Thursday, October 30, 2008

Season Opener Knee-Jerk

Last night's opening loss to the Suns left me ambivalent. The Spurs didn't play all too well, and it's impossible to make meaningful judgments with so little data. It is, as they, only one game. The Spurs begin their ascent each March and, if they are to make a championship run, we should not expect anything different this year. Nevertheless, a few quick thoughts are in order.

Popovich's comical decision to hack Shaq off the opening tip was a made for television moment. More telling, however, was Popovich's decision to go to actual Hack-a-Shaq tactics at the end of the first half. The opening foul was a gesture of good will. The second series of fouls was a clear signal that the Spurs will employ the strategies they deem necessary to win. In other words, Pop juxtaposed a good-natured "ha, ha, ha" against a to the point "now shut up."

We would be remiss not to point out that the strategy was a modest success. The Spurs cut the lead from 6 to 3 before halftime. Personally, I think such strategies are a mistake and bad for the game. But you can't blame Popovich for using the rules of the league and the laws of mathematics in his coaching deliberations.

The two issues that sank the Spurs were both related to defense. Their offensive game was a little too reliant on Duncan and Parker, but with injuries to Ginobili, Oberto, Hill and Mahinmi, this is to be expected. They scored 98 points, which is plenty. Allowing the Suns to score 103 was the story of the game.

The first defensive woe is related to playing Thomas and Duncan together. Both players are solid defenders, and Duncan is arguably the best post defender in the league. Unfortunately their collective footwork is too slow to play side-by-side for long stretches. The loss of Oberto coupled with the delayed development of Mahinmi hurts the Spurs more here than anywhere else. Put simply, the Spurs do not have the defensive personnel to guard quick power forwards, let alone Amare Stoudemire. The most important plays of the game were both defensive break downs on this front: Thomas' foul that resulted in an "And 1" for Stoudemire and a failed rotation by Duncan on a pick and roll that resulted in a powerful dunk for Amare.

The second problem is related to the first. As Gregg Popovich remarked after the game, "It was the worst transition defense I’ve seen in years. I can’t imagine how bad it was. We didn’t rebound. It was our poorest performance in the preseason up until this time. It was very disappointing.” As a team, the Spurs did not get back. While the first defensive issue is personnel-related and could be an on-going issue, this one will resolve itself in quick order. The Spurs routinely boast the best transition defense in the league, and it's a core principal for Popovich. They'll practice themselves into better form.

On offense, Parker and Duncan were in mid-season stride. I don't think Duncan used the same move twice and he hit from everywhere. In games like this he reminds us why he is such a difficult assignment. But more importantly, Roger Mason played exceptionally well considering this was his first official game in the system. It's worth noting that Mason finished the game on the floor. If you're looking for one reason to be encouraged by this loss, Mason provided it. If you're looking for a second reason, here it is: +13. Ime Udoka led the team in plus/minus.

Mason's good play and the sturdy performance by Udoka ought to be enough to mitigate Finley's minutes in the short term and relegate him to the bench once Ginobili returns. Popovich likes Fin's professionalism, knowledge of the system and ability to hit off the mid-range curl, but Mason is a better player in every respect, especially as a ball handler and defender.

To my mind, this is all secondary. The Spurs storyline of the night occurred in New York and Houston. Many have questioned the Spurs draft selection of George Hill in what was a critical off season for extending their championship window. By selecting Hill, the Spurs passed on Darrell Arthur and Mario Chalmers. Chalmers started at point guard for the Heat, and in a high scoring affair he put up 17, 8, and 7 with only 1 turnover. Arthur came off the bench to provide 11 points, 15 boards and 2 blocks in a loss to Houston. Arthur is also the sort of quick and lean front court body the Spurs could use. George Hill was impressive this preseason, but time will tell whether or not the the front office brass misfired in drafting him. Based on his recent play, I have high expectations of Hill. But it's hard to argue with the numbers of Chalmers and Arthur.

Chad Ford, call your office.