Google "Spurs offense." "Spurs sets," or "Spurs principles" and you get results akin to looking for the chupacabra or Loch Ness Monster; there are lots of theories and hypotheses and maybe a couple of pictures, but nothing definitive. Nothing that says, "this is how a team whose best players are way past their primes made it look easy against the two-time defending champs." You can watch YouTube videos until your eyes bleed and you're just left muttering to yourself as Boris Diaw toys with LeBron James out there. Patty Mills is just that good. Tiago Splitter is just that good. It doesn't make sense and yet, it happened and it's been happening for the better part of two decades.
You're afraid of what you don't understand, but you figure no team can play like the Spurs play and if they can put together a run like that every so often, so be it. Let them have their championships, right? But then the head coach of your favorite team mentions at Media Day that he wants to play like San Antonio this year and your head explodes:
"Every team at some point will refer to the beauty of the Spurs playing basketball last year, but as you look at what makes them so good--they run great actions--but there are so many reads and looks that they make off of those and they're playing basketball. If you look at not only them but the best teams throughout the years here, a lot of people will refer to that '86 team as a great passing team, a team that always made each other better, a team that always made the right basketball play.
There's a fine line. You can't script everything as a coach. This is a game that's played fast and the more options you can give on the fly, the better. I think part of my job as far as the development side of things is to get these guys in the position where they can learn, grow, read, and make plays on the fly and that's what I want to see. I want us to be not a scripted, grind it out, call a set every time down the floor. I want us to be a read-and-react, there are five options on each little action, and let's go. That's the way I look at the game."
Frankly, we saw this coming. During off-season check-ins and certainly from the player interviews at last Monday's Media Day, you could tell that there was a concerted effort to a man to become better all around players. A lot of the Celtics were specialists before Brad Stevens was hired, but Stevens used last season to gauge his players' skill sets and challenged them to use the off-season to expand their game.
Jeff Green mentioned working on his ball handling. James Young talked about being able to score from every spot on the floor rather than just being a spot up shooter. Avery Bradley started the summer working on finishing at the rim and getting to the free throw line. Brandon Bass extended his range and if his Instagram account doesn't lie, might even put it on the floor a little more. These improvements might seem small in the grand scheme of things. With a team that lost 57 games last year, how much can a Brandon Bass corner three or an inefficient Jeff Green with a better handle help?
Well, a lot actually.
Before the Spurs Game 5 clinching win against the Heat, San Antonio was brimming with confidence with Miami on their heels:
"There's nobody that's not in play," Ray Allen said. "For us, you have to guard a man-and-a-half, sometimes two men, in a possession."
"Everybody's dangerous on our team," Boris Diaw explained. "Everybody can score at any time. It's not like a pattern, like some times you do scouting on a team and you say ‘Who's the head of the snake, who's the guy who's going to score?' You keep them from scoring and you're going to win the game. With us it's a little bit different, anybody can score on any given night. You saw that during the whole regular season. One night Patty Mills is the leading scorer on our team, some times it's Danny (Green), sometimes it's Tony (Parker), sometimes it's Manu (Ginobili), sometime's it's Tim (Duncan). It can be anyone."
That's the well oiled machine of the San Antonio Spurs on their way to their 5th world championship. It seems unfair to compare them to these Celtics, but even Popovich recognized the patient team rebuilding that Stevens and Danny Ainge had in place in Boston.
With a week of training camp under their belt, we've been hearing a lot about "pace & space" in a "read-and-react" offense with, as Stevens hinted to, "five options on each action." You could see some of that from Friday's scrimmages. Our friends over at RedsArmy.com have great footage of the open practice. Even though it was just an intrasquad exhibition played at 3/4 speed, you can see glimpses of what the team is working on: lots of perimeter action, lots of high pick-and-rolls, lots of penetration off the dribble. The ball moves quickly between players, from the ball handler to the weak side perimeter option, reading the defense and making a decision. Every pass is instantly followed by a cut. Nothing is scripted, but every movement is decisive and probing. You can see the versatility that players worked on this summer paying dividends now in training camp and hopefully in tonight's exhibition game against the Sixers and more so into the regular season.
