If you want to beat the San Antonio Spurs this year, it will take quick decision making, tough shots and superior endurance. Prior to the start of the 2021-22 NBA season, San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich expressed to the media, “Nobody is going to play 39 minutes a game, don’t have to worry about individual stats or individual honors or anything like that.” The Spurs are playing by the old basketball philosophy, keep up the pace and don’t pace yourself. They are not as talented as a lot of the teams in the NBA and they don’t have the same top-end talent as most so they will have to outwork and outwit their opponents to win games.
Heading into the 2021-22 NBA season, Gregg Popovich gave some insight about the tactics he planned to enact. “It’s going to be simple, simple, simple stuff. And at both ends of the court, we just want a lot of activity, a lot of pace and just play fast, hopefully smart along with that.” Simplicity, effort and tempo are going to be the primary points of emphasis on a team that has only two players with more than five years of professional experience.
A few weeks into the season, we now know that Gregg Popovich was being as honest as ever. The offense has been elementary thus far and simple may have been an understatement. While the offense has been simple, it has been surprisingly effective. The secret to the simplicity lies in their ability to make opposing teams uncomfortable by pushing the pace on practically every possession. When the ball handler advances the ball past half-court, they are immediately into their motion and playing fast. It has been clear that they want to attack the defense before they have an opportunity to get set. This has resulted in easy baskets. Taking advantage of easy opportunities is crucial for a team that can struggle in the half-court due to their lack of a go-to guy. Another way this team has used tempo for their benefit has been the emergence of an improved fast break. The Spurs are currently leading the league in fastbreak points by a healthy margin. Anyone not named Jakob Poeltl and Drew Eubanks (due to lack of ball handling ability) has seemingly been given the green light to push the ball up the court after a defensive rebound. Once the break has started, players are filling the lanes with a purpose, trailing into open threes, attacking mismatches, attacking the basket with a head of steam and drawing fouls. This team has shown that they are at their best when they are running in transition.
I do not believe Gregg Popovich had anything specific in mind when he mentioned activity. Activity is something you can’t gameplan. Activity is a combination of focus, effort and energy. All of these things are controlled individually. Diving after loose balls, having active hands on defense and crashing the glass on both ends of the court are all examples of being active. That kind of activity allows for second chances and additional opportunities on the offensive end. To this point, 8 games into the season, the Spurs are top 5 in forced turnovers and Jakob Poeltl leads the league in offensive rebound percentage. These are encouraging statistics for a team that needs to see continued production in these areas to be competitive this season.
Gregg Popovich has been utilizing his team’s athleticism on defense by allowing them to play a disruptive style of defense, playing deep in the defensive gaps toward the ball handler. This is an aggressive approach to help defense that restricts the ball handler’s ability to drive and make comfortable passes. It requires lengthy, athletic and versatile defenders, which the Spurs have in abundance. Players such as Devin Vassell, Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker, Keldon Johnson and Keita Bates-Diop are built for and have thrived in this scheme. It is no surprise that a majority of their best +/- lineups include these players. They have excelled by employing active hands, causing turnovers and loose balls, changing passing angles and trajectories whether they get a piece of it or not, causing shooters to catch the ball off balance or at least not in the shot/shooting pocket, anticipating the offense’s decisions and cutting off passes by stealing the pass or taking away the passing lane and forcing the ball handler to make a more challenging pass. It is incredibly encouraging to see such a young team doing these things consistently this early in the season. It is incredibly exciting to imagine what they will be able to do when they gain some more experience and chemistry with one another.
Another way we have seen Popovich utilize his team’s length and athleticism is with a press. At calculated points throughout the game Popovich steps away from his typical man-to-man defense and tries to disrupt the opposition with the 1-2-2 trap. The press is a ½ court and ¾ court trapping press that usually drops into man-to-man but can also drop into a 2-3 zone. The purpose of the trap is to create turnovers, take time off the shot clock and disrupt the flow of the offense while trying to initiate their half-court offense.
While we could have foreseen some struggles early in the season given the team’s lack of a superstar, the Spurs have proven that they are going to be competitive every night no matter who they are playing. They have competed with teams projected at the top of the west such as the Nuggets, Lakers and Mavericks. They split a 2 game series with the reigning champs, the Milwaukee Bucks. They lost a tough one in Indiana, but showed promise in the second half, chipping away at a 26 point lead held by the Pacers. The Spurs will need to find a way to hold onto leads late in games. That has been the difference between them being 2-6 or 7-1. They will need to figure out who deserves the ball in their hands late in games. When this team does start to figure things out, they will continue to show they can compete with anyone. They play an exciting brand of basketball that is rarely made use of in the modern NBA and it will be interesting to see how far it can take them this season.
Article Written by Matthew Murphy
Edited by Connor Sinadinovic and Bradley Patten
Forced Turnover Stats-
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Photo credit to Spurs twitter-