In an odd way, Gregg Popovich's request for some "nasty" in Game 1 of the 2012 Western Conference Finals has lingered as a rallying cry for the San Antonio Spurs. Inadvertently, Pop created a defining sound bite.
Whenever the Spurs seem to be cruising along without making much noise (something that happens often), questions arise on whether they've still got the kind of edge Pop so memorably requested two years ago.
It's easy to mistake comfortable, consistent play for complacency. And the Spurs aren't a team that populates highlight shows or creates much in the way of controversy. So, with the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers and Oklahoma City Thunder all drawing much more attention as dangerous championship threats, it's easy to assume the Spurs have lost some of Pop's coveted "nasty."
Have they, though? And will the absence of an edge prevent the Spurs from pursuing yet another title?
A look over San Antonio's statistical profile should help answer both questions.
From the outset, San Antonio's numbers this season are strikingly similar to the ones it posted last year. And since we know the Spurs were nasty enough to win a title last season, that fact bodes well.
In terms of defensive efficiency, there has been no noticeable decline. This year's Spurs allow 99.7 points per 100 possessions, good enough to rank fourth in the NBA. Last season, they posted a defensive rating of 99.2, per NBA.com.
No indication of a nastiness deficiency so far.
On the other end, San Antonio has actually taken a significant step forward. Last year, the Spurs posted an offensive rating of 105.9, a figure that ranked No. 7 in the NBA. Despite injuries to Danny Green, Tiago Splitter and Kawhi Leonard, they've seen that figure spike to 108.3 this season. Clearly, the addition of Marco Belinelli and the remarkable growth of Patty Mills have ensured the Spurs' attack remains as deadly as ever.
If we dig deeper into statistics that might be more readily tied to nastiness, the first sign of trouble arises. In 2012-13, the Spurs defended the rim better than all but three other NBA teams, per NBA.com. By holding opponents to a field-goal percentage of just 57.4 percent in the restricted area, Tim Duncan and co. assured that no baskets came easily.
This season, San Antonio ranks 11th in that statistic, allowing a field-goal percentage in the restricted area of 58.9 percent.
Before assuming that mild decline in interior defense represents some pervasive lack of effort, remember that Splitter has missed nearly a third of San Antonio's games because of injury. Though not a shot-blocker, Splitter's skill as a position defender in the Spurs' precise scheme is immensely valuable. His absence is the reason for San Antonio's slippage in the restricted area.
The conventional definition of "nasty" might also include things like hard fouls and play that toes the line between physical and dirty. The thing is teams that don't have the raw talent and brilliant execution the Spurs have are the ones that rely on those tactics. The Spurs have never been a lay-'em-out, brutally physical team.
They've never needed to be.
In fact, they rank dead last in fouls per game this season—a distinction they held last year as well.
The Spurs don't find themselves in vulnerable positions on defense like many reputedly nasty teams do. They understand the value of scheme and execution, and they rarely resort to fouls as a cover-up for mental mistakes.
Plus, naked aggression is something often born of frustration. When teams suffer repeated defeats on defense, it's easy for them to lash out with a flagrant foul or a cheap play.
The Spurs are calmer than that, largely because they don't often surrender strings of easy buckets in the first place, but also because they've had enough success in the past to be exceptionally confident in their ability to shut teams down without extracurricular physicality.
Think about it: What's the most memorable flagrant foul you can think of that involves the Spurs?
If you're like most people, it was the one that featured Manu Ginobili knocking Tony Allen to the floor in last year's playoffs. You might also remember the NBA later fined Allen for flopping, a decision that largely vindicated Ginobili in the court of public opinion.
As it turned out, he'd committed a good foul on a poor free-throw shooter. There was nothing conventionally "nasty" about the play at all.
Overall, the Spurs are virtually unchanged from a year ago—in terms of both production and demeanor. To emphasize that fact, note that their record was 33-11 through their first 44 games last season.
At this very moment, they're 33-11. Nothing has changed.
A Different Definition
Let's all acknowledge something together, shall we? The Spurs aren't a "nasty" team by any conventional sense; they never have been.
Fortunately, that doesn't mean they're in danger of losing ground in a crowded title race. That's because Popovich wasn't asking his team to ratchet up the unfocused physicality or lay out a few opponents two years ago.
He wasn't begging them to crash the glass harder or bump cutters more forcefully.
His explanation after the fact, funny as it is in the beginning, actually laid out precisely what the veteran coach wanted:
To Popovich, "nasty" has nothing to do with raw aggression. Instead, it's about confidence, execution and assertiveness. Against the Thunder in 2012, he was asking for precision, a rigid adherence to scheme and unselfish, focused play.
If those things sound familiar, it's because they're the exact principles on which San Antonio's incredible two-decade run has been built.
The Spurs have been giving Pop what he wants all year, which has kept him happy. Come to think of it, that's probably why he's been so willing to joke about things like the potential acquisition of little-known Othyus Jeffers.
Per Sam Amick of USA Today, a relaxed Popovich cracked:
What are you talking about? He's a stopper. This guy, he's the next Scottie Pippen on defense. You've got to be kidding me. We just uncovered a gem that nobody else knows about. You watch.
Nasty Enough, Nasty As Ever
For the Spurs, nastiness is subtle. It's not about crashing into opponents, wrestling away rebounds or doling out hard fouls to show how tough they are. San Antonio isn't a team that bludgeons; it's a team that surgically slices.
The Spurs aren't brutish. They're precise.
Perhaps it would help cultivate a more intimidating image if the Spurs hauled off and whacked the occasional opponent. But four championships and a legacy of excellence is intimidating enough on its own. San Antonio doesn't need to do any of that silly stuff.
And anyone questioning the Spurs' overall effort hasn't been watching. There are lapses, sure, just as there are with any team. But when those brief spats of disinterest crop up, Popovich is always there to exhort his team.
If there's any reason to be concerned, it's this:
Spurs have struggled against NBA's elite. San Antonio is a combined 1-10 vs. Thunder, Heat, Blazers, Rockets, Pacers, Clippers.— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 26, 2014
But that's a small sample tainted by San Antonio's obvious unwillingness to attack elite opponents at full strength. The Spurs don't tip their hand during the regular season. Read into the 1-10 record if you want, but putting too much emphasis there foolishly ignores the bigger picture.
Ultimately, San Antonio is playing with a statistical profile that is frighteningly similar to last year's. The Spurs are almost the exact same team. In many ways, they're actually better.
We know they didn't miss out on a title last year because they lacked nastiness. A ring eluded them because of a wholly improbable comeback by the Heat in Game 6, aided by the luck of a couple of fluky bounces.
The Spurs were nasty enough to win it all last year. As is so often the case with this absurdly consistent franchise, nothing has changed.
*Statistics via NBA.com unless otherwise indicated.