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Should Old Acquaintance Be Forgot and Never Brought To Mind?

By Jeff Koch on January 1, 2011.

D. Clarke Evans/NBAE/Getty Images

Oklahoma City 74, San Antonio 101  //  29-4  //  1st in the West

Fancy new offenses are nice, and fun to watch, but deep down, Pop wants games to be won or lost on defense, with scores in the 70s and 80s. He can forgive mistakes and misses on offense, but one missed rotation on defense will draw a quick timeout and a tongue-lashing before you can even make it back to the bench. Many have wondered if this team was only going to be an average defensive team as it accelerated to an excellent offensive team.

Well, don’t look now, but the Spurs are starting to play some defense. Some nasty defense, at that. For the fourth straight game, the Spurs held their opponent to under 43% shooting (37.5% against Washington, 35.4% against Los Angeles, 42.7% against Dallas, and an astounding 32.9% against Oklahoma City). The scoring by the other teams in those games: 80, 82, 93 and 74. Numbers to warm Pop’s heart.

Saturday’s win over the Thunder was a master class in Spurs defense, given to the hapless students from Oklahoma. Look at the numbers–Score by quarter: 17, 19, 17, 21. Aforementioned FG%: 32.9%. 3-pt FG %: 14.3% (1-7). 10 assists on 28 made baskets. 19 TOs.

More importantly, just watch the defense. On the perimeter, we give no space to the shooters, hence only one made 3-pointer and, even better, only seven attempted. We shade players on the perimeter to one side, giving them the lane to drive. When they do drive, they are stopped short of the paint, forced to pull up for an inefficient long 2-pointer, draw a charge, or pass it off. Once the pass is made, all of the rotations are already set, so the process starts over and no shot is left uncontested. This leads to lots of one-on-one and inefficient basketball. Also, as an added wrinkle this year, with so many quick-handed players, any pass is in jeopardy of being stolen and starting a fast-break the other direction. With superlative offensive players like Kevin Durant, we either hound him with exceptional and physical one-on-one defense (see Ime Udoka’s work tonight) in an effort to deny him the ball or force him to get it 30 feet away from the basket and well out of a comfort zone, stay at home on all of the other players and see if one player can single-handedly beat us (hint: he usually can’t), or we force him to certain areas of the floor, at which point we run traps and double teams at him to get the ball out of his hand, already having our backside defense ready to rotate so no lanes open up and no shots are wide open.

As Spurs fans, we’ve been treated to some breathtaking offensive play this year. Even tonight, a couple of those breaks run by Parker and Ginobili were things of beauty. But at heart, if you’re a true Spurs fan, you’ve been conditioned to love watching beautiful defensive basketball. Most people call it “ugly”, but a 5-man unit working as one to vanquish an opposing offense truly is a gorgeous thing to watch. Gary Neal got dunked on for the ages by Josh Smith a few weeks ago; but as Spurs fans, we all knew that Neal’s play, perhaps a split-second late, was the more noteworthy act. Sure enough, there he was tonight, stepping in front of a charging Nenad Krstic to draw the foul. Bonner’s defense is roundly ridiculed in national circles because he is a slow, plodding, not-that-strong white guy. But he knows the Spurs system inside-out, and almost always makes the right rotations that lead to charges, errant passes, and TOs. To play excellent Spurs defense is to play excellent team defense, and to play excellent team defense is to play smart and sharp and egoless, individual athleticism and skills be damned.

As the clock rolls over into 2011, the Spurs are also trying to roll it back. And if they can, come June we may be celebrating like it’s 1999…0r 2003…or 2005…or 2007. And as Pop keeps reminding all of us (and as we all secretly know, anyway), if that is to happen, it must begin with an Old Acquaintance, never to be forgotten: Defense.

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