NBA Playoffs, Suns v. Spurs: Pace may have been the red herring

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If both the Phoenix Suns and San Antonio Spurs are reduced to the most basic tenets of their respective basketball philosophies, it’s easy to paint them as foils. Steve Nash stands as something of an iconoclast in the Church of Popovich; even if Steve’s professionalism, leadership, and continued excellence don’t stray too far at all from the pillars of San Antonio’s success, what Nash represents (outlandish commitment to offense, disregard for defensive execution, team success predicated on the fast break) is antithetical to a Spurs system predicated on balanced half-court offense and a holistic defensive scheme.

The truth is that the gulf that once divided the two teams — in terms of style, not substance — is now more of a stream. Obviously Phoenix would like to push the pace when possible, but the thought that fast break points would be a key to this series has quickly subsided. The first three games, all Suns wins, have been about execution regardless of context. Phoenix has been able to produce points in almost any situation with just about any combination of rotation players on the court.

Plus, while the break no longer gives the Suns a tremendous boost, it also doesn’t act as their crutch. Phoenix came back from 18 points down in Game 3, which could easily (and falsely) be attributed to the old Suns’ tendency to go on (and, in turn, allow their opponents to go on) big runs thanks to the nature of their offense. That just wasn’t the case. According to Synergy Sports Technology, the Suns had nine transition possessions on Friday night, which accounted for just 9.6% of their total offensive possessions.

What’s even more surprising was just how inefficient Phoenix was on those transition possessions. San Antonio’s transition defense should get plenty of credit. Even though the Spurs were unable to protect their substantial first-half lead and struggled overall on the defensive end, gone were the wide open Jason Richardson leak-outs, the wide open Channing Frye threes after he lost his defender in transition, and the dribble hand-offs to a streaking Amar’e Stoudemire.

Instead, Phoenix was able to score just 0.78 points per transition possession, a poor level of efficiency for any offensive possession, much less one where the defense is theoretically vulnerable and out of position.

Offensive rebounding, defensive rotations, and depth have all played a substantial role in this series, but the impact of the Suns’ execution in their half-court offense cannot be overstated. Phoenix has outperformed a formidable opponent, and the San Antonio defense that looked so strong against Dallas in the first round now appears to be a step to slow to answer all of the Suns’ offensive threats.