Thursday, March 15, 2007

Spurs flying under radar ... but flying high

As the season rounds the clubhouse turn, all eyes have been glued to
the front-running Mavs. Meanwhile, there's been minimal pressure on the
Spurs as they gradually and methodically gear up for the playoffs. On
the basis of their 93-84 victory over the Clippers, the Spurs are just
about ready.

Here are the keys to San Antonio's game plan:

Offensive precision
There were only three sequences in the entire game when the offense
broke down. Otherwise, they ran their high screen/rolls, their curls
and double-curls, and their post-ups to perfection.
The Spurs look for several things to happen when they execute their
high screen-and-rolls. The first option is defensive switches, as when
Tim Thomas picked up the rolling Tim Duncan and then was easily abused
when TD posted, snatched the incoming pass, and drove hoopwards for an
easy baby hook.

Also, Tony Parker took advantage of any slow baseline rotations by
recognizing open lanes and going into his dribble-and-find-a-flipper
routine. Parker wound up with 25 points on 8-of-16 shooting, most of
these coming on ventures into the paint.

On several occasions the Spurs spread their offense so that Duncan had
the ball down low while everybody else was stationed on the weak side.
This alignment meant that the Clippers' designated double-teamers had
to travel a long way to get to Duncan in time to inhibit his
free-wheeling moves. As a result, Duncan was dynamic in the pivot —
8-16, 19 points — even scoring a gritty third-quarter basket in the
teeth of a late-arriving triple-team.

Even Parker posted up once — and drew a foul against Jason Hart.

A textbook screen-and-fade opened Matt Bonner for an 18-footer which he

Recognize and counter
Most of the curls were performed by Manu Ginobili and Michael Finley.
But just to keep the Clippers honest, they each made nifty backdoor
cuts that resulted in either buckets or free throws.

Also, when Duncan was three-quartered on the left box by Chris Kaman
and thereby prevented from receiving an entry pass, Duncan circled to
the top of the key and received the ball there. Unimpeded jumpers and
drives were readily available as Kaman got lost in the shuffle.

The bench delivers
Ginobili is the Spurs' X-factor. Duncan and Parker will usually do
their accustomed damage, but whenever Ginobili goes off, the Spurs can
beat anybody. Against the Clips, Ginobili came into the game all
saddled up and ready to ride — hitting a 3-pointer on his first touch,
operating a slick drive-and-dish that would have been an assist except
that TD missed a wide-open 17-footer, then pulling left and netting a
long-range jumper. On his fourth touch, Ginobili buried another 3-ball.
For the game, Ginobili was 5-8, including 3-for-3 from beyond the arc,
plus nine rebounds, and 16 points.

Finley's offensive output is nearly as crucial as Ginobili's, since he
must provide some scoring balance on the second unit. If Finley is
tickling the twine, then the defense can't lock in on Ginobili. While
Finley wasn't exactly unconscious — 5-for-12 for 13 points — he
certainly forced the Clippers to pay attention to him.

Jacque Vaughn's 3-for-4 shooting was an unexpected bonus.

Role players do their jobs
Fabricio Oberto bulls and tiptoes his way around the glass, while
Francisco Elson slides and jumps. With these two leading the way, the
Spurs managed to corral virtually every loose ball. Oberto even scored
on a fancy spin-and-re-spin move in the lane.

Bruce Bowen has added a "dribble, pull and shoot" move to his offensive
repertoire and is therefore much more proactive on offense. Corey
Maggette was a handful, but Bowen's tenacious defense kept him from
running totally wild.

Vaughn played adhesive defense on the ball, and is much more athletic
than Beno Udrih.

Duncan at top of his game
In addition to his prowess in the pivot, Duncan's mid-range jumper was
operational — he was 4-for-6 from 15-18-feet. It's his jumper that sets
up his drives and makes the Spurs' high screen-and-rolls extremely

Also, except for one ball that Duncan tried to force through a crowd,
his passing was excellent.

Defensive rotations
The Spurs' perfectly synchronized baseline rotations allowed their bigs
to show and hold for a count in defense of the Clippers'
screen-and-rolls. This coordination was actually the key to San
Antonio's defense since it just about nullified LA's favorite offensive

Elson and Ginobili (who played with as much freedom as a free safety)
were particularly adept in this department. However, if Oberto always
made the proper rotations, he was often too slow getting there and was
repeatedly whistled for fouls.

Brent Barry and Matt Bonner are simply playing the best team-defense of
their entire careers.

Straight-up basic defense
Duncan, Oberto and Elson took turns containing the otherwise explosive
Elton Brand. In general, the Spurs' defensive philosophy is to rotate
and then hold their ground. The soundness of this fundamentalist
approach was evident in their collective failure to block a shot, and
in their committing only 11 team fouls. As a result, the Clips shot
only seven free throws while the Spurs earned 23.

Moreover, every one of the Clippers' shots was challenged. And the
Spurs controlled the defensive glass — yielding only six offensive
rebounds. (The Spurs only captured seven, but that's because they
concentrated on getting back on defense to stifle the Clips' running

Popovich's perfectionism
Pop called a timeout only 60 seconds into the third quarter when he
wasn't satisfied with the Spurs defense. They were too conscious of
ball-penetration and bunching themselves in the paint. After the
timeout, Pop sent Finley in for Bowen and Vaughn in for Parker.

Starters get no extra courtesy if they mess up. Period. That's why the
Spurs leave their egos in the locker room.

Championship experience
The Spurs know how to win. Different players can take over the offense
for short stretches throughout the game — Duncan, Parker, Ginobili,
Finley, and even Vaughn.

The Spurs understand that any given play can turn a ball game. So they
value every single offensive possession, and they also work their butts
off on every defensive sequence.

Okay, then, what if anything remains to be done over the next five

Parker must relocate his perimeter shot. He was only 1-of-4 against
L.A. and lacked the easy stroke that characterized his shooting last

Robert Horry has to be dropped from the rotation. His one 3-ball nearly
cracked the backboard, and his defense was less than ordinary. It would
be a miracle of Biblical proportions if Horry can resurrect his game in
the playoffs.

Barry is still out of control when he lowers his head and dribbles into
the paint. This is a problem that has plagued him throughout his

Bowen has to hire a private eye to track down and locate his long-lost
long-range jump shot.

Popovich has to continue carefully rationing his starters' playing

At all costs, the Spurs have to avoid winding up with the fourth seed
and facing Dallas in the second round. Actually, since 11 of their
remaining 18 games are at home, and 13 of these are against teams with
losing records, the Spurs have a decent shot at overtaking the Suns and
gaining the second seed.

That grinding sound escaping from the bowels of the AT&T Center is the
Spurs putting a razor-sharp edge on their game. Just imagine what a
rousing battle an all-Texas Western Conference final would be.

By Charley Rosen, rewritten by Foreigner in CS - Mar 15 2007 6:26PM

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