The San Antonio Spurs are perhaps the best team in the Western Conference.
Many expect the Oklahoma City Thunder to represent the West in the NBA Finals, but Russell Westbrook’s injuries are enough to cause fans to pause and reconsider their stances.
That gives the Spurs an opening, and if we’re being honest, San Antonio could still claim the conference crown even with a healthy Westbrook. The Spurs own the best record in the league, which says a lot about their team given how good some of the other units in the Association have been this year.
If we look a little deeper though, it might come as a surprise just how great San Antonio is. Under the tutelage of head coach Gregg Popovich, the team has the best scoring differential (plus-7.6) in the NBA.
Even more impressive, they have accomplished this despite numerous absences from key players. Indeed, Tony Parker (11), Kawhi Leonard (15), Manu Ginobili (11) and Tiago Splitter (20) have all missed a rather big amount of games, but it’s hardly mattered.
San Antonio has all the right pieces in place to make a run at the title.
Offense Gets the Glory
The Spurs own the sixth-best offense in the league, and it’s entirely possible that they will rank higher by season’s end.
San Antonio’s motion offense is simply a thing of beauty. They have a few triggers that naturally get them into some actions designed to take advantage of whatever defensive strategy opponents are running.
The Spurs will go to pick-and-rolls, cross screens, wing players diving in for post-ups when a big man catches the ball at the top of the key and many more different types of wrinkles.
And just for fun, when opponents finally key in the Spurs’ plays, they simply do the opposite of what they’re supposed to do. For instance, in the video below, Kawhi Leonard is supposed to come off a Tim Duncan screen and catch the ball at the top of the floor. Jodie Meeks overplays Leonard, and he simply cuts directly to the hoop for a catch and score:
San Antonio plays chess on every single possession, and it yields terrific results. Although some of their big guns have missed some time, Duncan and Co. are second in field-goal percentage (48.9 percent).
This is so because of the multitude of things San Antonio does well. They score 46.2 points in the paint per game (sixth in the league) per TeamRankings and complement the interior with lethal long-range bombing. The Spurs are the top 3-point shooting team in the NBA.
Indeed, they convert nearly 40 percent of all treys (both corners and above the break) according to NBA.com, which means defenders have to literally account for every spot on the floor.
All of the actions they run ultimately forces the opposition to decide what to give up, and sometimes, the answer is everything.
The motion offense requires an incredible amount of discipline to defend, and yet, even the Chicago Bulls (arguably the best defensive team in the league since Tom Thibodeau became the head coach) got shredded to the tune of 104 points on 50.6 percent shooting a few weeks ago.
It’s worth noting, on those rare occasions where their sets give them nothing, San Antonio has Parker and Ginobili to create from the perimeter, as well as Duncan and Diaw to give them high-percentage looks on the interior.
Defense Wins Championships
The Spurs will probably try to ride their defense to the title in June.
San Antonio has the third-best defense in the NBA, because they place a huge emphasis on attention to detail. The Spurs give opponents one thing, and snatch everything else away.
Chief among Popovich’s concerns is taking away easy shots at the rim. The Spurs frontline does an excellent job of giving the illusion of an easy pathway to the basket before seemingly coming out of nowhere to force misses.
Watch in the video below how the Spurs clog the paint and then give DeMarcus Cousins the impression there’s an easy bucket at the hoop waiting for him:
That can kind of “deception” is the reason why the Spurs defend the basket area at a top-10 rate per NBA.com. When Duncan challenges shots directly at the rim, teams only make 49.1 percent of their shots per SportsVU data tracking (fifth-best figure in the league among players that challenge at least nine shots at the rim per game).
San Antonio tends to stay at home with shooters, although, whenever they do give them open space, the Spurs are quick to jump back in and crowd players. Popovich is comfortable giving up the mid-range jumper both in the pick-and-roll and when sending help at shooters and rim attackers, but even those field-goal attempts are semi-contested.
What it Means for Golden State Warriors
The Golden State Warriors will face the Spurs tonight, and it should give an indication of where the Dubs sit in the Western Conference hierarchy.
San Antonio has already recorded two victories this season against the Dubs, and that’s mostly a product of solid chemistry and execution. Golden State has been in the contests until the end, but they haven’t been able to close out games because of their reliance on isolations late in the fourth quarter.
The Spurs on the other hand, systematically execute both on offense and defense, and it’s allowed them to conquer the Warriors both this season, and in the 2013 playoffs.
The Warriors must pay careful attention tonight to San Antonio’s tendencies on both sides of the ball. Once that’s taken care of, they cannot become one-dimensional offensively in the last five minutes of the game if the score is close.
The Warriors have the defense to hang with last season’s Western Conference finalist, it’s the offense that needs to show up. If the Dubs can solve this, we might be asking whether the Warriors are the best team in the west. Until then, San Antonio is.
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