Friday, January 9, 2009

The Notebook: Clippers-Spurs, 1-8-09

I watched much of last night's Clippers game in disbelief over Mike Dunleavy's defensive strategies. In the first half, Dunleavy doubled Duncan with a guard, allowing Roger Mason to set up unattended behind the 3 point line. The Clippers were fortunate not to get burned on those possessions--San Antonio is the best 3 point shooting team in the league at .406, and Mason is a big part of that. But Dunleavy went from questionable double-teams to outright absurdity in the 2nd half. Kevin Arnovitz writes:
Realizing the Clippers don’t have a lot to work with, I’m not sure that a zone is a viable defensive option against San Antonio. With all their firepower from beyond the arc, the Spurs can stretch a zone silly, which is exactly what they do to begin the second half down one to the Clippers[.]
Kevin goes on to detail the horror, but suffice to say that San Antonio's 1 point halftime deficit was converted into a 22 point victory by more than strong play from the team--they got a little help from the other bench. The Spurs finished the game at only 37.9% from the arc, but 4 of their 11 makes came at timely points in the 3rd quarter, and 3 of those were on wide open Mike Finley shots against the zone. But a more telling stat is that Duncan had 9 assists in 31 minutes. He simply picked apart the defensive sets thrown at him, or, should I say, laid at his feet.

In short, I wasn't too impressed with Dunleavy, but we'll give him a mulligan because his roster is completely riddled with injury. On a bright note, Al Thornton and Eric Gordon are dynamite young players.

From a Spurs perspective, I was pleased to see Pop rest the Big 3. Ginobili played a couple minutes to start the 4th quarter (unlike Parker and Duncan, he did not start the 2nd half), but the 3 stars were more or less done after the 3rd. Duncan, Parker and Ginobili finished with 31, 30, and 26 minutes respectively.

My appreciation for George Hill and Roger Mason Jr. continues to grow. Setting aside their numbers, I love that each player plays "within himself." Each player does this well, although "playing within themselves" looks worlds different depending on who you are watching.

Roger Mason is a wide-eyed gunner. If you give him a shaft of daylight, there is a strong chance he'll shoot the ball. But that's fine. He plays best when he's aggressive and looking for his shot, and he's a great shooter. The Spurs want him to score. Midway through the 4th quarter, Spurs fans were graced us with a classic Mace moment: Kurt Thomas provided a screen at 27 or 28 feet that Mason barely dribbled beyond before drilling a deep 3. Popovich would mangle every player on the team for taking that shot, with the exception of Mason and Ginobili.

George Hill, on the other hand, is nearly Mason's opposite. He plays "within himself" by not forcing the action. He's amazingly patient and composed for a rookie. He simply orchestrates the offense and waits for good shots to find him. When they do, he typically makes good on the opportunities. Last night he scored 6 points in 18 minutes, on 3-5 shooting. But he didn't play the game much differently than Monday night's showing in Miami, where he had 15 points in 17 minutes. Monday's game was more impressive, don't get me wrong, but in both cases he let the action come to him.

It isn't surprising, then, that Mason and Hill's greatest strengths are also their greatest weaknesses, and this is especially the case with Hill. Occasionally, Mason needs to restrain his lust to shoot by resetting the offense or feeding a teammate. Hill, on the other hand, needs to attack more often. On a team that is lousy at getting to the foul line, the Spurs would benefit from a little more selfishness from Hill. He's one of their best players at getting to the stripe.

I'm confident that, as the season progresses, each player will nuance their games in these ways. By resting his core, Popovich is carefully providing minutes for newcomers Mason and Hill, who look more comfortable by the minute. In the past, the Spurs have been known to disappear on offense, entering into half-quarter or quarter-long stretches of anemic production. This team is different. With Mason, Hill, and Finley the team now has viable 4th, 5th, and 6th scorers. They're not a juggernaut just yet, but they're picking up steam. The Spurs have won 15 of their last 18 heading into an extremely difficult stretch of games. In some ways, that much anticipated drive to five starts Sunday night against Orlando. The Spurs, says Jeff Saragin, are ranked 30th in terms of strength of schedule. That's about to change.

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