The San Antonio Spurs were on an incredible 20 game win streak that stretched from late in the regular season and into the Western Conference Finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Spurs offense was rolling as they surgically disposed their opponents with unselfish and quick ball movement. With a WCF’s 2-0 lead over the Thunder, the Spurs looked set for a fifth Finals appearance in the Duncan-era.
Yet, something swiftly changed that led to a startling reverse of fortune, where the Thunder claimed the next four games and ended the Spurs’ run.
Coach Gregg Popovich called the Spurs’ meltdown as “identity theft” as the Spurs’ smooth ball movement became stagnant and the Thunder became “San Antonio” on the offensive end.
Yes, “identity theft” took place but it was the Spurs’ inability to get “stops on demand” or play without detrimental lapses on defence that saw Oklahoma advance to the Finals.
This year, the Spurs ball movement is the same, if not even more precise (league leading 25.6 apg and second in ppg, 105.4).
This year, the Thunder remain the team to beat in the West, the Clippers are more deep and experienced and Memphis are healthy. Meanwhile, the Spurs have virtually the same roster as in the shortened lockout season.
So why should the Spurs be considered still one of the elite teams in the NBA, despite other teams seemingly improved in personnel?
“We’re significantly better on defense than we were the last couple of years,” Popovich said. “That’s something we hope will continue as the season progresses, and not just be a blip.”
The casual observer will look at only points allowed in judging whether a team is good defensively or not. By this rating the Spurs are mediocre, allowing 97.6 points per game (16th in the league).
However, this does not tell any of the story at all. San Antonio play at an uptempo pace on the offensive end and get far more shots up than a team like the Brooklyn Nets who walk the ball up the court.
Popovich and the Spurs have always placed a higher value on field-goal percentage defense and in their championship years they were always in the top five in this category.
Spurs defense has been average the past three seasons, ever since they switched their offense from purely half-court sets and banging the ball down low to Tim Duncan to a more blitzing pace.
The Spurs are currently tied for eighth in field-goal percentage defense, allowing 43.7 percent.
Even more impressive, if we follow the recent trend of analysing defense, the Spurs are fourth in the league (101.2) in points allowed per 100 possessions.
The Spurs have improved their defense by a renewing their focus on the defensive end.
“We want to be in the top 5 in every category. If you want to win a championship, you have to be in the top 5,” Tony Parker said.
Somehow the Spurs are on the right track despite their best two defenders, Kawhi Leonard (2.3 steals per game) and Stephen Jackson, missing a month of basketball. With their return, the Spurs boast one of the stronger defensive units on the wing (Leonard, Jackson and Danny Green).
So even though the Clippers and the Thunder are the headlines in the West, the Spurs’ regained defensive toughness might just be the telling factor on whether the Spurs breakdown or push all the way to the Finals.