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Jeff Van Gundy, Poet and a Prophet; But Can He Teach Us How to Off It?

By Jeff Koch on January 24, 2012.

At the tail end of our bitter first-round loss to Memphis last season, Jeff Van Gundy made a statement that I found so interesting and potentially illuminating, I wrote it down. This is what he said:

“The regular season in the NBA is about your basketball character…. The playoffs more reveal your basketball talent…. The Spurs don’t have anything to be ashamed of. They gave an unbelievable regular season. They were beaten in this series by a team that is younger, deeper, and more talented.”

Everything he said was true. For years, in the twilight of Duncan’s prime, the Spurs have won increasingly less on pure talent, and more on what Pop and his staff call “corporate knowledge” and Van Gundy calls “basketball character”. No team knew their system better, no team executed better, no team was better prepared.

With the writing on the wall the last few years, it seems a shift is afoot on this team. There is much less corporate knowledge on this squad, much less ‘veteran know-how’, and much less exquisite execution. But what we’ve lost in those areas, we’ve made up for in athleticism, youth, and pure (perhaps raw) talent.

What, if anything, does this mean? It’s tough to tell right now. It probably means we won’t race out to the best record in the league, as we did last season. It means there will be nights when we look a bit lost and sloppy on both ends of the floor. It means our team, position defense will look the worst it has in a long time.

But it also means that we’ll probably see more steals and blocks and pick-ups of loose balls; and we’ll see more offensive rebounds and cheap points; more fast break points. And, if Van Gundy is right, it means we won’t have a 1-seed in the playoffs, but we just might advance a bit further than last year.

While We’re On Van Gundy…

Another thing Van Gundy likes to say is that this is a “make or miss” league, meaning, you can strategize and analyze and break down as much as you want, but, at the end of the game, it usually comes down to making or missing shots. More than ever this seems true about this Spurs team. When the team makes shots, we’re pretty tough to beat. When we’re not making shots, it’s almost impossible for us to win. This seems like a pretty simple statement. But as the offense has evolved away from Tim Duncan in the post, we rely very heavily on jump shooting, particularly the 3-point shot. As another saying goes, “live by the jump shot, die by the jump shot”. With only one player who can consistently break down defenses and get his own shot (Tony Parker), we need those shots to fall.

If You Want A Dog, Don’t Buy A Cat

Picking on Tony Parker is a favorite past-time of Spurs fans. He started the season off very slow, and I thought his play was at an all-time low, at least since he’s reached his prime. But over the last few weeks, he has played tremendously and, with an assist from Duncan, really carried this team. Paraphrasing Pop, he seems to always pass when he should score, and score when he should pass. Lately, though, he’s been doing both amazingly well. He’s not blessed with the court vision of a Steve Nash or Ginobili, but his penetration is so deadly, that just with his movement, he creates so many holes and openings and wide-open lanes and shooters. And it seems he’s almost always making the right decisions lately. Plus, he’s developed a nice little rhythm with Tiago, to go along with the great chemistry he always has with Duncan.

He’ll never be Manu Ginobili, but we can’t kill him for that. He is what he is, which is an almost-elite PG who is blessed with amazing speed and an uncanny ability to score in the paint and break down defenses. With Ginobili out and Duncan no longer a post threat, that’s still enough to be a top-4 team in the West. And that’s pretty amazing.

Free Splitter

Tiago is my new favorite Spur. Man is he playing well. He’s so much more confident and aggressive than he was last year. His post game, while jerky and rough, is actually pretty effective. Style points have never been San Antonio’s forte (even Manu’s game has a touch of ‘ugliness’ to it), and Tiago fits right in there. But given time and touches in the post, and we are seeing exactly what he can do.

Which leads me to what I’ve been saying all season: our best line-up is with Tim and Tiago as our bigs. The conventional thinking for a long time has been to pair Tim with a spacing big, to stretch the floor. But Tim is now the spacing big. He can’t make 3-pointers, but his jump shot from 18-feet (particularly at the top of the key) is his most effective shot this season (he apparently worked hard on it this off-season). Most bigs are still hesitant to guard him that far out. So it’s either wide open; or, if they do guard him, Tim is an excellent passer out of the high post. Pair that with Tiago down low, and that is our best offensive and defensive front-court.

Of course, with Blair and Bonner’s deficiencies, those two can’t really share the court. So one of Tiago or Tim have to be on the court at all times, making it hard to start them together. We’ll probably see Blair continue to get the start…but more and more, I think we’ll see Tim and Tiago close out games together.

Man, this season is whizzing by! We’ll do our best to keep up.

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