San Antonio Spurs Defensive Improvements Portend Strong Finish

Robert Kleeman@@RobertKleemanSenior Analyst IJanuary 12, 2011

SAN ANTONIO, TX - DECEMBER 28:  Guard Tony Parker #9 of the San Antonio Spurs with Gregg Popovich during play against the Los Angeles Lakers at AT&T Center on December 28, 2010 in San Antonio, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Hello again.

That might have been Gregg Popovich's initial reaction after his club stymied a third straight opponent with the suffocating defense that marked and defined four title runs. The Spurs finished a rare home-and-home against the Timberwolves by trouncing Minnesota 107-96. The lowly Wolves shot 37 percent in both games.

The Indiana Pacers can relate. Friday night, they shot less than 38 percent and managed just one fourth-quarter field goal against a silver and black coverage that has regained its swagger after embarrassing vacations in New York and Boston.

The Knicks racked up 128 points on 53 percent shooting, while the Celtics held on for dear life behind a 61-percent shooting night. Those performances rank as the worst, statistically speaking, in the Tim Duncan era.

Excluding those aberrations, the Spurs defense since a late December, businesslike disposal of the Washington Wizards has caused opponents' offenses to experience lethal power outages.

I conducted some crack research last week, hoping to prove that a team with Amar'e Stoudemire or Steve Nash can now roll up 110-plus points on San Antonio, no matter the state of affairs on the uphill end of the court. I was right.

The Phoenix Suns scored at least 110 points in six of their seven meetings with the Spurs, including the postseason sweep, in the 2009-2010 campaign. Stoudemire's Knicks and Nash's Suns have kept that streak alive this season.

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Here are the final scores of every game the Spurs played before or after a clash with Phoenix or New York (and Nashty or STAT). In some cases, I included the previous two contests.

First Look (2009-2010 season)

Friday Dec. 11: vs. Bobcats, Win 104-85 (The Bocats shot 42 percent)

Sunday Dec. 13: at L.A. Clippers. Win 115-90 (The Clippers shot 44 percent)

Tuesday Dec. 15: at Phoenix Suns, Loss 104-116 (The Suns shot 52 percent)

Second Look

Wednesday, Feb. 24: vs. Oklahoma City Thunder, Win 95-87 (the Thunder shot 39 percent and Kevin Durant's scoring streak ended)

Friday, Feb. 26: at Houston Rockets, Loss 104-109 (the Rockets shot 46 percent)

Sunday, Feb. 28: vs. Phoenix Suns, Win 113-110 (the Suns shot 51 percent)

Monday, March 1: at New Orleans Hornets, Win 106-92 (the Hornets shot 45 percent)

Third Look

Sunday, April 4: at L.A. Lakers, Win 100-81 (the Lakers shot 41 percent)

Tuesday, April 6: at Sacramento Kings, Win 95-86 (the Kings shot 44 percent)

Wednesday, April 7: at Phoenix Suns, Loss 101-112 (the Suns shot 50 percent)

Fourth Look (2010 Playoffs)

Thursday, April 29: vs. Dallas Mavericks, Win 97-87 (the Mavericks shot 44 percent and scored just eight points in the first quarter)

Monday, May 3: at Phoenix Suns, Loss 102-111 (the Suns shot, surprise, 52 percent)

Fifth Look (2010-2011 season)

Sunday, Dec. 26: vs. Washington Wizards, Win 94-80 (the Wizards shot 37.5 percent)

Tuesday, Dec. 28: vs. L.A. Lakers, Win 97-82 (the Lakers shot 35 percent)

Thursday, Dec. 30: at Dallas Mavericks, Win 99-93 (the Mavericks shot 43 percent; Dirk Nowitzki did not play)

Saturday, Jan. 1: vs. Oklahoma City Thunder, Win 101-74 (the Thunder shot 32 percent)

Tuesday, Jan. 3: at New York Knicks, Loss 128-115 (theKnicks shot 53 percent)

I did not include the Spurs' 118-110 home win against the Phoenix Suns in December 2010 because it came during a pathetic defensive stretch in which George Hill, perhaps the best perimeter stopper on the roster, was sidelined. I also did not mention the epic letdown that followed that April 7 loss in Phoenix. The Grizzlies ripped the Spurs a new one 107-99 at the AT&T Center. That craptastic effort was inexcusable.

When scrutinizing box scores to determine what the numbers meant, I had to ask: did the Spurs forget how to play defense each time the Suns or Stoudemire beckoned, or is that just a newfound horrible matchup? The results suggest the latter.

