets teammates involved better than anybody on the San Antonio roster. Parker primed the offensive pump by facilitating and creating open shots for everyone, helping to get more players involved and comfortable in the flow of the offense out of the gate. Gasol and Aldridge saw their shots fall, building confidence that lasted throughout the game.

Kawhi put in work during the final six minutes of the dominant first quarter, mostly with Parker on the bench. He took over on offense, shooting pull-up jumpers on the first three possessions without Parker. He missed two, but LaMarcus Aldridge saved both possessions on the offensive boards resulting in two made baskets.

On one possession Leonard held the ball at the point as Patty Mills ran the baseline to the short corner, where Kawhi hit him with the one handed pass for the open three. The Spurs needed a quick shot for a 2-for-1 opportunity at the end of the quarter, and Kawhi dribbled around a screen and banged home a pull-up triple.

Mills played well in the quarter even though he missed two open three pointers, as he notched three assists in the period. He ran a pick-and-roll with Dewayne Dedmon on the last possession, and Dedmon finished with a pretty finger roll and hit the and-1.

San Antonio scored on an eye popping 68% of their 25 possessions in this first quarter, and they generated an open look on six of the eight possessions when the shot didn’t go down. The offense operated at an extremely high level, scoring 30 points on 12 open shots, nine of which were assisted. They shot 6/10 from three as a team, finishing the game with five more than their season average of nine.

Tony Parker elevated the play of his teammates from the jump by establishing the flow of the offense and getting the bigs open catch and shoot looks out of the pick and pop. When he headed to the bench Kawhi took over and looked for his own shot, but the ball movement was infectious and the flow lasted throughout the game. Aldridge brought the energy that Popovich felt was lacking as he pulled down three offensive rebounds in the quarter.

The Spurs won’t have the good fortune of playing against the Nets every night, but they learned some valuable lessons by imposing their collective will on an inferior opponent. Kawhi Leonard will get his over the course of the game, so maybe the primary focus out of the gate should be to create open looks for others and get all parts of the offensive machine rolling.

While Leonard is growing into one of the league’s most effective scorers, it’s important that San Antonio doesn’t abandon its identity of selfless ball and player movement. Spreading the offensive production around isn’t just important at the start of games. Kawhi has taken control of many close games down the stretch this year and led the Spurs to wins in most of them, but his usage rate is an astronomical 43% in the fourth quarter of losses.

The Spurs are 19-5, but they’re still figuring out how the pieces of their offense fit together. They seemed to have a lightbulb moment in their highest scoring quarter of the season, as they shared the ball and found a balance that was impossible to stop. It’s unclear if this approach will work against teams that are not the Nets, but it might make sense to try.

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