No hero-ball for the San Antonio Spurs
November, 14, 2012
By Kevin Arnovitz
LOS ANGELES -- Rarely does a night go by in the NBA when we don't see a one-possession game play out like this in the closing seconds:
A head coach puts the ball in the hands of his most dynamic shot creator at the top of the floor. Maybe that player gets a high screen from a big man, or maybe the floor is flattened out for an isolation with four teammates standing still on the far margins of the court to yield as much room as possible for the ball handler to drive.
With his defender's arms extended perpendicularly, the playmaker pounds the ball into the hardwood while watching the clock. There's no motion, just a tunnel between the ball and the rim. Nobody in the building can predict the outcome with any certainty, but almost everyone can tell your what's about to transpire.
"I hate that," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "It's so boring."
As an antidote to boredom, Popovich decided to draw up something novel with 19.9 seconds left in regulation and the Spurs trailing, 82-81.
Tony Parker brought the ball up the left side of the court across the timeline, with Tim Duncan following. From left to right, Danny Green, Stephen Jackson and Kawhi Leonard were spread along the baseline from corner to corner. Manu Ginobili, who has hit so many big shots in late-game situations for the Spurs, was not on the floor.
Parker passed the ball off to Duncan just above the top of the 3-point line, then cleared to the left wing. As Duncan took a single dribble, Leonard swept up along the arc to collect the handoff from Duncan.
While all this is going on in the backcourt, there's a ton of movement down low. Jackson ran a little misdirection play from the left block to the right, then reversed course, rubbing his defender, Pau Gasol, off Green, who set a wide base underneath the basket.
"Obviously, in that situation we want to move people around and see what we can get open-shot wise," Duncan said.
There was nothing pointed about Duncan's "obviously." It was the furthest thing from an empty qualifier and you can imagine him substituting "basically," "essentially" or even making his remark without a preceding adverb. But in SpursWorld, the notion that you'd actually want motion on the floor is patently obvious. Basketball requires a degree of deception, and movement is one of the most effective ways of achieving that.
On the surface, that brush screen from Green on Gasol appeared as if it was intended to free up Jackson, but it created separation for Green from Kobe Bryant, who was lurking underneath the hoop, still close to Green.
"I think it was a great call because Kobe always has a tendency to stay in the paint," Parker said. "They think maybe it’s a play for me or for Timmy."
Here's where it gets a bit interesting.
Duncan moved to set a down screen for Green on Bryant, and Green sprinted out to the right wing, following a path along the baseline side of the screen.
Watching the play live, the actions looked picture perfect. Duncan has set that screen a million times and does it as well as any big man alive. But after the game, Duncan insisted on setting the record straight.
"Honestly, the play was called, the play was run great -- and I missed a screen," Duncan said. "Kobe [Bryant] faked me off of one side. I went to that side. He came up the inside. I didn't actually hit him."
A review of the video confirms Duncan's confession, but Green was quick to cover for his future Hall of Famer teammate.
"He didn't miss a screen." Green said of Duncan. "He just couldn't find the man [Bryant] who was guarding me because [Bryant] was kind of roaming a little bit."
Listen to Parker and Green and it almost sounds as if the Spurs were targeting Bryant because of his propensity to rove in the painted area.
Even without a clean screen from Duncan, a quick-footed Green had enough daylight to catch the pass from Leonard to his left, turn clockwise, square his shoulders and launch the shot. Bryant couldn't close quickly enough, despite fighting through the tangle of bodies in the lane.
Spurs 84, Lakers 82. The score would hold up, as Gasol's go-ahead attempt didn't fall.
"Danny came off [the attempted screen] and decided to shoot it anyway," Duncan said. "So that’s all Danny on that one."
Rather than rely on Parker, Duncan or Ginobili, Popovich opted for Green, a young but very proficient 3-point shooter (48.3 percent coming into Tuesday).
At his locker following the game, Green was simultaneously self-deprecating and giddy, playing the whole thing a bit coy.
"It was a total accident," Green said. "[Popovich] didn't draw up anything. I just ended up with the ball somehow. And I just picked it up and shot it. Sometimes it happens that way. You get lucky."
Nobody bought Green's false modesty. He nailed a huge shot on a big stage against a bitter rival. He eventually acknowledged that the bucket was a product of inventiveness on the part of the players and their coach, but the dagger was also a product of something else.
"When [Popovich] does draw up plays for young guys like us, it’s very surprising," Green said. "We don’t expect it. It’s only, like, my second and a half or third year here. For him to draw up a play for me, there’s a lot of pressure, but you take the shot with the confidence he gives you. He encourages you. We encourage each other. And it was easy for me to take the shot and not think about it."
There’s a reason the Spurs find guys on the NBA scrap heap such as Green and sculpt them into contributors, and it's not a process that happens serendipitously. Popovich made a call dozens of other coaches resist with the game in the balance. To the Spurs, collaboration is obvious. To most other teams, it's unthinkable.
"At the end of the game, more often than not, we’ll run something that involves everybody," Popovich said. "Then you make the shot or you don’t."