The best proof of that theory is what transpired in the 2010 Playoffs. It takes a supreme effort to hold the NBA's worst squad to eight points in a quarter. The Spurs did it in a closeout situation against a high-powered Maverick offense that eliminated them in the 2006 and 2009 postseasons. So, how did Gregg Popovich's outfit go from surrendering 87 points to 112 three days later? That's Amar'e.

The above is my long-winded way of saying forget the previous Tuesday's Madison Square Garden massacre. The Spurs defense also figured to endure another massive blow the next night in Beantown, even if Kevin Garnett watched the game in a suit.

Would the Celtics still race to 61-percent shooting if both teams played on equal rest, and Ray Allen, excluding his late free throw bricks, was not unconscious from the field? I would wager against it, even if the Cs competed at full strength.

I doubt Mike D'Antoni or Doc Rivers will ever use footage of their teams' performances versus the Spurs as evidence of lockdown defense. Popovich was right. No one who espouses stopping opponents would stand in line to buy those game plans.

Subtract the odoriferous outings at the NBA's two Gardens, and the Spurs' defensive averages in the other seven games, starting with Washington and ending with Minnesota, look like this: 84 points, 37 percent shooting. That is on par with Miami, maybe better.

I must deduct a few points, though, to account for two elephantine advantages San Antonio enjoyed in that stretch. Nowitzki was injured, and the Thunder was playing on the wrong end of a back-to-back. Still, the above numbers rank as impressive.

If you think any ol' team could force the Pacers into a 1-for-14 fourth quarter, Doug Collins would love to see you in his office and slap you silly. His Sixers surrendered 111 points in a loss to Jim O'Brien's Pacers Tuesday night at the Wachovia Center.

Given that the Spurs will not face any back-to-backs or Stoudemire when late April arrives (unless San Antonio and New York somehow reprise the 1999 Finals), the striking defensive improvements forebode a stirring finishing kick that will net Popovich at least 60 wins and the Western Conference's No. 1 seed.

The Lakers, still the deserved favorite to win a third straight Larry O'Brien trophy, own 11 losses after playing the league's easiest opening schedule in terms of opponent winning percentage. As the champs' slate becomes much tougher, you better believe the elite squadrons still on the docket will fire away against Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson.

Don't kid yourself. The Lakers will prove as tough to oust as the third or second seed as they were the previous three seasons as the first. Jackson just needs a healthy Bryant and supporting cast, plus home-court in the first round, to get a realistic crack at a fourth consecutive Finals appearance.

Premature discussion of the Spurs breaking the Chicago Bulls' 72-victory record was preposterous. It remains a mathematical possibility, but I can guarantee you that will not happen, without using a complex John Hollinger formula to prove my point. Popovich wants no part of that legendary feat. No coach should ever chase that mark again.

It makes no sense to do so, given travel constraints and the injury risks. As the Beatles wrote with such simple eloquence, "Let it be."

Imagine a 73 victories followed by a first-round exit. A team must also win four playoff rounds to surpass Michael Jordan's Bulls. The Spurs, like every title contending peer, will not care about the regular season wins they pile up if June does not end with a parade.

When Sports Illustrated recently asked more than 150 NBA players to pick a champion, the Spurs finished with one percent of the vote. Hoops analysts from all areas of the country have predicted the biggest second-half free fall since The Hudsucker Proxy.

I am here to remind folks that a middle ground exists. San Antonio does not have to either win 70 contests or play .500 basketball the rest of the way and finish with 54 victories (think about that for a second). Popovich-coached teams tend to coalesce and amp up for the postseason in February and March.

That can still happen, even if the torrid pace slows as expected.

After studying the remainder of the schedule, a 64-18 record sounds reasonable. If not 64, the Spurs will approach that 60-triumph vicinity. That would rank as the best mark in franchise history and put San Antonio in position to improve by as many wins from last year as Miami.

A quick recap: if the Spurs alternate wins and losses through mid-April, they would still reach 54, which would be a four-victory improvement from 2009-2010. They can also still challenge a franchise that added LeBron James and Chris Bosh for biggest advancement in the "W" category. As Borat Sagdiyev would say, "very nice."

The Spurs have started 32-6 while keeping Duncan's minutes at a career low and not overworking any of the other veterans. San Antonio boasts the second-highest point differential in the association. Numerous routs have afforded the rotation regulars much-needed in-game rest.

The reason a familiar spring surge seems probable: defense.

Hello again. Popovich is as pleased as anyone for the re-introduction.


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