Oklahoma City Thunder v San Antonio Spurs - Game Two

The Extra Pass: The Spurs and time

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The Extra Pass is a column that’s designed to give you a better look at a theme, team, player or scheme. Today, we look at the San Antonio Spurs. 

You don’t have to scrounge for reasons for why the San Antonio Spurs have such great success. A quick point of the finger to Tim Duncan works just fine; an additional point to Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili works even better. There probably can’t be enough praise heaped on head coach Gregg Popovich, and attributing credit to the top of the organization won’t warrant many complaints. The Spurs are a world-class organization with all-world players. It can be that simple.

Maybe it’s so simple that it’s easy to look past. Every year the Spurs get older, and every year the concerns about time pop up and we forget everything else. Every compliment includes a caveat — the Spurs are great, but they’re old. Fact is, time is undefeated, and we tend to side with the champion over the challenger in that regard. In the eyes of many, the Spurs are up against it more and more every year.

But when the Spurs inevitably tear through the league like they always do, we say that they’re defying time. We praise their ability to fight time. Every year we do this and act surprised.

It makes me think that we’re looking at it the wrong way. The Spurs aren’t fighting against time. They’re using it.

Forfeiting Time

It starts by giving it up. Manu Ginobili has done it for years, coming off the bench and taking less minutes while not shying away from recuperation time from the bumps and bruises his reckless style of play welcomes. Tim Duncan, meanwhile, has played less than 30 a minutes a night for the last three years. It’s not that Duncan can’t play that much anymore — his playoff average usually hovers around 36 minutes a game — it’s all about pacing. Duncan is playing some of the best basketball of his career and putting up career per-36 numbers, but no team better understands how long an 82 game season is than the Spurs. They are always the tortoise.

That said, thinking that the Spurs sit their stars simply for the sake of rest is a classic mistake. Monday night’s trip to Chicago was a perfect example. Could some combination of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili or Stephen Jackson could have played? Probably, but suiting up those guys for tired or rusty minutes in the middle of an 82-game season serves no real purpose. Popovich went with none of the four, and the Spurs reserves got a ton of minutes they don’t usually receive. That move paid off, as the shorthanded Spurs beat the Bulls easily, 103-89.

And what’s the result? Another banked experience for guys who might not get many shots at it. When the day comes for Kawhi Leonard to be the Spurs’ top scorer, he has 26 points against the league’s best wing defenders to draw on. That confidence gleaned is more important than anything Parker, Duncan or Ginobili could have done. No coach puts their team in more no-lose, low-risk situations during the regular season than Popovich.

Organizational patience

You would think a front office with an aging core would be in a huge rush to win in their championship window, but the Spurs have gone the opposite route.  Tiago Splitter was drafted way back in 2007, playing overseas for three years of Tim Duncan’s prime before coming over. Nando de Colo was drafted in 2009 and is a rookie this season. George Hill was a mature, useful player at both guard spots for the Spurs, and he was swapped for a raw 19-year-old rookie in Kawhi Leonard last season.

Is it a coincidence that the biggest moves the Spurs have made have been for a center and a small forward?  By waiting on Splitter and developing Leonard into a killer corner scorer, the Spurs might be better than ever. After all, it’s the Spurs — not the Lakers or the Heat or any of the other “super teams” — that have the most effective starting lineup in all of basketball. The Parker-Green-Leonard-Duncan-Splitter lineup has a 106.9 offensive rating and an 87.1 defensive rating. The window is as open as it ever was.

The system

Most of San Antonio’s offense revolves around motion. Guys move with a purpose. There are very few plays for individuals, which eliminates turn taking and bad shots off the dribble. The next time you hear about a player under Popovich complaining about not getting enough shots will be the first time. If you cut hard, you’ll get it. If you screen hard, you’ll get it.

The Spurs may have been missing their stars in Chicago, but their biggest star was undoubtedly the system. The reserves executed in the halfcourt flawlessly, running everything with the same crispness the starters would. Popovich demands his players to follow a lot of rules on both ends, but he doesn’t dumb things down or limit the possibilities. He trusts his players to make the right decisions because they’re his players. Again, that comes with time.

And that’s really the point. We like to consider time as the one great enemy to the mighty Spurs empire, but no other team has used it to their advantage quite like the Spurs have.

Watch LeBron James drop 33 on Raptors in Game 6 win

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Friday night was a step forward in maturity for the Cleveland Cavaliers — given the chance to close out a conference finals on the road, in a place they had struggled, the team stepped up and did so convincingly.

