Tim Duncan is an expert at contesting drives to the rim without fouling.
We hear a lot about the toughness it takes to win in the playoffs. And not just any kind of toughness; we're talking the kind that takes the form of high elbows and hard fouls at the rim.
The second-round series between the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers provided plenty of that: bloody faces from dangerous elbows, multiple flagrant fouls and two suspensions.
But you won't see the San Antonio Spurs, who have now won nine straight playoffs games, picking up a flagrant foul any time soon. In fact, if they can help it, the Spurs would prefer not to foul at all. Against Oklahoma City in Game 1, this strategy limited Russell Westbrook and James Harden, who combined to average more than 12 free throws per game during the regular season, to just two attempts.
Westbrook and Harden are fantastic at finding contact on their drives through the lane -- Harden with his herky-jerky, foul-seeking style and Westbrook with phenomenal quickness that catches defenders out of position. When they drive, they invite confrontation from help defenders and are expert at turning those plays into trips to the free throw line.
On HoopSpeak, Ethan Sherwood Strauss noted that managing that confrontation was a major point of emphasis in the Spurs' game plan:
To over-simplify, San Antonio forced Harden to make the drive of least resistance. On the right side of the floor, they enticed him right. On the left side of the floor, Harden’s man guided him left. This latter strategy may have been a bit counterintuitive, because, as previously mentioned, he loves to go left. But this at least meant JH couldn’t draw a foul in the way he loves to: By bumping into a drive-blocking defender.
Suddenly, Harden was unhindered, but he didn’t entirely know how to capitalize. The Spurs knew exactly what to do, sending help over and jumping straight up, palms to the heavens. This is a beautiful, underrated element of Spurs basketball. They make a big show of just how disinterested they are in fouling. Defenders somehow contest shots while making the universal “I surrender!” battlefield gesticulation.
Of course there's also an element of tough, physical play in what the Spurs do -- just try to move Tim Duncan from his spot on a rebound. But the Spurs defenders also know how to avoid unnecessary contact at all costs. It starts with being in the right place to begin with, which cuts down available driving angles and makes creative players predictable. And when they do contest a shot at the rim, Spurs big men tend to almost always be moving backward or to the side, away from the attacking player.
Duncan, in particular, is great at turning his body sideways to avoid an airborne player while still making the attacking player uncomfortable with his long arms and active hands -- one of which is almost always pushing on the offensive player's hip to maintain space between them.
Do the Spurs make opponents uncomfortable and frustrated? Yes.
But afraid? Hardly.
This philosophy may not square with our conventional notions of tough paint defense; the Spurs aren't layin' the lumber on the opposition and don't have a high-flying shot blocker to clean up mistakes. In fact, San Antonio has adjusted its playoff rotations to become arguably less physical. The only Spur who picked up a flagrant foul this season, DeJuan Blair, hasn't played since Game 2 of the second round after starting for almost the entire season. Popovich has ditched Blair the bruiser in favor of Boris Diaw's finesse and versatility.
The Spurs may not be stocked with intimidating interior defenders, but what they are is incredibly disciplined and committed to a gameplan that requires as much mental focus as physical force.
The Spurs are proving once again that toughness is a state of mind, and that it's possible to dominate the playoffs without ever committing a "playoff foul."