Spurs’ big-men trio complementing stars in series against Thunder
Get all of Rob Mahoney’s columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.
OKLAHOMA CITY — In their Game 3 victory, the San Antonio Spurs drew a meaningful distinction between lineup consistency and continuity. Some teams around the league are consistent in their endgame lineup choices; a particular five-man grouping may have the cohesive blend of talent and tendency that makes for an obvious decision. When players are accustomed to closeout conditions in a specific context, they develop a sort of kinetic shorthand. Plays develop naturally and defensive rotations feel familiar, so long as those five players are on the floor together operating toward understood ends.
Continuity, the kind that makes the Spurs the Spurs, is a different matter entirely. Consider San Antonio’s center rotation throughout Game 3. The usual starters (Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Danny Green and Tony Parker) were supported, alternatingly, by Tim Duncan, Boris Diaw and David West. It was in Duncan’s minutes with the starters that the Spurs posted the largest margin (+4). It was in Diaw’s minutes that San Antonio showed its most promising spacing and defensive switching. Then it was in West’s minutes that the Spurs ultimately sealed the game, 100–96, to take a 2–1 series lead on Friday.
That five-man lineup with West at center only played fourth-quarter minutes on seven occasions this season. The Spurs, to a man, insist it doesn’t matter. “Pop’s more about having fluidity out there,” Aldridge said. “You can plug in any guy and it’s gonna work out.”
Implicit in all of this is the fact that the Spurs have yet to clearly isolate their most reliable lineup of the three in this series. Duncan, one of the greatest basketball players of alltime, might seem the favorite. Yet Duncan’s minutes waned to 14 in Game 3 after the Thunder resolved not to defend him closely. This left Steven Adams, the man technically assigned to guard Duncan, free to roam the lane and shade the ball. The strategy fell short of an outright double-team. Think of it as a soft pressure, influencing the flow of the offense and discouraging particular lanes of attack even without snubbing it outright. Duncan did what he could to make his mark but couldn’t make the Thunder actually guard him.
While that didn’t actually cause the Spurs to lose ground in Duncan’s minutes, the dynamic did ultimately curb Duncan’s playing time. He played only an initial, seven-minute stretch to start each half in Game 3. Then came Diaw, who was given the first chance to alter San Antonio’s workings while operating in the same spots with the same responsibilities.
“I think all three of us are pretty different style of basketball player but our role is pretty much the same when we get on the floor,” Diaw said. “Try to stretch the floor, try to keep the other big away from LaMarcus when he’s playing in the post, play defense, get some boards. On a game plan, like tonight or this series, we’re pretty much doing the same thing.”
The distinction lies in skill set. Diaw can shoot just enough to keep a defender honest and thread passes through even narrow openings. What Diaw lacks as a rim protector he makes up in switchable flexibility. It’s a different look for a different scenario, which is part of the beauty of San Antonio’s operation. Players like Leonard and Aldridge have to be on the floor. Otherwise, there’s room to negotiate based on a specific nightly flow. It’s more than the hot hand; Popovich and his staff are gauging throughout the night the health of these individual lineups as distinct ecosystems.
It helps to have the kinds of equalizers that smooth over the transitions from Duncan-to-Diaw-to-West. All three are aided by terrific team rebounding, as evidenced by Leonard’s 11 boards and Parker’s eight in Game 3. San Antonio’s defensive style is also malleable enough to flow between the three without compromising, provided they do their jobs. Most important of all: None are asked to actually create offense, which then allows the Spurs bigs to act as facilitators first before filling in points in their own unique ways.
“We try to accelerate the ball when it’s coming off of double teams or things like that,” Diaw said. “Or coming off a pick-and-roll, we try to accelerate the ball to get it to the open man as quick as possible.”
All three can be trusted to make the right read. Between them, Duncan, Diaw and West have totaled 16 assists through three games—a solid five dimes or so from that position per game. All three may present different threats and look for different angles. The continuity of the system is what binds them, creating a through line from one center option to the next in a way that makes Spurs sense.
These are quieter contributions, as so many in San Antonio tend to be. West helped to shape Game 3 while scoring all of seven points. What made his minutes work were the possessions he battled three Thunder players for a rebound and still drew a loose ball foul, the time he was just poised enough to feed Aldridge in the post under pressure, and the well-timed recovery he demonstrated in guarding the pick-and-roll. This was West’s night, but he knows as well as any Spur that a new game could bring a new shuffle of the center rotation.
“I think we’re all pretty smart and pretty heady basketball players,” West said. “We’ve just gotta figure out which matchups and lineups work. I guess that was the one that worked tonight. We’ll reset and get ready for Game 4 and figure it out again then.”
On and on the rotation spins, with each contributor falling into place as the night allows. The Spurs have this luxury—one born of the system they’ve created and the facilities within it.