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The Spurs Have Evolved Their Way To Greatness

The San Antonio Spurs lost Game 1 of their Western Conference semifinals series to the Rockets by 27 points. Then they lost veteran point guard Tony Parker for the remainder of the playoffs. In overtime of Game 5, emerging superstar Kawhi Leonard was forced to the bench with an injury, one that would keep him out of Game 6. This sequence of events would be too much for almost any basketball team to overcome in the span of a seven-game series.

Unless that team is the San Antonio Spurs, of course, who on Thursday earned a Western Conference finals showdown with Golden State with a 39-point romp over Houston — on the road no less.

Game 6 highlighted something that has been clear for a while now: The Spurs are the great chameleon of pro sports and have shown themselves to be capable of navigating just about any scenario thrown their way.

After being bludgeoned by a barrage of 3-pointers in Game 1, coach Gregg Popovich and the Spurs began defending James Harden’s pick-and-rolls far differently in Game 2, refusing to give the MVP candidate one-on-one looks around the basket even if it meant leaving certain shooters open. And while San Antonio deserves credit for largely staying faithful to its more traditional 2-big lineups involving LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol in this series, the team’s ability to go small — even without Parker or Leonard available — essentially delivered the knockout blow in Game 6.

Guards Patty Mills, Dejounte Murray, Jonathon Simmons, Kyle Anderson and forward David Lee — who before the game had played together as a five-man unit for a grand total of zero secondswent on a 13-0 run in less than three minutes during the second quarter. The Spurs, who used the streak to build an 18-point edge, shot 5-of-6 during that span. The Rockets went 0-of-4.

And while Harden looked awful and not like himself Thursday, ample credit belongs to the Spurs for their defensive showing. At times, they smothered Houston with hard close-outs. According to SportVU, the Spurs moved at an average of 3.94 mph on defense in Game 6, 10 percent faster than they did in Game 5.

Given Parker’s advanced age and declining play, some might downplay his injury and the impact it has on San Antonio. But consider this (putting aside that Parker had begun to play better just before the injury): The Spurs were at their best when Parker played well this season. San Antonio won 80 percent of Parker’s 25 best games of the year.1

That San Antonio would be without him and Leonard in Game 6 understandably raised concerns about how the Spurs would get to the basket. After all, until Parker was injured, the duo had been combining for nearly 21 drives to the basket per game in the playoffs, according to SportVU. The other guards on the roster were combining for just under 11 drives a game.

As it turns out, San Antonio may have been better equipped to rely on its bench than nearly any other elite team in NBA history. In all, 11 different Spurs logged at least 1,000 minutes this season, making the club the first 60-win team to play that many people for that amount of time, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Popovich, who used 27 different starting lineups this season, has long been known for his preference to rest his players when possible — even relatively young ones. The Spurs went 7-1 this past season when Leonard sat out.

Playing without Leonard, who has grown increasingly reliant on isolation looks, allowed San Antonio to go back to the style of play it had become known for: dumping the ball down into the post, swinging it and finding the open man. Nearly 63 percent of the Spurs’ baskets on Thursday stemmed from an assist, a rate that would rank third among playoff teams. Before Game 6, the team’s 50 percent assist mark ranked 15th among the 16 clubs that reached the playoffs.

This is the franchise’s hallmark and the reason it’s reached the postseason for 20 consecutive years. San Antonio has always excelled at adapting over time. After the team found initial success with two Hall-of-Fame caliber big men, it didn’t hesitate to structure more of the team’s offense around a pair of penetrating perimeter players as the league’s rules changed2 and David Robinson retired. When the NBA became enamored with hero ball, the Spurs eschewed that trend, opting to beat teams into the ground with beautiful, elite-level passing, which left defenses unable to keep up.3 Ironically, this version of the Spurs — a team that has a clear go-to guy and a couple of outside free-agent signings and is mortal in the sense that it’s finally dealing with key injuries — might be the most “normal” team we’ve seen in San Antonio in quite some time.

It’s too soon to know whether any of this will ultimately matter against the Warriors, whose vastly superior roster figures to deliver an entirely different set of challenges than Houston’s did. But by now, one thing is clear: Don’t count out the Spurs. Because they seem to play best when they’re forced out of their comfort zone.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. According to Basketball-Reference.com’s Game Score, which is calculated by taking into account a player’s box-score metrics.

  2. Aside from doing away with handchecking completely, the league more heavily emphasized defensive three-second violations, which is when a defensive player is whistled for standing in the paint for three seconds or more at a time without guarding anyone. The threat of being called for this opened up the paint for smaller guards. These changes took place in 2004.

  3. The Spurs passed the ball nearly 95 times more per game than LeBron James and the Miami Heat during the 2014 NBA Finals.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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