Spurs have changed a lot since 2011 loss to Grizzlies

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When the Spurs started the 2010-11 season with a 17-3 record – on their way to a conference-best 61-21 finish – Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated profiled a team that no longer resembled previous San Antonio squads.

Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili had played together under Gregg Popovich since the 2002-03 season, and in that time, the Spurs had been one of the NBA’s slowest teams, ranking between 20th and 28th in pace each season. San Antonio had also never finished with a higher-ranked offense than defense.

But that changed in 2010-11. The Spurs ranked 14th in pace, 2nd in offensive rating and 11th in defensive rating. Mannix:

The changes that Popovich emphasized in training camp (cross-court passing, more look-aheads, quicker shots) have been fully embraced. “They’re pushing the ball better than any team in the league,” says a Western Conference scout. “They’re unselfish, and the ball moves fluidly. It’s like they were built to play like this.”

Except the Spurs weren’t really built to play like that.

Richard Jefferson, Antonio McDyess, George Hill and Matt Bonner all played major roles on a Spurs team that had ranked 20th in pace the year before, and San Antonio simply asked that same group to play faster. Because of their willingness to adjust, those four handled an increased tempo fine for a while, but they weren’t equipped to master it in the long run.

In the first round of the 2011 playoffs, Popovich’s strategy finally crumbled, as the eighth-seeded Grizzlies upset the Spurs in six games.

But in the wake of that loss, San Antonio didn’t relent in its commitment to becoming a faster team.

The Spurs showed their up-tempo bona fides today during a 105-83 win over the Grizzlies in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. Though the pace of the game wasn’t particular fast, San Antonio excelled by pushing the tempo at opportune moments and getting back defensively after a transition attack – doing so in ways the 2011 team wasn’t capable of.

Duncan, Parker and Ginobili are still the backbone of the franchise, but the surrounding pieces have made the difference.

In 2011, the Spurs had already signed the relatively athletic Tiago Splitter three years after drafting him and plucked Danny Green, an active defender, from the D-League. But Green and Splitter weren’t prepared to contribute in the playoffs that year.

In classic San Antonio fashion, the organization developed those two into starters. Green has already played more against the Grizzlies in the conference finals than he did in the first round in 2011, and Splitter is on pace to pass his 2011 mark in Game 3. Green scored 16 points on 3-of-6 3-point shooting, and Splitter played strong defense on Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol inside.

Even Boris Diaw, how many pounds he weighs above his listed total, made his bones with Steve Nash’s fastbreaking Suns.

But the Spurs’ most meaningful change since 2011 has been Kawhi Leonard.

The Spurs traded for Leonard on draft night 2011, and the athletic forward quickly became a starter in a league that was increasingly featuring elite athletes. Leonard, who scored 18 points today, can quickly leak out for an easy layup, but he also defends in the open court, too.

That’s where San Antonio’s continued adaptation has really made a difference. The Spurs continue to get faster – 14th to 8th to 6th in pace the last three seasons – but after back-to-back years of ranking 11th in defense, they ranked third this season. San Antonio temporarily compromised its defense values in the name of pace, but the tradeoff is no longer necessary with this roster.

Popovich and the Spurs have continued to learn from the lesson Memphis handed them two years ago, and more than ever, they look like a team with that has earned a graduate degree from the School of Fastbreak.

“We’re trying to have pace,” Popovich said during his second-half sideline interview when asked about the key to his team’s success today.

Not long before, the Grizzlies were trying to have pause.

Fewer than two minutes into the game, Lionel Hollins called timeout as San Antonio raced to a 7-2 lead. These aren’t the same Spurs as the ones Hollins, Randolph, Gasol, Mike Conley and Tony Allen beat in 2011.

Back then, San Antonio was chasing a new identity. The Spurs have found it and mastered it, and now the Grizzlies are doing all the chasing. So far, they can’t keep up.

Celtics’ Kyrie Irving: “It was a nice streak. But it was time to come to an end.”

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The Celtics established themselves as one of the NBA’s elite teams, a contender for the Eastern Conference title, during their 16-game win streak.

