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The Spurs don't miss a beat when Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are out of the lineup. Why is that? It's thanks to an offensive system that keeps defenders honest with constant motion.
The San Antonio Spurs scored 103 points last night against arguably the league's most tenacious defensive team, the Chicago Bulls. If the game was exactly 100 possessions, the Spurs would have scored 117 points. On a per-possession basis, that's five points more than the average mark of the league's best offense, Oklahoma City. They did this on the second night of a back-to-back after playing in a different time zone the night before.
We've reached the point that we take the Spurs' ability to withstand injuries to their best players for granted, but this is still an incredible achievement. Take away the three best players from any team in the league, and they would probably struggle to win 20 percent of their games. The Spurs, though, keep humming along, even against some of the league's toughest teams.
How do they do it? By using an age-old offensive concept that too few teams in the league understand: misdirection.
Misdirection is a complicated way of saying that they keep all five players moving over the course of an offensive play. Even in today's more wide-open NBA, teams still rely heavily on isolations and pick and rolls that turn the other three or four players into statues. To some extent, you have to do this, because the floor does need to be spaced properly for the primary play. But the Spurs manage to maintain that spacing even while essentially running a second play to keep help defenders distracted.
Let's take a look at a few examples from Monday's win. This play in the second quarter freed Kawhi Leonard in the post and enabled him to draw a foul. But look how the set begins:
The Spurs are setting this up to swing the ball into the corner and find Leonard after he seals his man inside, but they also make it look like they're running a second play. Tiago Splitter is going to run from the baseline to the left wing as if he is setting a ball screen for Danny Green. The purpose? Clear Carlos Boozer away from the lane so he can't position himself to be in the way of the pass to Leonard from the corner.
This works perfectly. Boozer goes with Splitter to the top of the key, and the lane is wide open for Leonard. Better yet, Leonard's defender, Marco Belinelli, is also momentarily confused by Splitter's cut and he is late getting back to Leonard. All Green has to do is swing it to the corner, and Gary Neal has an easy pass to Leonard under the hoop.
The beauty of the Spurs' offense is that they can quickly adjust to either play. If Boozer doesn't come up with Splitter, Green can just rub off his screen and hit an elbow jumper. As a defense, how are you supposed to defend both of these plays properly at the same time? It takes pinpoint concentration to be able to do it.
But the Spurs can also adjust with misdirection on the fly. The initial play on this set in the second quarter gets cut off when the Bulls deflect a pass, but the Spurs are able to get DeJuan Blair a layup by ad-libbing two plays on the fly.
On one side, Patty Mills and Blair are preparing to run a side pick and roll. On the other side, it'd be easy for Matt Bonner to float to the opposite corner and just stand there spacing the floor. Instead, watch what he does to distract his man, Taj Gibson, from helping on the Mills/Blair pick and roll.
Instead of going to the weakside corner, Bonner makes a cut to the strongside corner. Many coaches don't want their players to do this, because it can mess up spacing if timed incorrectly, but the Spurs are so regimented with their misdirection that it actually is a positive that Bonner is cutting in clear view of the play. By the time Bonner finishes his cut, Gibson has an incredibly difficult decision to make.
This is about as close to a "pick your poison" situation as you'll ever see. Does Gibson stay with Bonner and yield an open lane for Blair, or does he guard the lane and surrender a wide-open three for one of the best long-range shooters in basketball? He eventually is caught leaning towards Bonner, and that opens up Mills' pass to Blair for the layup.
The Spurs can take this misdirection concept to an even higher level, too. They've been so well-drilled by Popovich that they're able to combine two plays into one without ruining their flow. Take a look at this set in the fourth quarter that ended with a really important three-point play for Boris Diaw. The Spurs once again essentially call two plays: a post-up for Splitter that the Bulls front, and a curl screen for Green with Diaw freeing him.
Once again, Gibson is being picked on here. As Diaw's man, he's obligated to help his teammate as he's fighting through Diaw's screen on Green, but he also has to be available to help if the Spurs throw a lob pass to Splitter. As was the case in the previous play, Gibson is faced with a pick-your-poison scenario.
This time, Gibson's instincts draw him to protect the rim against a lob to Splitter. But just as it looks like Gibson made the right decision, here comes Diaw, his original man, cutting down the lane to receive a pass for an easy layup.
And that is how San Antonio's misdirection makes them impossible to guard even without their star players.
Why do the Spurs do this when other teams don't? That's the million-dollar question, and the answer goes deeper than Popovich's excellent coaching. For years, the Spurs have thought more about the collective than the individual when it came to building their roster. That remains true even as they've evolved from a stifling defensive unit to a high-octane offensive team. Instead of tenacious help defenders that can throw post-entry passes, the Spurs have now focused on shot-making guards like Green and Neal, floor-spacing wings like Leonard and Bonner and mobile big men like Splitter. It doesn't matter that Green is a limited ball-handler, Neal can't run an offense and Splitter still isn't an explosive finisher. What matters is that their unique skills and on-court intelligence allow the Spurs to run all this misdirection.
It remains to be seen if the formula carries over to the playoffs, when defenses are more engaged and you have to rely on your stars to carry you for larger periods of time. But no matter what happens, the Spurs have built a culture where they can keep their stars fresh for the long term and not miss a beat.
It's all thanks to misdirection.