Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Tim Duncan and The San Antonio Spurs Defy Critics and Age

"Timmy has been a consummate professional from the day he got into the league. This isn't anything new for him, playing with the passion he's playing with. He loves basketball, he loves his teammates, and he decided again he needed to be more aggressive when the overtime period came." 

--Gregg Popovich, head coach of the San Antonio Spurs, discussing the high level of play that his All-Star center, Tim Duncan, has displayed as a 37-year old veteran in these 2013 NBA playoffs. Duncan was particularly effective during times that the team needed his scoring during crunch time in their playoff series with the Memphis Grizzlies. 

The San Antonio Spurs are in their fifth NBA Finals since 1999. They are 4-0 in NBA Finals. Last night, they swept the Grizzlies, a team that was expected by many to win the series. San Antonio has been in eight NBA Western Conference Finals in the last 15 years. During that time, the Spurs have had a regular season winning percentage of just over 70% and have 71 more wins that any other NBA team.  
Experience is a key factor in the Spurs success.
“We’ve been together for a long time,” first team 2013 All-NBA player Duncan said. “We have a lot of plays to work from and a lot of experience to work from.” 

Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have played in 28 playoff series together, winning 97 postseason games. Only the Los Angeles Lakers' combination of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Cooper won more.

Head Coach Gregg Popovich has experience and his confidence in his players to rely upon.

“I have a great deal of confidence in them,” coach Gregg Popovich said. They’ve earned that. They’ve been together, they’re all very competitive. They may or may not do something perfectly, but they’re going to do it to the best of their ability. That allows one to go to bed at night and deal with whatever the consequences are.”

“We don’t panic,” Tony Parker, who scored 37 points in the clinching game against the Grizzlies said after Game 3. “We know what we want to do. We made a lot of great plays at the end of the game last night.”

Ginobili described it as "corporate knowledge," an institutional memory that resides in this trio that has played together for more than a decade.

“We know how we feel without even having to say a word,” Ginobili said. “And that’s important. And we have five pieces that are very important to what we do that are new.”

As the team has aged, the Spurs have had a successful transfusion of new blood into their team. Tiago Splitter, Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green have contributed in their roles as playoff contributors of rebounding, defense and 3-point shooting. However, the core of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili keep the whole thing together.

“It’s the core group and new pieces, just being altruistic and trying to help out,” Ginobili said. “Pop being very communicative and very clear on what he wants. It’s the whole package. But of course, Tony, Tim, Pop and me, we know each other very well and it’s easy to communicate.” 

The Spurs emphasize team play, flexibility and unselfishness, a lesson that the Memphis Grizzlies will try to learn.  

“They play so well together that any adjustment we'd make, they'd make another one,” Memphis point guard Mike Conley said. “We'd play them well for about 18 seconds on the shot clock and then [Parker would] make a play. You know, that's why he's one of the best and they're headed to the Finals.”

“They hit the big shots, they got the big stops, they had an answer for every run,” Memphis' Quincy Pondexter said in admiration. “That’s a championship team. We’re going to learn from the things they do.”
“We will learn,” Memphis center Marc Gasol confirmed. “We have already started learning. They do a little bit of everything.”
“They play basketball the way it’s supposed to be played,” Pondexter continued.

As with every other Spurs team, aggressive defense is a defining element.  

“It's just effort. There's no magic,” Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich said of his interior defense. “We didn't come up with some new defense to guard them. But we were aggressive, we did a lot of denying, a lot of pressure on the passer who was trying to deliver the ball, whether it was high-low or from the wing, and we fronted and three-quartered and showed a lot of looks on the post.”
Finally, the Spurs have one meaningful intangible: motivation.  The team has a vow that keeps them focused.  The players want to win a fifth NBA championship for Tim Duncan. 
“I think everybody on the team,” Parker said, “we really wanted to do it for him.”

Excerpts from NBCsports.msnbc.com (5/28//2013) SBNation.com (5/28/2013), LAtimes.com (5/28/2013), HuffingtonPost.com (5/26/2013).ESPN.com (5/26/2013).

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Eric Spoelstra & The Miami Heat: Fighting Human Nature

"There is an objective lens.  We just need to make the most educated decisions on what's real and what wasn't real. Part of it just might have been Chicago and what they brought to the game.
"There are no shortcuts to it.  You can't cheat the game. So you have to work at it. We had a day like [Friday] where you're almost a week out from competing and you're coming off a very intense series. Your natural reaction is not to want to come in here and really get after it and sweat and condition." 
--Eric Spoelstra, head coach of the Miami Heat, discussing what he learned from the playoff series with the Chicago Bulls.

The Miami Heat were upset by the Chicago Bulls in Game 1 of their playoff series. The Heat bounced back to take 4 straight games from the Bulls to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. Spoelstra is focused on learning from that series and reviewing what went right and what went wrong during that series.  

Despite having one of the most talented teams in the NBA, Spoelstra does all that he can to fight complacency and prepare himself and his team to win. The Heat is awaiting the winner of the series between the New York Knicks and the Indiana Pacers.    

For more, click on:  "Heat Wants to be Ready for Game 1 This Time Around" (SunSentinel.com, May 17, 2013).