However, that hot streak to start the season will matter as much as Thanksgiving leftovers in the back of the refrigerator in April by the time the playoffs roll around. This is a team that still has work to do.

Which is what Kyrie Irving was getting at in this post-loss quote from Friday night, via Israel Gutierrez of ESPN.

“There’s still a lot to accomplish going forward,” Irving said. “It was a nice streak. But it was time to come to an end.”

This team still needs to get better and more consistent. The Celtics had to come from behind in the fourth quarter in eight of the 16 wins, and while the team defense was impressive the offense still can be hit and miss. Al Horford and Kyrie Irving play well off each other, but this is still the 20th ranked offense in the NBA. They are taking more long midrange jumpers than most coaches want, but the bigger challenge is they have not been finishing around the basket.

Titles are not won in November. Irving gets that. Jayson Tatum will hit the rookie wall at some point (they all do) and he needs to prove he can break through. Al Horford is playing maybe the best ball of his career and needs to keep it up. The Celtics need to keep their defensive focus (the fundamentals are there to have a top five defense). I could go on but you get the point, and so does Irving — there is a lot of work for this team to do.

Boston is off to a fantastic start, but it’s just that.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich: I’ve never seen injury like Kawhi Leonard’s

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Gregg Popovich is a basketball lifer.

He’s the NBA’s most experienced active head coach. Before that, he was the Spurs’ general manager. Before that, he was an NBA assistant. Before that, he was a college head coach and assistant. Before that, he was a college player. Before that, he was a youth player.

The San Antonio coach has seen everything.

Except the right quadriceps tendinopathy suffered by Kawhi Leonard, whom Popovich said more than a week would return “sooner rather than later.” Yet, Leonard still hasn’t played this season.

Popovich, via Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

“Never, never,” Popovich said when asked whether he has seen such a condition hampering one of his players. “What’s really strange is that [point guard] Tony [Parker] has the same injury, but even worse. They had to go operate on his quad tendon and put it back together or whatever they did to it. So to have two guys, that’s pretty incredible. I had never seen it before those guys.”

“I keep saying sooner rather than later,” Popovich said jokingly. “It’s kind of like being a politician. It’s all baloney, doesn’t mean anything.”

The 26-year-old Leonard is one of the NBA’s biggest on-court stars. He might be the league’s best defender, and he has built himself into an offensive force. The Spurs (11-7) have fared fine without him so far, but they’ll need him to accomplish their main goals – this year and beyond.

Hopefully, Leonard’s health is better than it sounds here, because Popovich’s answer sure isn’t encouraging.

Tim Hardaway Jr. calls fallen ref safe rather than defend shot (video)

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The Knicks went on a 28-0 run.

They earned the right to showboat late in their win over the Raptors last night.

Tim Hardaway Jr. called a ref, who slipped on the baseline, safe rather than contest Serge Ibaka‘s 3-pointer. Perfection!

Luc Mbah a Moute sets modern record at +57 in Rockets’ win over Nuggets

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Luc Mbah a Moute is a quietly good player.

He’s an effective and versatile defender. Offensively, he shoots 3-pointers well enough to score efficiently and spread the floor. Most of all, the 31-year-old just understands how to play and plays within himself. His teams tend to perform better when he’s on the floor.

That’s an understatement for Wednesday night.

In a 125-95 win, the Rockets outscored the Nuggets by a whopping 57 points in Mbah a Moute’s 26 minutes. That’s the best single-game plus-minus in the Basketball-Reference database, which dates back to the 2000-01 season. It tops Joe Smith’s +52 in a 2001 Timberwolves win over the Bulls, a 53-point game that also produced a +50 for Wally Szczerbiak and +48 for Terrell Brandon.

Mbah a Moute’s traditional stat line was impressive, though not overly so: 13 points on 5-of-5 shooting with four rebounds, four steals and an assist. He played well, contributing to winning in all the small ways he often does, and the Rockets happened to play excellently around him.

Now, Mbah a Moute tops the leaderboard in single-game plus-minus since 2000-01:

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