May 19, 2013, 7:11 PM EDT
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.
Mar 26, 2015, 6:26 PM EDT
The NBA is the only major sports league featured.
Mar 26, 2015, 5:30 PM EDT
Mutombo had previously denied it.
Mar 26, 2015, 4:45 PM EDT
The Wizards have become stagnant in recent weeks.
Mar 26, 2015, 3:59 PM EDT
Woodson is an assistant with the Clippers now.
Mar 26, 2015, 3:15 PM EDT
Mar 26, 2015, 2:30 PM EDT
Timofey Mozgov in a backward jersey? Timofey Mozgov in a backward jersey
Mar 26, 2015, 1:45 PM EDT
Houston own’s Llull’s draft rights
Mar 26, 2015, 1:06 PM EDT
Jazz center makes it look easy
Mar 26, 2015, 12:13 PM EDT
Thunder guard again confrontational in post-game interview
Mar 26, 2015, 11:37 AM EDT
Jazz guard just suddenly went down
Mar 26, 2015, 11:02 AM EDT
Spurs big man apparently earned $100 by making 3-pointer against Thunder
Mar 26, 2015, 10:25 AM EDT
Referees miss blatant out of bounds call, clock momentarily stops before restarting
Mar 26, 2015, 9:47 AM EDT
The best matchup of the weekend may be Jakob Poeltl vs. Jahlil Okafor.
Mar 26, 2015, 9:08 AM EDT
That might be fair, but what about all Love’s reasons for being frustrated with Cavaliers?
Mar 26, 2015, 8:30 AM EDT
Mavericks owner reverses course
Mar 26, 2015, 8:00 AM EDT
Raptors crumble in fourth quarter during loss to Chicago
Mar 26, 2015, 2:29 AM EDT
Lionel Messi was hanging out at the most entertaining NBA game of the night.
Mar 26, 2015, 12:15 AM EDT
Not a good look
Mar 25, 2015, 11:30 PM EDT
Lakers win and hurt their draft position, Timberwolves win and help theirs
Mar 25, 2015, 10:45 PM EDT
Those are no slouches defending the rim against the Rockets star
- NBA Draft prospect matchups to watch in NCAA Tourament this weekend 1
- Report: LeBron James frustrated with Kevin Love for not fitting in 72
- Five Things We Learned in NBA Wednesday: Kevin Love seems to be fitting in just fine suddenly 4
- It’s official: Dwight Howard will return to Rockets’ lineup Wednesday 2
- Dwyane Wade on MVP race: “I would say James Harden” 27
- Report: Rockets’ Patrick Beverley has torn ligament in wrist, to decide course in 7-10 days 2
- Derrick Rose expects to be cleared for contact soon, says he feels no pain in right knee 9
- Five Things We Learned in NBA Tuesday: Warriors win Pacific Division, may win much more 20