SAN ANTONIO — For so long, the success of the San Antonio Spurs was accepted, even if not widely appreciated. With their small-market charm, low-maintenance stars and a coach who was sometimes charming and sometimes a curmudgeon, the Spurs were more concerned about being champions than being cool.
But as the Spurs’ offense has evolved from boring to beautiful, their staying power has attracted more admirers. Earlier this season, Washington Wizards center Marcin Gortat compared San Antonio’s offense to “listening to Mozart.”
The Spurs transitioned from a grind-it-out outfit that crossed half court and immediately looked inside to David Robinson and Tim Duncan to a group that still relied heavily on Duncan yet had the occasional improvisations of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. As Duncan began to age and Parker and Ginobili matured, Coach Gregg Popovich loosened the controls. And as Popovich realized reducing regular season minutes was going to be imperative to prolong careers, the Spurs became more concerned about how they created shots than who took them.
“That’s the beauty of Coach Pop and Timmy and everybody in this organization: We try to adapt,” Parker said. “And I think our game has arrived to a point where we can score but we can play defense. We can play any kind of style.”
Going from slow and prodding to fast and furious has yet to produce another title, but the change has helped the Spurs take a 1-0 lead over the Miami Heat in the best-of-seven NBA Finals. Game 2 is Sunday at AT&T Center.
With the assistance of league rules that eliminated hand-checking and allowed teams to play zone defenses, the Phoenix Suns of Mike D’Antoni and Steve Nash helped usher in a more entertaining, free-flowing offense that brought the game away from the slog of the 1990s and back to the fast-paced 1980s.
The Spurs were slow to change because they still had an effective Duncan-centered offense and always seemed to have the answer for the Suns in the postseason. That included a controversial second-round win in 2007 — when a Robert Horry hip-check to Steve Nash led to suspensions for Amar’e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw — en route to their fourth NBA championship.
San Antonio swept LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in a Finals that included three games in which neither team scored more than 85 points.
“We’re not as good as we used to be defensively. So if that’s going to diminish, you need to do something at the other end of the floor to make up for it,” Popovich said. “We changed our pace and the way we approach things at the other end of the floor to make up for what we’re going to lose defensively. That's the bottom line.”
Parker won the 2007 Finals MVP, and it wasn’t long before Popovich decided to put the ball more in his hands. Triggered by a substandard 2009-10 season in which the Spurs won just 50 games — the worst winning percentage in the Duncan era — and lost to the Suns in the second round, San Antonio started to become more fun, even if most casual fans were slow to recognize the change.
The offense is rooted in the basic motion tenets of the late Henry Iba and incorporates philosophies from Larry Brown and other coaches Popovich has observed over the years.
“You couldn’t be stagnant offensively and be effective. The most effective way was to break down the defense and attack,” Spurs General Manager R.C. Buford said. “That helped Manu and Tony, that Pop wanted to play with those guys. He had to give up some freedom.”
Ginobili’s whirling, tornado-like drives used to drive Popovich insane. When Popovich tried to complain, Ginbobili replied with the classic, “That’s what I do.”
“I think Pop made the adjustments because it was going to be more helpful to the team,” Ginobili said. “It made us all feel better and more part of the team. We all touch the ball. It’s more fun, more unpredictable.”
But Popovich admitted Saturday there was one request from his trio of future Hall of Famers he never could accept. “The other thing Timmy has ever demanded is he wants to play the point and he thinks I’ve held him back. True story,” Popovich said. “He thinks he’s a point guard.”
Duncan joked he might have to step back from that request after having five turnovers in Game 1, but he does enjoy making decisions from the middle of the floor. In the Spurs’ unselfish scheme, they aren’t satisfied with simply finding the open man; they want the wide-open man.
“We keep moving the ball and keep moving bodies,” Duncan said. “But it’s just about making the right decision at the right time, and it’s not always about making the right decision that gets the shot but the right decision that makes the play happen.”
The Spurs were also ahead of the rest of the league in understanding the importance of offensive efficiency and shooting the corner three-pointer, even if Popovich admits he hates the shot. “To me, it’s not basketball, but you got to use it. If you don’t use it, you’re in big trouble. But you sort of feel like it’s cheating,” Popovich said.
San Antonio has led the NBA in three-point shooting percentage in three of the past four seasons and made 13 shots in 26 attempts from long distance in Game 1. It has also ranked in the top six in scoring in each of the past four seasons. In 2008-09, the Spurs ranked 23rd. Spurs reserve Boris Diaw, who played with the quick-paced “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns for three seasons, described San Antonio’s current offense as slightly different: “It’s 10 seconds or less.”
Though the Spurs have changed aesthetically over the years, Heat reserve Shane Battier said San Antonio had another constant that has helped it remain a difficult challenge defensively over the years, no matter the style of play. “They have good players,” Battier said with a laugh. “To run good offense, you have to have good players. Whether they’re deliberate or quick, they’ve always been tough to defend.”