Secrets of the San Antonio Spurs' Offensive Juggernaut

Fred Katz@@FredKatzFeatured ColumnistMay 24, 2014

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We're 96 games into the San Antonio Spurs' 2013-14 season, 1,479 games into Tim Duncan's playing career and 1,640 games into Gregg Popovich's coaching tenure.

And still, no one can figure out how to stop the Spurs offense.

San Antonio heads into Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals with a 2-0 series lead over the Oklahoma City Thunder. But now, there's a twist: The recently ruled-out-for-the-season Serge Ibaka may be making a return sooner than we all expected. From Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Serge Ibaka has a strong possibility of playing in Sunday's Game 3 of the Western Conference finals after the team upgraded him to day-to-day, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Ibaka went through a battery of tests on Thursday and his calf responded well. He injured the calf during Game 6 of the Thunder's second-round series against the Los Angeles Clippers, after which team officials declared him out for the remainder of the postseason.

Without Ibaka on the floor, OKC has allowed the Spurs to score at an outlandish rate—117.0 points per contest on 53.8 percent shooting—in the first two games of the series.

San Antonio's 112.8 offensive efficiency during its 14 playoff games is the best of any team in this postseason and also would be good enough for tops in the NBA's regular season if stretched out over 82 games. Basically, the Spurs just score.

But we know all this. What do we always hear about the Spurs? Ball movement. Unselfishness. Egoless basketball. And that's all abundantly true, but it's not just about a mentality. 

Popovich does more than instill a philosophy. The Spurs' X's and O's are as brilliant as any other team's in the NBA. The fluidity of the offense is such a constant.

No one does it quite like the Spurs.

Finding the Open Man

SAN ANTONIO, TX - MAY 21:  Danny Green #4 of the San Antonio Spurs makes a three-pointer over Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first half in Game Two of the Western Conference Finals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center on May 2
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

It's a saying as old as basketball itself: The go-to guy is the open man. And somehow, the Spurs almost always manage to find him.

You can't overhelp when you're playing against San Antonio, and that's been a major problem for the Thunder over these two Ibaka-less games.

OKC is playing without its best defender, but the throttling we've seen so far is beyond anything Ibaka could've mended. Basically, Oklahoma City's defensive strategy has been a little odd.

With the Serge Protector in suit and tie, the Thunder are overhelping more than Octavia Spencer. But the problem is that there's no one there to help the helper. If there's any team programmed to take advantage of those sorts of mistakes, it's the one coached by Gregg Popovich.

As TNT's Steve Kerr mentioned during the Game 2 broadcast, the Spurs offense didn't always move the ball like it does now. In Duncan's early years, when he teamed up with David Robinson, San Antonio used to toss it down low and load up on post-ups.

That's how the Spurs started to earn the "boring offense" label. It was a slow, methodical way to pound defenses and then win with stifling stoppers on the other end. But as the roster changed with the additions of perimeter players like Parker and Ginobili in the early 2000s, the philosophy did, as well.

Now, San Antonio moves the ball as well as any other team in the league. Its 62.1 percent assist rate, good for fifth in the NBA during the regular season, backs that up. And when teams like the Thunder don't help the helper, the Spurs will take advantage.

That's how Danny Green managed to get open so many times during his Game 2 performance. In that contest, he sunk seven of his 10 threes. 

The Spurs have dominated inside over the first two games of this series, dropping 120 points in the paint. Yes, 120 freakin' points in the paint. And now, the Thunder are sagging off perimeter shooters.

So when Parker gets into the lane, where he is as good as anyone else in the league (more on this later), the Thunder defenders are committing to both the dribbler and the shooter, and in that, they're not committing to anyone at all.

On Green's first three of Game 2, a long ball from the right corner, check out his defender, Durant, hanging out too far from Parker to matter but too distant from Green to close:

Courtesy of NBA.com

Through two contests, the Thunder's game has resembled that of a 14-year-old boy trying to pick up the prettiest girl at the school dance: either too aggressive or completely noncommittal. On this second-quarter play from Game 2, Oklahoma City sends the house at Ginobili on the side pick-and-roll and Green ends up with a wide-open corner three:

Mostly, this is just a silly pass from Manu. It's straight-up stupid that he's able to place that line drive on Green's chest from the other side of the court. But still, this is another example of San Antonio taking advantage of an OKC mistake.

Reggie Jackson and Perry Jones actually do a decent job in trapping the side pick-and-roll. Ginobili doesn't have the passing lane after Boris Diaw slips his screen; he should be out of options. But there is one problem: KD gets caught ball-watching and loses his man, Green.

As Green cuts to the corner, Durant continues to eye down Manu:

Courtesy of NBA.com

By the time Durant realizes he has to stay on his man, it's already too late. As Ginobili instantly recognizes his open teammate, Duncan is right there to set a perfect back screen on him...

Courtesy of NBA.com

...and Green gets himself another shot without anyone near him at all. 

That's when Duncan yells at his teammate to "light it," as Green told Dan McCarney of the San Antonio Express-News:

When I’m running down the floor, I hear Tim for some reason. I always hear Tim yell "light it" when he’s coming to set a screen and I kind of get excited a little bit. It gives me more confidence to take the shot because I already know he’s behind me and he’s ready for me to shoot it. So every time I look up, run the floor or dribble up the floor, I look for Tim and look for a screen or see how the defense is playing me and try to find the rim.

This is part of what people mean when you hear all the cliches about Duncan's leadership. And it's not just about the confidence he gives Green with each "light it!" he yelps. How many superstars are willing to set that pick time and time again? 

His absence of ego doesn't just have value in a locker room. Screens like these are the perfect examples of the tangible yet unheralded worth he brings to the court.

It's a trend with the Spurs: guys getting open because of perfect screens. And in some ways, it facilitates everything they do.

Creating Mismatches

SAN ANTONIO, TX - MAY 8:  Tim Duncan #21 of the San Antonio Spurs sets a pick against Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers so teammate Manu Ginobili #20 can drive by in Game Two of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs
Chris Covatta/Getty Images

It's something ABC/ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy talks about all the time: There aren't that many great screen-setters in the NBA. And in some ways, setting strong picks is as important to the shot-making process as anything else.

There are two main objectives in setting a screen: springing a teammate to get open or trying to create a mismatch on a switch. The Spurs excel at both.

Right out of the gate in Game 2, the Spurs ran a go-to play:

Green gets the ball at the top of the key as Leonard and Parker run off pin-downs from Duncan and Splitter, respectively. Both Spurs bigs set perfectly strong screens, effective enough that Durant, who is defending Leonard, gets hung up on Duncan.

Courtesy of NBA.com

After Thabo Sefolosha cuts off the first option to Parker, Green passes to Leonard, but Durant ends up closing out just in time to deter Leonard from taking the shot.

So, what do the Spurs do when the first two good screens don't work? They set even more picks. Because that's what San Antonio does. It can lay picks for days.

Duncan immediately comes up to Leonard on the right side to set a screen:

Courtesy of NBA.com

He seals off Durant as Leonard uses those Chewbacca hands to go right and then toward the middle of the floor to make sure Perkins picks him up. And now, the Spurs have their mismatch.

Kawhi uses his quickness advantage on the Thunder center and gets himself an easy pull-up jumper in the lane. The Spurs have their first basket of the night.

People always talk about how fluid the San Antonio offense is every single play. This is what they mean when they say it. It's not just about ball movement, but also player motion.

After Durant closed out on Leonard in time on the right side, most teams would hit a lull, as they often lack the proficiency and command to make the necessary offensive adjustments on the move.

KD gets out to Kawhi with about 11 seconds left on the shot clock. That's enough time to run another play, but so many offenses develop the habit of taking a couple of dribbles instead of moving into their next set instantaneously.

