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When In Doubt, Try a Zone

By Jeff Koch on December 22, 2010.

D. Clarke Evans/NBAE/Getty Images

Denver 103, San Antonio 109  //  25-3  //  1st in the West

Near the end of the 3rd quarter I had already begun to write this game’s post-mortem in my head. It’s not that a 9-point deficit is really much of anything in the NBA with a quarter to play; it’s just that we were playing so badly and getting worked over by the Denver guard trio of Chauncey Billups, Ty Lawson, and J.R. Smith, who were getting into the lane at will and wreaking havoc from there, usually resulting in lay-ups, foul shots, or wide open 3-pointers. The game was slipping from our grasp.

Then a funny thing happened to start the 4th. Pop went to the bench, bringing in Quinn, Splitter, Bonner, and Neal to play alongside Ginobili; and Pop also went to a zone on the defensive end. The five on the floor played the most aggressive, most inspired ball of the night, and when Neal stepped into a huge 3 in transition to finally tie the game, the tide had turned for good and the Spurs rolled to their second 10+ game winning streak of the season.

The zone seems anathema to a Popovich-coached team, who preaches sound positional defense, crisp rotations, and pride in shutting down the other team. But Pop’s greatest strength is his flexibility, and his willingness to try new things and take the pulse of his team and react accordingly. Switching to the zone injected the team with energy and confounded the Nuggets, who finally started missing shots.

On the offensive end, we were hitting our 3s all night, but came to life in the 4th quarter, as we hit big 3 after big 3, each one a backbreaker for the Nuggets defense. Gary Neal continued to prove that he is more than just a spot-up shooter, as he drove into the lane, and hit at least three huge shots that took real balls to take (and make). Perhaps Hill’s absence will prove a blessing in disguise, as it has allowed Neal to to gain even more confidence, which can only help as the season progresses.

For me, though, the player of the night has to be Tiago Splitter. Buried deep on the bench getting meager minutes all season, he came into the game early in the 1st quarter after Blair picked up two quick fouls. He played well in his first stint, earning him a second stint in the 2nd half. During the surge to start the 4th, he was a man possessed out there. He was rolling off the pick and roll beautifully, and the guards were finally finding him. He even got some isolations on the low block and showed some polished post moves. Mostly, though, he exhibited that Oberto-like knowledge of spacing and intuitively going to the right place that will earn him more playing time. He is a player, and, like Neal, his growing confidence can only help the team.

Very quick turn around as the Spurs fly to Orlando tonight to play the early TNT game tomorrow night. Yikes. Orlando is reeling right now after having seemingly turned over their entire roster save for Dwight Howard. The game is ripe for a win. However, the scheduling is heavily working against us, so it will be a battle regardless.

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