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The Difference A Point Can Make

By Jeff Koch on March 29, 2013.

On Wednesday, the Spurs held on to a one point lead in the final seconds of regulation, as an Andre Miller shot rolled off the rim as time expired. Good win.

Three days prior, the Spurs gave up a one point lead on a difficult (and well contested) shot from James Harden, and then were unable to convert with about 5 seconds of game time remaining on the other end. Tough loss.

In reality, there was little difference between these two games, other than which side of the ledger the check mark goes on. In both games, the team had stretches of great play, stretches of mediocre play, and stretches of bad play. In both games, the team made some winning plays in crunch time, and some losing plays in crunch time. In both games, the team had a legitimate chance at a win or a loss. After 48 minutes, sometimes it just comes down to the bounce of a ball.

We’re in the home stretch of the schedule, and it happens to be a schedule littered with playoff teams for the Spurs. Every team in the West is still jockeying for playoff position, so most every game is going to feel like a playoff game. Our expectations should be that these games will be close, tough, and fought tooth and nail. There are no walkovers in the playoffs this year, and the next few weeks should be viewed as a prolonged ramp up to the second season. And, paraphrasing Pop, should be a challenge that is embraced.

So less than the wins and losses, the remainder of the schedule should be viewed through the prism of playoff preparation. What are our strengths? What are our weaknesses? What needs tightening up?

Here is the beginning of my “Concerns” list:

–Duncan’s health. Not really much to be done here, other than hope, wish, and pray. Outside of the few weeks after his minor knee injury, Duncan has been playing spectacular basketball, and has looked sharp and lively in his body. While the offense is clearly Parker’s, he is still a major contributor; and he completely anchors our defense still. I haven’t seen him this good on the defensive end since 2007. I just hope his body can hold up another few months.

–Parker’s health. He is only 3 games back from his injury, but Parker is definitely a bit out of sorts and out of rhythm. There is nothing for major concern yet, as we have the luxury of easing him back in. But we really need Parker playing at “2nd Tier MVP Candidate” Level to have success in the playoffs.

–More Leonard, please. Kawhi seems to get better every week. But he is 21, playing on a team of Hall of Fame veterans, and has a tendency to disappear for large stretches. We need his aggression and scoring on offense, particularly in the worry concerning Ginobili.

–The bench. Last year, the bench was a strength of the team, winning many regular season games for us. This year, it hasn’t been nearly as strong. Injuries to Neal and Jackson, the decline of Ginobili, Splitter moving into the starting line-up, and the search for a true back-up PG have all contributed to this. In the playoffs, the bench is less important than the regular season. But our bench still needs to be able to hold leads–and even extend them–and not just be a burden to be overcome in between Duncan and Parker’s shifts.

–Back-up PG. This is kind of a subset of the last point. The bad news: the back-up PG situation is far from resolved. The good news: while each option certainly has faults (hence the “back-up” denotation), both Cory Joseph and Nando De Colo have shown a lot of growth and ability to play the position. I think Joseph is the long-term solution, but for now, it may continue to be by committee. Neal and Ginobili have also seen time there. While Ginobili is the best option in theory, he has been so turnover prone lately that I’d rather see a player like Joseph, with less overall ability, but more care with the ball.

–Ginobili. My biggest worry. My secret favorite player. Nothing causes my basketball heart more ache than to watch Ginobili every night, his mind able to see what his body is slowly no longer able to do. Wayne over at The Big Fundamental wrote a nice piece on Ginobili’s declining defense, something I had noticed and that is a real concern. What I’ve also been noticing is that Ginobili can no longer run the offense in crunch time, and it’s killing our efficiency in the last few minutes. I argued this about the Houston game, and we had a nice discussion on our facebook page about that last play. And while the last play was certainly disheartening, what was of more concern was the last few minutes of play. Something we saw again against Denver.

The concern for most teams is that their offense becomes super predictable in crunch time. The “star” player has the ball, holds on to it, makes a move against a defense expecting it, and then usually takes a tough contested shot. The (often) beauty of the Spurs offense is that it does rely on “hero” ball. It has a system, it employs player and ball movement, and often tries for the best shot available, not the shot from the best player. In the last two games, however, our end of game offense has been Ginobili, pounding the ball up high, killing the shot clock, getting a high screen, driving to his left, getting shut down, jumping in the air, trying to draw contact, putting up a horribly off balance shot, missing, falling to the ground, and then complaining to the refs as the other team breaks the other way. Over and over.

I’m tired of watching Ginobili not finish drives; I’m tired of Ginobili relying upon the ref’s whistles, hoping to be bailed out of a bad situation; I’m tired of watching Ginobili complain as the other team streaks the other way; I’m tired of our offense taking the ball out of Parker’s hands, the player who can do the same thing as Ginobili at the top of the key, but can create better shots for both himself and the rest of the team; I’m tired of watching the team fritter away 10 point leads in the last few minutes of games.

Ginobili is not the same player he was. He doesn’t have the same speed and first step. He can’t quite get by that last defender and get all the way to the rim, at least not in crunch time. And he is not getting those calls anymore. This offense is hurting the team, and costing us games. More importantly, there are going to be many close games in the playoffs that will come down to execution in the last few minutes. Right now, ours is piss poor. And this is usually a strength of ours.

How many close games we play in the playoffs will probably come down to how we address this issue.

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