When you hesitate, all of a sudden, you have eight seconds left on the clock. That's when players move into those ugly, contested isolation shots. But the Spurs never wait. Their offense is so instinctual that it allows for them to get open looks whether they're going to their primary or secondary options.

Parking in the Paint

May 21, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker (9) shoots the ball past Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams (12) in game two of the Western Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum

Setting quality screens can have major effects both on and off the ball. One of the reasons Parker has been able to become arguably the craftiest around-the-rim player of his generation is those picks his teammates set for him.

That couldn't be more clear against the Thunder. It's time to get a little nerdy (if we didn't already get there about 1,000 words ago).

Parker has made 16 baskets in the first two games of the Western Conference Finals. Fourteen have come in the paint, and of those 14, he's used a screen on nine of them.

The other five? Those are made up of a combination of off-ball cuts, shifty floaters and transition baskets.

In 64 minutes of basketball against the Thunder, the NBA's premier at-the-rim point guard has exactly one blow-by against his primary defender. That's it. That's not how Parker plays, and it certainly isn't how the Spurs conduct themselves.

May 21, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker (9) drives to the basket around Oklahoma City Thunder guard Thabo Sefolosha (25) in game two of the Western Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit

That's not to say Parker's ability to finish at the rim is completely based on the system. A statement like that would be ludicrous. There's no point guard in the NBA who has the array of moves Parker does once he gets around the hoop. That's how he was able to hit just under 64 percent of his shots at the rim on 6.6 attempts per 36 minutes during the regular season.

The crazy under-the-basket moves, the up-and-unders, the reverses, the wacky, waving, inflatable arm-flailing tube man moments—those are attributable solely to Parker's unmatched ability to finish.

Once the Spurs point guard gets to the rim, he's doing it on his own. It's the getting there part where his teammates help out the most.

Even when Parker runs these semi-isolation sets, which allow him to drive with relative ease (at least, it seems easy for him), it often comes after getting a switch on a screen, like on this second-quarter play from Game 1, when he scurries for a layup after Caron Butler switches onto him:

It's another example of the Spurs forcing the matchups that they prefer. That's why, in some ways, this shellacking of the Thunder through two games has been about so much more than OKC missing its best defensive player.

Ibaka is tremendous, and surely, if he were healthy and present, he'd make a difference, but San Antonio is doing a wonderful job getting the mismatches it wants to exploit. If Ibaka is on the court, the Thunder will be able to help so much more confidently, but the Spurs will still be trying to take advantage of the Butler-type matchups.

All the Spurs needed to get the switch from KD to Butler was that little check in the lane from Duncan. Again, it's just one of the 10 best players of all time casually helping out his team in ways that never go noticed.

No current player makes layups in the way Parker is able to do it. Literally no one. But no team opens up so many opportunities for its point guard, either, and for that, Parker has to be particularly appreciative.


May 19, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich reacts to a call in game one of the Western Conference Finals in the 2014 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

We always talk about consistency with the Spurs. How fluid they are throughout a game, a week, a season, a decade. But what's most consistent may be their ideals.

The defensive philosophy matches perfectly with the offensive one. Look at how much the Spurs' attack takes advantage of double-teams. Well, that's why they don't bring over second defenders all too often on defense.

Maybe the best way to succeed in the NBA isn't just to pretend that you're the Spurs, but also to pretend you're playing against the Spurs. If you take away a team's Spursian option—i.e., its best choice—you've already got the advantage. 

Now, with all the holes the Spurs have found in the Thunder defense over the first two games of the Western Conference Finals, it seems like Oklahoma City may have a plug on the way back. At the very least, a full-strength Ibaka should be able to help prevent all those points in the paint.

Still though, San Antonio will find new advantages on the offensive side of the ball. That's what the Spurs do—they discover new wounds and dig into them as deeply as possible. And no matter how present or effective Ibaka may be in Game 3 or beyond, it should be fairly obvious that San Antonio is going to keep finding its best options.

All statistics current as of May 23 and from Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com unless otherwise noted.

Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com, WashingtonPost.com or on ESPN's TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.


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