Before NBA blogger extraordinaire Sebastian Pruiti moved on to a position with the Oklahoma City Thunder, he was a whiz at breaking down X's and O's. In one of his last posts for Grantland, he illustrated just how well the Spurs executed their offense and I wanted to expand on that example to highlight the different options there were at each action and show how it could fit Boston's personnel.
In this set, Sullinger and Olynyk start in the Horns formation with both bigs above the free throw line. As Olynyk sets a high screen for Rondo, Sullinger hard cuts to the opposite low block. With only a few seconds off the shot clock, a couple of options are now available to Rondo (with his defender presumably picked). If Sullinger can seal his defender on the back door, Rondo has an open lane for an entry pass or a drive for himself. If Bradley's defender shades over, AB has the corner the three. If Olynyk's defender hedges the pick, Rondo has a pick-and-pop three with KO wide open.
Traditionally in a read-and-react offense, Rondo's next pass would be to the closest perimeter player. In this case, it's Bradley in the corner or back to Olynyk at the top. Rondo's next movement would be to cut through the lane and run a goal post route to the rim, clearing his defender from the strong side. The theory is that you're constantly forcing the defense to make a decision and in turn, making a decision off their decision. Every defender needs to feel like they're covering John Havlicek so by the fourth quarter, they're run ragged.
In the Pruiti example, Parker makes the quick pass to Duncan and instead of cutting across the lane, opts to down screen for Danny Green and take his spot in the corner. Now, TD is Hall-of-Famer, but not a threat to hit that three, but in Olynyk's case, his defender would have to honor that shot and contest KO's three. That's the advantage a long range shooting big in this kind of motion offense. We'll see it over and over again all season. If Olynyk or Sullinger can consistently hit that shot like they did at Friday's scrimmage, it'll open up the middle for drivers like Rondo, Green, Marcus Smart, Gerald Wallace, and Evan Turner.
This is where the read-and-react gets tricky, not only for the defenders, but for the offense, too. Olynyk's defender is now off balance. He's just made the decision to either ice Rondo, drop back in coverage, or face up on Olynyk. Either way, he's in movement. Olynyk can take advantage of that moment's indecision by either a) putting the ball on the floor and driving (like the ex-PG but now capable seven-foot center he is), b) hit Bradley coming off the screen, or c) dribble hand off to Bradley or Green and create a rub screen-and-roll.
And here's where the Spurs are brilliant. Pop and his players are masters of the misdirection. With the strong side overloaded with four players, their defenders have to be aware of their every movement. Green (Ginobili in Pruiti's case) is left all alone with his defender on the weak side wing and seemingly out of the play. If Olynyk sees that Green's defender is playing back, he could pass Green the ball and set up a pick-and-roll or dribble hand off to him.
In Pruiti's example, Ginobili's defender, an aggressive Eric Bledsoe, plays up on Manu to deny the pass. This is where Green has the option to read-and-react. He can either use Olynyk and curl for the dribble hand off or cut to the rim (which Manu does). Ginobili gets the lay up cutting back door, but with the defense collapsing, he could have also hit a crashing Leonard (Sullinger) or three from Parker (Rondo) or Green (Bradley). With every different ball handler and every off-ball action, the play is a good example of using a number of players' ability to read the defense whether they have the ball or not.
Tim Duncan is headed into his 18th season with Popovich (his 14th with Parker and 13th with Ginobili) and we can talk about how they benefit from a chemistry perfected over the year, but what made the Spurs so good in that moment and has made them perennial contenders virtually every year since Popovich took over is the simple theory that the sum of their parts is greater than the whole. Alone, they may not be the offensive juggernaut of Melo or Durant, but working together, they are basketball's Voltron. Every season and occasionally at the trade deadline, the Spurs re-tool with players whose biggest strength isn't necessarily their jump shot or athleticism; it's their willingness to buy into the Spurs way. This may seem like a new concept for the new Celtics, but the Spurs Way has been embedded in Celtics tradition and woven into every banner since Russell & Cousy to Bird, McHale, & Parish to Pierce & KG. The rebuild starts in earnest tonight.
Tip off against the Sixers is at 7:30 pm.