SAN ANTONIO — These are the new, old Spurs—and they play new, old basketball.
Old basketball is teamwork rooted in old tenets of unselfishness, accountability and passing.
The Spurs play it the new way that so many teams now dream of, fast and furious, ever since the Steve Nash-Mike D’Antoni Phoenix Suns a decade ago sped down that path to test the tough, plodding, defense-first Spurs.
San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich opened his mind to D’Antoni’s different wisdom: team connectivity built on the European courts D’Antoni used to play on in Italy and furthered over nightly pasta-filled team dinners.
In what qualifies as a small-town NBA haven of San Antonio, Popovich added the mental toughness and sharp execution he demands and knows so well how to teach…the stuff D’Antoni has never since been able to cultivate in mega-metropolises New York or Los Angeles.
The mix of new and old was on glorious display again Thursday night as the Spurs and all their international players routed the nearly all-American Oklahoma City Thunder, 117-89, to take a 3-2 Western Conference Finals lead.
And D’Antoni’s most important principle—floor spacing—was the one that Popovich rode to the series’ most pivotal victory.
Popovich made two tactical adjustments: He placed big men Matt Bonner and Boris Diaw at the three-point line to create more space in the San Antonio offense (and Oklahoma City defense) by removing from the paint and thus isolating Serge Ibaka, the league’s premier shot-contesting player. And Popovich shuffled defensive assignments to have ace defender Kawhi Leonard defend Russell Westbrook instead of Kevin Durant.
The second move really didn’t work. Westbrook gave the Thunder a seven-point lead late in the first quarter by dunking so hard over Leonard that it’s surprising the braids in Leonard’s hair didn’t all unravel. Westbrook maintained his massive Game 3 momentum, Durant was scoring on Danny Green, and Tony Parker was blowing the “easy” assignment with sore-ankled Reggie Jackson also piling up points.
Didn’t matter. The Spurs defense didn’t matter with the Spurs offense flat-out overwhelming.
It’s a totally different basketball math than we’re used to. Superstars are supposed to take over on offense, and teams are supposed to come together on defense. Famous scorers at one end, the whole five-fingers-together-make-a-fist ideal at the other.
The Spurs couldn’t really stop the Thunder, but instead of stopping to fix their brakes, the Spurs just slammed down their accelerator and won by blowout that way.
“We went back to what we do best,” Parker said, “and we did it almost to perfection.”
The question is why San Antonio keeps doing it at home but not on the road. All five games have been won easily by the home team even though the Spurs (30-11) and the Thunder (25-16) were the NBA’s two best regular-season road teams.
One logical answer is that amid the playoff pressure, role players even more than usual need the comfort and support of home to produce—and the Spurs far more than other teams are dependent on role players executing properly.
It’s not all Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili anymore—and even when it is, they know they aren’t what they once were.
About the Thunder players, Ginobili said: “They are more athletic. They are more talented. So we’ve really got to be sharp.”
San Antonio has been sharp at home…9-1 sharp at home this postseason, but 2-5 on the road. And in this home game, it was Diaw, a pudgy Frenchman with a strange amalgam of skills that fit no prototype, who made Popovich’s adjustment look so good. Diaw suddenly blossomed as soon as he arrived in D’Antoni’s Phoenix system in 2005, and his passing and shooting in a 6’8” frame are unique weapons.
It is with immense pride that Diaw time after time refers to Popovich’s requirement that the team does not settle for good shots when they can get great ones. Great passing leads to great shooting.
“We are looking for wide open,” Diaw said.
The Spurs finished the third quarter Thursday night with the following shooting percentages: 55.0 from the field, 55.6 on three-pointers, 90.0 percent on free throws…and with a 94-74 lead that meant Parker, Duncan and Ginobili didn’t play at all in the fourth quarter.
They reached the rare 50-40-90 shooting-percentage plateau four times in regular-season games, whereas 25 of the 30 NBA teams never did it more than once. The only team to do it more was the Miami Heat, who did it five times using the old-school superstar formula that likely awaits further testing from the Spurs in the NBA Finals.
The Heat model barely prevailed over the Spurs at the end last season, but the Spurs being almost back there again is a testament to their new, old style. In a time of disposable coaches who dare not institute broad systems for how long they might take to learn, Popovich has the job security and personnel power to play his way.
It's what we should all be...a nice mix of old and new stuff. But as Popovich will tell you, the new is really nothing without the old.
“You have to execute and you have to play with passion,” Popovich said. “So it’s like the old Dean Smith, Larry Brown thing: Play harder and smarter than your opponent.”
That will be the Spurs’ challenge in Oklahoma City, where they're riding the longest road losing streak in the Popovich regime: nine games. In Game 4 there, they saw their offense infuriate their coach by deteriorating with lazy passing and stupid drives toward Ibaka.
After Game 3 there, Popovich said: “I was very disappointed we didn’t come out with more of a foot-in-the-neck attitude.” Requesting that attitude is very much the old-school way, and this time the Spurs have the actual opportunity to finish off the Thunder with a victory.
As pretty as their new stuff was to breeze to victory in Game 5, the Spurs will also need all that old stuff to take Game 6.
Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.