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NBA Playoffs, Suns v. Spurs: Surprise, surprise, pace still matters

May 3, 2010, 11:44 PM EDT

The Suns aren’t quite the Suns, as they traded in their rocket boots for some decent, reliable New Balance kicks (Matt Bonner approved, coincidentally). That simply means that they run rather than fly, and while their pace isn’t the torrid, unmatchable sprint it used to be, Phoenix still likes to push the pace (97.6 possessions per game, 4th in the league).

The Spurs do not. San Antonio is 20th in the league in pace (94.1 possessions), and while some Spurs (Tony Parker, George Hill, and Manu Ginobili, for example) certainly aren’t allergic to the open court, there’s no question that Pop’s gang would prefer to keep this series a half-court affair. It won’t be, because the Suns will deliberately look to push the tempo whenever possible to keep the Spurs on the ropes.

That could spell trouble for San Antonio. Tom Haberstroh (of HoopData fame), writing for ESPN.com, found while the Spurs didn’t struggle overall against fast-paced teams in the regular season, they did struggle against fast-paced playoff teams. Haberstroh explains why (Insider):

As it has for the past decade, the Spurs’ defense begins and ends with 12-time All-Defensive Team member Tim Duncan.
But he’s an older big man, so Duncan’s defensive impact is lightest in
track meets, games in which guards dictate the pace. He’s forced to lag
behind, which makes him ineffective. Almost all of his defensive
contributions occur in the half-court set, where he controls the paint,
thereby providing a fulcrum for his teammates to stifle the perimeter.
But in the transition game, the Spurs’ biggest defensive weapon is
effectively neutralized as he plods across the half-court line.

Check Haberstroh’s piece in its entirety for the data on exactly how much of an advantage this is for Phoenix, as well as additional explanatory analysis.

San Antonio’s transition defense has always been a strength, but even the most stifling transition D wouldn’t be as potent as the Spurs’ half-court set-up. Duncan isn’t as quick as he used to be, but he’s still a high quality help defender and terrific on the ball as well. He’s not best-defending-big-man-in-the-league good anymore, thanks both to his own slight decline and Dwight Howard’s meteoric rise, but to say he’s a defensive asset would be a terrible understatement.

The Suns may not be looking to push the pace to blistering levels, but the speed of the game (or more specifically, the speed of the Suns’ offense) is going to play a pivotal role in the Spurs’ ability to defend in this series. No duh. What’s surprising is just how much trouble Duncan and the Spurs have had in defending quality uptempo teams. Phoenix certainly qualifies.

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