With their 102-99 victory Sunday night over the Los Angeles Clippers, the San Antonio Spurs are now 8-0 in the playoffs and have won 18 games in a row. Game 4 was only the second time this postseason they didn’t win by double digits. Quite frankly, the Spurs are unstoppable right now.
The Spurs went 50-16 on the season, tied for the best record in the league with the Chicago Bulls. If you take out January where they went 10-8, they were 40-8 on the season. Going even further, you can eliminate three other games where their starters sat, giving them a record of 40-5.
So how do you beat a team that seemingly never loses? Looking back at the regular season, there are a few statistical similarities in the games they did lose, though there isn’t a large set of data with which to determine trends. Some of these losses likely occurred because head coach Gregg Popovich elected to rest many of his starters or because Manu Ginobli was out with an injury. Sitting their starters has helped kept the likes of Tony Parker and Tim Duncan remain healthy and fresh for these playoffs, and thus far the results have more than validated this decision.
As stated, many of their losses occurred so long ago and did not feature their current personnel, so our analysis will focus primarily on their three true losses over the past two months against the LA Lakers, Dallas Mavericks, and Denver Nuggets.
First, in each of these games San Antonio lost the rebounding margin. This advantage was particularly evident in their loss against the Lakers, who were without Kobe Bryant. In that game, Andrew Bynum pulled down 30 rebounds, and as a whole the Lakers outrebounded the Spurs 60-33. In the other two games, they were outrebounded by an average of 11. The Spurs do not beat you with their size, so it would seem that accomplishing this task would be easy. But given how effective they are on offense, there aren’t a lot of missed shots, and overall they posted a +1.8 rebounding margin for the season (how many rebounds they get compared to how many they give up.)
Another trend in these losses was the amount of three-pointers the opposition hit. In two of the three games, the opposing team hit ten plus three-pointers, the exception surprisingly coming against the Nuggets, who hit seven three-pointers. The Spurs three-point shooting has been well-documented this season, where they shot a league leading 39% from behind the arc. They have pushed this number to a ridiculous 42% during the playoffs.
Given these numbers, it is exceedingly difficult to out-shoot the Spurs from three-point range, but if you are able to equal or exceed the amount they make, it will at least give you a shot at beating them as evident by these losses.
Also common amongst these losses was a willingness to share the ball. In these games, the opposition averaged 21 assists per game. The Spurs themselves averaged 23.5 assists in these games, so it’s not as though the goal is to simply share the basketball more, but, rather, sharing the ball allows a team to diversify their offense.
Following this idea of sharing the ball, the Spurs’ opponents in each game had five or more scorers in double figures. This essentially recreates the style of offense the Spurs are used to beating teams with themselves. The problem is unless a team runs an offense that is predicated on sharing the ball such as the Bulls or Celtics, such even-handed scoring is very difficult to sustain over the course of a playoff series.
Gregg Popovich has instituted this change from a defensive oriented team to an offensive juggernaut, and the Spurs have been extremely successful adjusting to it. Not many teams in the league could turn Boris Diaw into a quality starter, nor Danny Green, who was almost out of the league after last season.
These stats are by no means a sure-fire way to beat the Spurs, but rather show areas on which Oklahoma City should focus their efforts. Thus far in the playoffs, the Spurs have not faced a team who is able to do this on a consistent basis. Against the Utah Jazz, the third best rebounding team in the league, the Spurs were consistently outrebounded, but the Jazz were completely deficient in the other areas discussed. In Game 3 against the Clippers, where the Spurs needed a 24-0 run to comeback and take the lead, LA outrebounded and distributed the ball more, but they only hit three 3-pointers and only three players scored in double figures.
The Spurs will face-off against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Conference Finals after their 4-1 series victory over the Lakers. These teams met three times over the season with the Spurs going 2-1, but Manu Ginobli did not play in any of the games. In the game San Antonio lost, the Thunder outrebounded them, hit eight three-pointers, had six scorers in double digits, and notched 25 assists. In the two losses, they were outrebounded and distributed the ball less.
During these matchups, the Spurs averaged 105.7 points per game, a full 2.7 points higher than their season average. The Spurs also shot 51.9% from three compared to their season average of 39.3%. Both of these teams are coming into their matchup playing extremely well, and it can be argued that this matchup actually features the two best teams in the league. If any team should be able to match the offensive efficiency of the Spurs, as well as accomplish the things the prior teams mentioned did, it is the Thunder.
Many people criticize the Spurs for playing a boring brand of basketball, yet they are the most efficient and highest-scoring team in the league. They have 34 wins by double-digits and haven’t lost in over two months. It’s a shame they receive such little publicity because, right now, no team is more well-coached nor playing at a higher level.
You can bet the impending series between the Spurs and Thunder will be some of the most exciting basketball of the season.