May 19, 2013, 7:11 PM EST
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.
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.
Jan 27, 2015, 1:36 AM EST
This was not pretty.
Jan 27, 2015, 12:00 AM EST
Galloway has played well through two 10-day contracts.
Jan 26, 2015, 11:15 PM EST
The Pelicans blew out the Sixers.
Jan 26, 2015, 10:30 PM EST
Jan 26, 2015, 9:45 PM EST
The Nets have lost eight of their last 10.
Jan 26, 2015, 9:00 PM EST
They will wear them on February 20.
Jan 26, 2015, 8:11 PM EST
Durant suffered the injury on Sunday in Cleveland.
Jan 26, 2015, 7:30 PM EST
Will Steve Kerr start Klay Thompson or James Harden?
Jan 26, 2015, 6:43 PM EST
Did you really think Kobe Bryant was going to leave the game on anything but his own terms?
Jan 26, 2015, 6:20 PM EST
He likely returns in the middle of March.
Jan 26, 2015, 5:32 PM EST
Of course, Nick Young’s answer to all problems is more Nick Young.
Jan 26, 2015, 4:29 PM EST
And Russell Westbrook at center
Jan 26, 2015, 3:37 PM EST
He should be back for the start of next season.
Report: Kemba Walker could miss six weeks, Hornets teammates Marvin Williams and Bismack Biyombo also injured
Jan 26, 2015, 3:22 PM EST
Charlotte’s playoff odds just got much longer
Jan 26, 2015, 2:38 PM EST
It’s Hawks and Warriors and everyone else. Just as its been for a while now.
Jan 26, 2015, 2:04 PM EST
After Washington pushed out Jordan, Kobe re-signed with Lakers
Jan 26, 2015, 1:28 PM EST
Portland must return to East Coast for single game
Jan 26, 2015, 11:47 AM EST
Lakers coach asked Young about his defense. ‘The answer he gave me, I couldn’t figure it out.’
Jan 26, 2015, 11:44 AM EST
Gasols, Pau of the Bulls and Marc of the Grizzlies, become first brothers to start an NBA All-Star game
Jan 26, 2015, 11:09 AM EST
With the storm bearing down on the Northeast, this is the right move by the league.
- PBT Extra: Who should be the All-Star Game reserves? 12
- Report: Kobe Bryant “definitively coming back to play next season” 24
- Kemba Walker to have knee surgery; Hornets looking at trades for depth while he is out 5
- Kobe Bryant to have surgery on shoulder, is done for season 7
- PBT’s Weekly NBA Power Rankings: Hawks continue to fly high 5
- Kobe Bryant wanted to sign with Michael Jordan’s Wizards 7
- Pau Gasol’s trade tip put his and Marc Gasol’s All-Star futures in motion 3
- Reports: Kings at Knicks, Trail Blazers at Nets games Monday postponed due to coming storm 11