Monday night’s game in San Antonio went according to plan. The red-hot Spurs, winners of their last 14 games, simply out-executed the floundering Sixers, now only two games away from setting the NBA record for most consecutive losses.
Most impressively, San Antonio’s 113-91 victory came without the services of three of its regular starters in Tony Parker, Danny Green, and Tiago Splitter. An older team led by a coach that is extremely cautious with his players’ minutes, the Spurs had plenty of practice at winning shorthanded.
As we’ve shown before, Brett Brown is trying to recreate the offensive magic of Gregg Popovich’s recent Spurs teams. And while he won’t be able to clone Parker, Tim Duncan, and Manu Ginobili, there are some general guidelines that Brown can look to follow as he attempts to build the Sixers’ offense from the ground up.
1. Shooting is key. In the Spurs’ basic “4-out, 1-in” alignment, there are four players who are stationed behind the three-point line. The same is true when the Sixers run their offense out of the same look.
The goal is to make the defense cover as much ground as possible, which the Spurs do better than anyone on the planet. In addition to experience and general talent, there’s also a huge disparity in perimeter shooting between the two five-man offensive units in the shots above.
The Spurs’ three-point threats are just that, threats; they shoot 41, 40, 37, and 33 percent from behind the arc and Duncan is still a capable, if declining, midrange shooter. The Sixers’ four “shooters” come in at 35, 31, 31 and 26 percent from long distance. Floor spacing is nice, but it’s obviously difficult to utilize properly if the players can’t consistently make shots.
Last night, both teams ran fairly similar side pick-and-rolls that resulted in an open three-point attempt for their “stretch fours,” Thaddeus Young and Austin Daye. Guess which one made the shot.
Daye is a worse player than Young, but he is a better three-point shooter. Perimeter shooting isn’t all-important and, in fact, I believe that the Spurs’ special rapport results more from experience and cohesiveness than shooting ability. It’s why Popovich can plug in Daye for players like Green and Matt Bonner and watch as his team hardly skips a beat.
Still, the Spurs wouldn’t be quite as special if, all other factors unchanged, they were only Sixer-caliber shooters. Help defenders can’t sag off San Antonio’s plethora of three-point bombers, which opens up driving lanes for Parker and real estate for Duncan to post-up. Going forward, Brown is going to value shooters highly.
2. Running is great, if you can immediately flow into the half-court offense. This is an area where we can differentiate between quality and quantity. Philadelphia and San Antonio are both teams that like to get up and down the court. The Sixers play at the fastest pace in the league, while the Spurs are no slouches themselves, coming in at 12th overall.
The major difference between the two fast breaks is that while the Sixers completely force the issue, the Spurs are thinking one step ahead. Philadelphia ranks dead last in the NBA with 0.98 points per transition possession, via mySynergySports. On the other hand, the Spurs are 10th with 1.10 PPP in transition situations.
Once the Spurs are stopped in transition, they almost immediately flow directly into some version of their half-court offense. At the very least, the ball-handler will receive a drag screen from the trailing big man. This places a ton of pressure on an already scrambling defense.
In the video below, Patty Mills twice immediately uses a ball screen after getting stopped in transition. For his trouble, he scored five points.
Too many times this season, the Sixers have forced the issue in transition. Specifically, players are attempting difficult drives at the cost of running something that resembles their half-court offense. Next year, Brown will hope to see less tough drives into traffic like this one from Young last night.
The Spurs are also very difficult to stop in transition in the first place. They pass the ball extremely well on the break, using the threat of the three-point line to secure easy shots around the rim.
Michael Carter-Williams has often been guilty of eschewing a simple pass or ball screen in favor of trying to drive right through a player. Part of this is due to Brown’s willingness to deal with aggressive mistakes for the sake of player development. Much has to do with the lack of talent surrounding the rookie point guard.
With better shooters in the fold, Carter-Williams will have the ability to elevate his game. Hopefully then, 25-game losing streaks will seem like a distant memory.
Bob Cooney has been at the Daily News for more than 20 years, working in the sports department for the past 15. This is his third season on the Sixers beat. He has covered just about everything, but mostly college basketball, where he was the La Salle beat writer for six seasons. E-mail Bob at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter.