The NBA game, once dominated by big men, has undergone a dramatic change in recent years. By and large, it has become a motion-oriented format that values the long ball, spacing the floor and passing, and emphasizes quicker, smaller players.
The Spurs have been in the vanguard of this quantum shift. The basketball-loving world marveled at their pass-happy, “beautiful game” that produced one of the most lopsided NBA Finals ever: the redemptive 4-1 domination of the Miami Heat in the 2014 Finals.
So, when Gregg Popovich was asked before Tuesday’s game at AT&T Center if his team’s No. 29 ranking this season in points in the paint, aka scoring near the basket, meant less emphasis on the interior game, the Spurs coach didn’t know how to respond.
“There’s about 47 points of emphasis this year,” Popovich said. “Three-pointers are so important to everybody these days. Nobody wants to shoot twos any more. Everybody wants to shoot layups and threes, that kind of thing. So, we are trying not to make that the mantra, but keep defense as the mantra. Everybody does what they do based on their personnel, offensively.”
Thus far this season, that has meant mostly mid-range shots and 3-pointers.
About 90 minutes later, Popovich’s team took the court against the No. 2 team in the Eastern Conference and scored 12 of its first 18 points of a 110-82 victory within nine feet of the basket. By game’s end, 44 of the Spurs points had come in the paint, third-most in any game this season.
In large part, this was a result of veteran point guard Tony Parker’s remarkable direction of the offense in the early going, setting the tone by penetrating to the rim for his “tear drop” floater, then assisting on two of the next four baskets.
“Even when he’s not making it, you know guys are having to respect him and get to that lane,” said Kawhi Leonard, whose team-high 25 points came in just 28 minutes. “His vision to see us out there, he’s always drawing two guys, and someone’s always open.”
Leonard followed his worst shooting game of the season – 3-for-12 in a Sunday night loss to the Hawks in Atlanta – with an 8-for-12 outing that included 5-for-7 from beyond the 3-point arc. Power forward LaMarcus Aldridge continued his amazing accuracy, making 11-of-16 shots and scoring 23 points. Parker had a season-high eight assists.
Yet, nothing that happened at the offensive end was more determinant of the lopsided outcome than one of the Spurs’ most stifling defensive performances of the season.
Defense, as Popovich prefers, was the mantra, and the Spurs held a Toronto team that entered the game with the No. 1-ranked offense in the NBA to its lowest output of the season. The Raptors hadn’t scored fewer than 91 points all season, but they made only 31-of-83 shots against the Spurs, their second-lowest percentage of the season.
Fifteen of Toronto’s misses were shots that were blocked by the Spurs, the most since opening night of the 2003-04 season. Pau Gasol had four of them, a season high, and Leonard had three. The block party continued even after Popovich emptied his bench in the fourth quarter. Rookies DeJounte Murray and Davis Bertans each blocked two shots in just eight minutes of playing time.
“We contested shots, a few great blocks,” Gasol said. “Also, Dejounte and Davis, not giving up on plays, not allowing lazy dunks or layups. I think that’s great that our younger players have that type of mindset, and they compete hard no matter what. I think everyone was ready to bounce back after the tough loss we had New Years Day with intensity, more physicality, more activity on the defensive end and allow that to free up our offense. And it did.”
No Raptor felt the Spurs defensive pressure more than All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry, who entered the game with a scoring average of 22.7 points per game and left it having scored a season-low six points on 2-for-9 shooting. Lowry’s paltry total ended a streak of 144 regular season games in which he had scored in double figures.
It was enough to make a defensive minded head coach happy.
“We played with a lot of desire and a lot of fiber tonight,” Popovich said. “We executed pretty well, so it was a very good win against a good team.”