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Resilience: Embracing the Past, Anticipating the Future, Enjoying the Moment

After watching the first playoff game of the NBA Western Conference semifinals between the San Antonio Spurs and the Golden State Warriors, I began thinking of the significance of this series.  It was an extremely exciting game that included a career-defining performance by the Warriors' Steph Curry, a characteristically masterful and successful comeback by the San Antonio Spurs, and game-winning shot by Manu Ginobili.  The Spurs relied on their championship pedigree to maintain home-court advantage if only for the moment.  Some have said that it has been the game of this years' playoffs.    

However, what was more striking were the many similarities and only subtle contrast in playing styles of the two teams and individual stars, the personalities and philosophies of the teams and organizations. This comparison has led me to share with you an interesting snapshot of the NBA at this moment in time and, perhaps, what has contributed to my appreciation of the sport.  

The San Antonio Spurs continue to remain at the top of NBA franchises in winning tradition, success, results, and longevity.  During their long-time competitiveness, they have evolved from a tough-nosed defensive-minded team to a more well-rounded team with a more balanced approach. This approach has incorporated a speedier, smaller, more European style of play that not only incorporated that style but intelligently scouted and drafted European players to execute for them. As other franchises experience ups-and-down over the years, the Spurs consistently compete, excel and win as the times change.

By contrast, without the same tradition of winning as the Spurs, the Golden State Warriors have been become a media and fan darling this season as Steph Curry has emerged as a fearless shooter who has unlimited range and uncanny accuracy, releasing quick jump shots from distances that past players have only tried in desperate, buzzer-beating situations.

The Warriors play an up-tempo, quick-passing, quick-shooting style also mimicking the Europeans.  Unlike the Spurs mix of veterans and young players, most of the regulars on the Warriors team are quite young and inexperienced.  The Bay area fans of the Warriors seem more like a crowd one might see at a international soccer match, loud and on the verge of coming unglued after every Warrior basket or opponent mistake.  Though the Spurs fans have always been loud and enthusiastic, the Warriors fans have taken it to another level.  

What I see is the evolution of the NBA in microcosm.  Though the Spurs may or may not win this series, I can see the future of the NBA in the Warriors.  The Warriors, perhaps by design, have taken the Spurs approach one step farther than the Spurs.  While not quite equaling the discipline, structure, flow and consistency of the Spurs, the Warriors have begun to use more of the court and increase the overall range that the offense can comfortably utilize use to run, pass and shoot.  The youth, athleticism, and vision of the Warriors, modeled and led by Curry, allows for that increase. It appears more haphazard, spontaneous and chaotic than the Spurs, but that is what evolution looks like, at first.    

This process of evolution has also increased the possibilities, potential and long-range resilience of the teams in the NBA. The downside is that is has also increased the risk as more individuals playing in this environment are being felled by crippling injuries.  This is also a part of the evolution of the sport and the league.

This series could be a long, highly entertaining, competitive, contested, back-and-forth affair, with highs and lows for both teams.  The winner will be the team that can be more resilient.  The winner will be the team that can:

1.  Embrace the past and understand where they and other teams have learned from champions and where they have come from.
2.  Display flexibility and be able to adapt to what their opponents are doing, the fans are reacting to, fatigue, injury, etc.
3.  Anticipate the future and be at least a step or two ahead of their opponent.
4.  Enjoy the moment by effectively dealing with the pressure and stress of the demands and expectations of a championship playoff series.

Prediction:  Spurs in 7 games.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Panic: Abandoning The Strategy or Staying the Course

Happily, the Atlanta Braves started the season 12-1. They began Sunday with a two-game lead in the National League East. During their hot start they displayed great pitching and tremendous home run hitting. Justin Upton leads the major leagues with 12 home runs.

However, since the 12-1 start, the Braves have lost 11 of 16 games. The fans are restless and the team is questioning itself. Many people have questioned the team's power-focused, home run-or-bust mentality. As the losing slump began, Atlanta had six straight games with double-digit strikeouts, including three games in Detroit in which they totaled 39. They lead in the N.L. in strikeouts (266) and are tied for first in home runs (40).

Using this approach, the Braves' hitters are striking out 9.2 times a game, which puts them on a pace to become the second team to strike out more than 1,400 times in a season. The Braves have won just one game in which they did not hit a home run. It is not as if the Braves are undisciplined free swingers. They draw their share of walks — they are tied for fourth in the N.L.

Those that support the Braves' exciting, yet frustrating strategy, point out the fact that six-time All-Star Brian McCann has not played since off-season shoulder surgery, Jason Heyward is on the disabled list after an appendectomy, and second baseman Dan Uggla and outfielder B. J. Upton have not been hitting well at all. It is possible that when the team gets healthy, its hitting and power will reach new levels of efficiency and lead to more winning.

The team stands 17-12 with almost a fifth of the season gone. They have a .586 winning percentage.

Should the Atlanta Braves start panicking? Should they abandon the strategy upon which the team was built?

The Braves may not have another 12-1 streak in them this season. However, the organization built this team for power and pitching. They spent much time researching data, obtaining talent, and making the decision about their plan for the season. In preparation for this season, the team committed to this approach. If they built it, they should use it. It is entirely too early to change their strategy. They must show confidence in the strategy and the players they obtained to execute the strategy. The Braves should not panic.

There is a much greater risk in changing anything major at this point in the season. With this personnel, a shift in strategy is much more likely to jeopardize the entire season than would staying the course. Ride out the season. Keep the fans excitement high. Power, home runs and pitching will keep the fans coming. The challenge is in executing the plan. It is not time to abandon the strategy that plays to the strengths of the team. Keep the faith.