I went into the preparation for this piece with the idea that it was going to be about the possibility of the “dinosaur” being put to rest; how Gregg Popovich and his offensive approach with the San Antonio Spurs was going to be buried once and for all.
Indeed, they have to win on Thursday night or they can pack it in for the summer. Are they are perhaps passing the torch to the Denver Nuggets, the upstarts who looked like deer in the headlights in Game 1 but have now implemented some stop measures that seem to have worked.
But not so fast on the obituary.
We’re going to find out if the party’s over for the Spurs, beginning at 8:05 PM ET at the AT&T Arena. But if it is, it’s not necessarily because this team is still operating in the Stone Age.
In the NBA playoff odds posted on this game by the folks at BetAnySports, San Antonio is laying points at home:
San Antonio Spurs -3 (-103)
Denver Nuggets +3 (-107)
Over 208 points (-105)
Under 208 points (-105)
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San Antonio appears to be something of a paradox, in the respect that it is the most accurate team in the league from beyond the three-point arc, but takes fewer triples than anyone else in the NBA. Only 28.6% of their total shot attempts are from downtown, and that is counter-intuitive to the growing trend in the league, which is moving toward three-point shots, inspired by the analytics that tell us they represent a much more efficient shot selection than those that are taken form “mid-range.”
To out this into a little context, the Houston Rockets attempted 51% of their shots from three-point territory this season, and it’s no coincidence that they have been on the cutting edge of the analytics “revolution.” General manager Daryl Morey has been sort of a Johnny Appleseed of new-wave numbers, to the extent that he is a co-founder of the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, which has become mandatory for anyone interested in progressive strategizing, and not just stat savants either.
By way of juxtaposition, Popovich may come off as one of those “old school, stuck in the mud” types who snickers at new ways to do things and is never going to give in to the “nerds” or “pencil pushers.” The reality is, nothing could be further from the truth.
We probably wouldn’t go so far as to say they are as fanatical as the Rockets, but the Spurs are very savvy in the area of analytics; enough that at the MIT Sloan conference in 2015, they were named “Best Analytics Organization.” Yup, they were early players on this field. And Popovich is on board, ready to use anything that can be useful.
So then why, you might ask, has his team shot threes fewer times than anyone?
Well, it is because while they have the three-point shooters in their arsenal, they aren’t going to put up those shots gratuitously. Instead, they’ll take what comes. If there is a good shot somewhere, they are going to take it, and not manufacture a situation just so they can fire up a triple. And if that means they are going to be shooting a lot from mid-range, then that’s the way it is. The Spurs lead the league in shots taken from 16 feet out to the arc. And they take the lowest percentage of dunk shots.
It’s different stuff, to be sure. And now I’m thinking about something Shaquille O’Neal was saying a couple of seasons ago, when he was urging his former coach Phil Jackson’s organization, the New York Knicks, not to abandon the Triangle offense, which had seemingly gone out of style. He explained that BECAUSE other teams weren’t running it, opponents were going to be poorly prepared for it, since they wouldn’t be able to practice against it.
And maybe there’s some of that same element here. NBA teams are now so overly conditioned to defend against offenses that work for the purposes of opening up a three-pointer or a dunk/layup that they aren’t necessarily well-prepared for an offense that emphasizes the mid-range game.
Is this a case where “everything old is new again”? Maybe not, but the numbers certainly demonstrate something; San Antonio finished seventh in the league in True Shooting Percentage and sixth in Effective Field Goal Percentage. And they won 48 games to remain relevant.
All this having been said, Denver may have the personnel combination in place to get the job done. And therein lies the danger of San Antonio’s approach in a long series, where the opponent can afford to prepare against them, over and over, and make adjustments.
The big off-season acquisition for the Spurs was DeMar DeRozan, who is relatively useless beyond the three-point line. It could be that in making a defensive adjustment to exploit that, the Nuggets have turned around their fortunes. He shot a rather pedestrian six-for-15 from the field in the humbling 108-90 loss in Game 5, as Torrey Craig, who played 27-1/2 minutes and scored exactly one point, shouldered much of the responsibility for slowing him down.
That may indeed be the thing that works for Denver as the underdog.
But even if the Spurs lose, don’t automatically assume it’s because the game has passed Gregg Popovich by.
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