They did it following the lead of LeBron James, who attack the basket from the start on his way to a team-high 33 points and 11 assists. LeBron set the tone and the rest of the Cavaliers followed.

Above you can see just how LeBron racked up those points. It’s an impressive display.

Report: In surprise to nobody, Bismack Biyombo will decline option, become free agent

TORONTO, ON - MAY 27:  Bismack Biyombo #8 of the Toronto Raptors reacts after being called for a foul against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first quarter in game six of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Air Canada Centre on May 27, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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This is not only expected, but it’s also the move all of us would make. Unless you hate money.

Raptors big man Bismack Biyombo has a player option on his contract for next year, pick it up and he returns to the Raptors at $2.9 million. Or, he can decline the option and become a free agent, where he may make about $17 million a season. So what do you think he’s doing? From Marc Stein of ESPN:

Certainly, the Raptors can’t retain Biyombo’s services, it’s just going to be expensive to do so.

If $15 million (at least) seems a lot for a player who can only impact the defensive end of the floor because of poor hands and a limited offensive game, you would be correct. Welcome to the crazy cap-spike summer the NBA is about to experience. The market will be flooded with cash (at least 20 teams will be able to afford a max player) and players with a valuable skill hitting that market are going to get PAID. Biyombo can block shots and rebound like a beast, and in an increasingly small-ball NBA era those skills have value. Teams will live with having to play 4-on-5 on offense to have those skills on the roster.

The real question is which teams — the Lakers? — and how much of that cap space are they willing to give up for him? It’s going to be an interesting July.

Drake congratulated LeBron James in hallway after game

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Drake is a Toronto native and a huge Raptors’ fan. He’s officially the team’s “global ambassador,” although nobody knows what that actually means.

Drake is also tight with LeBron James.

As LeBron is running down the hall to get to the locker room and celebrate making a sixth straight trip to the Finals Drake stops him to congratulate him. And Drake is one of the handful of guys LeBron will stop and talk to.

Nothing wrong with this, either. Drake has walked a line the whole series — he’s a Raptors fan, he’s trolled LeBron and Kyrie Irving on social media after Toronto wins, but he’s close with Cleveland’s players and has been seen in the Cavaliers locker room plenty the past few seasons.

Some fan bases (we’re looking at you, Philly) would flip out over this kind of divided loyalty, but not Canadians who will just forgive and move on.

LeBron James leads Cavaliers back to Finals doing it his way

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LeBron James is the first NBA star of the social media age, and with that has come a volume of criticism that the greats before him — Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan — never had to deal with.

Even these playoffs, there have been chattering voices knocking LeBron for how he worked more to set up teammates — particularly Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love — more than seeking out his own shot. Some people have always wanted him to be more Jordan, when he was always more Magic. Or Oscar Robertson.

And this playoff he knew that he could carry his Cavaliers to the NBA Finals through a diluted East, but if he wanted a ring he was going to need those other players to be confident, ready, and believing in the team.

You could see that all come together for LeBron James in Game 6. He attacked early and set a tone, then got everyone involved on his way to 33 points and 11 assists in what became a 113-87 win sending Cleveland back to the NBA Finals.

“I just had to bring my game,” James said in his on-court postgame interview on ESPN. “I had to bring my game, I had to be in attack mode from the beginning, trust my shot, and once my shot start going I can get my teammates involved and they was able to carry me down the stretch.”

LeBron James was getting to the rim with those attacks, check out his shot chart:

LeBron shot chart

LeBron also keyed the fourth-quarter 22-7 run that put away the game.

“There is only one LeBron James, and he makes a difference on any team he plays on, and he’s proven that,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said postgame. “It’s six Finals (in a row for LeBron), to compare him to our team — and I love our players, I wouldn’t trade any of our players — but you put him on any team and he’s a difference maker.”

LeBron’s critics will not be silenced. The man has made six straight finals, a feat not accomplished by anyone since a few legendary Celtics of the 1950s-60s (Bill Russell’s teams). It speaks to LeBron’s focus, skill, durability, and ability to lead teams.

Critics will point to LeBron being 2-4 in the Finals. That misses the point — making it to six straight is an amazing accomplishment, and LeBron did it his way. Not trying to be MJ or Magic or Oscar, just being LeBron James.

We should savor watching this guy play while we still can.