Here's an ad for a San Antonio supermarket chain featuring your favorite Spurs — Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard, and Red Mamba Matt Bonner. Gregg Popovich either (a) wrote and directed this clip and probably has a post-NBA life of making a Louie-style sitcom waiting for him in his golden years, (b) is furious for not being invited to participate, or (c) will bench all these guys for engaging in such frivolity on the eve of the season. Either way, stock up on corn relish; the Spurs play the Grizz tonight.
Only Game 1 of these NBA Finals has unfolded the way many of us expected the series would — with two teams leveraging their very different strengths in a tight battle of possession-by-possession tradeoffs. Miami’s ultra-aggressive defense, with traps and very early rotations at the rim, would bottle up and confuse San Antonio’s pinpoint passing attack on some possessions. And on others, the Spurs would skip the ball around the court ahead of those rotations, netting themselves open corner 3-pointers or Tony Parker rim runs. With two teams that are so damn good, neither could hope to win these battles in a landslide; whoever won them 55 percent of the time would win each game, and a legacy-changing title.
But only Game 1 has really played out that way. In Game 2, the Spurs took advantage of puzzling Miami breakdowns and appeared ready to steal another road game until we all blacked out and the Heat went up 30. In Game 3, the inexcusable Miami breakdowns continued, and the brilliant Spurs offense sliced up the Heat as a bewildered LeBron James and a sad Dwyane Wade tossed up bricks against San Antonio’s pack-the-paint defense.
And then, Game 4. Holy hell, Game 4. The Heat, save for some early hiccups, played perhaps their cleanest defensive game of the postseason, considering the stakes, location, and opponent. They corralled Parker up top on pick-and-rolls without scrambling themselves out of position, and their rotations along the back line were terrifying both in their ferocity and their precise timing.
Stopping the San Antonio Spurs offense, one of the league’s three best over the last three seasons combined, is always going to be a chore. Smart defenses can construct wonderful theoretical game plans centered on limiting the Spurs to midrange jumpers off Tony Parker pick-and-rolls by cutting off Parker around the foul line and staying home on San Antonio’s unfair army of deadly shooters. And some of those smart defenses are good enough to actually execute that kind of game plan over long stretches, or even entire games.
But the Spurs have top midrange shooters at key positions, and they are so good that over time they're going to find cracks in even the most well-meaning team defenses. Parker and Manu Ginobili, even this aging and limited version, are brilliant ball handlers who can slice through the gut of a defense with wily crossover dribbles, tiny bits of misdirection, and pinpoint passing. The constant whirring of the Spurs system often gives them a head start by putting their defenders through all sorts of off-ball movement before Parker or Ginobili finally catch the ball in position to attack — and with their defenders off-balance and/or fatigued. And no group of NBA big men is better versed in the art of setting screens in tricky little ways that disguise which direction the Spurs’ ball handlers might jet around those picks.
Matt Bonner is an unlikely candidate for a fan-driven NBA All-Star campaign. The San Antonio Spurs center is averaging just 3.8 points and two rebounds per game coming off the bench this season. But his shooting percentage from downtown — 48.4 — is surprisingly robust; even if he is playing just 11 minutes every night, Bonner is raining 3s as accurately as anybody in the NBA.
Because of his 3-point game, Bonner has garnered a small but significant following that is now soliciting the league to allow the 6-foot-10 shooter to participate in this year’s 3-point contest during All-Star Weekend. There’s an online petition at Change.org that currently has more than 250 signatures, and a Twitter hashtag — #letbonnershoot — that’s been catching on among indie-rock bands, including Arcade Fire. "There's so much injustice in the world that we can't do anything about, but this is something we can change. #LetBonnerShoot," reads a recent tweet that was RTed 300 times. (The campaign is reminiscent of the Let Shannon Dunk push in 2010. That one ended with an underwhelming Shannon Brown appearance in the slam dunk contest.)
Here’s a sobering thought: The Spurs are 8-2, with the fifth-best point differential in the league, and they are basically screwing around.
OK, that’s an exaggeration. Gregg Popovich rarely screws around, even though it’s delightful when he does. But the Spurs are clearly experimenting, with an eye on reinventing themselves on both ends of the floor by the time the playoffs come around. It seems strange to redesign a team that went 31-2 in the 33 games before the Thunder rallied for four straight wins in the conference finals, but the redesign is happening, and it’s Popovich’s way of recognizing that the team got as far as it could with its pick-and-roll-all-the-time offense and just-above-average defense. The Spurs ran into a more athletic team that did enough defensively to at least limit San Antonio’s pick-and-roll devastation, and they found they didn’t have enough on either end to compensate. The Thunder are still there, the Lakers are a powerhouse-in-waiting, and the Heat should be monstrous in the spring.
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports on Thursday.
Roy Hibbert scored 19 points and grabbed 18 boards as the Pacers took a 2-1 lead on the Heat with a 94-75 win. During the third quarter, Dwyane Wade had a heated exchange with head coach Erik Spoelstra that only ended after Spoelstra grudgingly conceded that yes, maybe E.L. James's Fifty Shades of Greydoes have some literary value.