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.
Apr 24, 2014, 5:46 PM EDT
Sorry KD, but through two games Allen has been the MVP of this series.
Apr 24, 2014, 5:00 PM EDT
No suspension for McRoberts. Somehow.
Apr 24, 2014, 3:59 PM EDT
Jabari Parker says he passed more than Carmelo because he had a better team to pass to.
Apr 24, 2014, 3:17 PM EDT
He wants Steph Curry money, but he’ll likely get more like $7 million a year.
Apr 24, 2014, 2:32 PM EDT
Gasol basically wants D’Antoni gone, but even then he likely moves on.
Apr 24, 2014, 1:56 PM EDT
Oscar Robertson thinks ‘Melo should get out of Dodge (and go to Houston).
Apr 24, 2014, 1:22 PM EDT
Kevin Pritchard tweets message from Pacers president
Apr 24, 2014, 12:44 PM EDT
Less-heralded Damien Inglis declares, too
Apr 24, 2014, 12:01 PM EDT
He will not be getting a baseball contract soon.
Apr 24, 2014, 11:26 AM EDT
Dwyane Wade does writeup on Serena Williams
Apr 24, 2014, 10:52 AM EDT
Harden is frustrated. He should be, shooting under 30 percent for two games.
Apr 24, 2014, 10:19 AM EDT
Grizzlies guard gets Joe Dumars Trophy over Jeff Green, Channing Frye, Bradley Beal, Damian Lillard and Mike Dunleavy
Apr 24, 2014, 9:24 AM EDT
Trail Blazers forward is averaging 44.5 points trhough two games
Apr 24, 2014, 8:46 AM EDT
Dwight Howard was aggressive early and put on a show, but LaMarcus Aldridge won the war.
Apr 24, 2014, 8:00 AM EDT
All three series Thursday night are tied 1-1.
Apr 24, 2014, 2:48 AM EDT
LA has 89 points and 26 rebounds in two games.
Apr 24, 2014, 1:40 AM EDT
Trail Blazers take 2-0 series lead with second win in Houston
Apr 23, 2014, 11:54 PM EDT
The Spurs turned the ball over on 26.2 percent of their possessions. It’s very unSpurs like.
Apr 23, 2014, 10:28 PM EDT
This should have gotten McRoberts ejected.
Apr 23, 2014, 10:11 PM EDT
Bobcats keep battling, but Heat have too much talent.
- Josh McRoberts fined $20,000 for forearm foul to LeBron’s throat 6
- Oscar Robertson says if he were Carmelo Anthony “I would leave today” 31
- Larry Bird, through Pacers general manager, says Frank Vogel’s job is safe 6
- Can LaMarcus Aldridge break the all-time single-playoff scoring record? 23
- Thursday NBA playoff previews: Which Indiana team shows up? 11