Spurs' minor lineup adjustment helps usher in major change in result
Amidst the wild swings of the Western Conference finals, the most obvious tactical change in the Spurs' Game 5 rout was a matter of form. Two disheartening losses in a row had nudged Gregg Popovich to change San Antonio's starting lineup for the first time this postseason: Tiago Splitter was brought off the bench, while sharpshooting big man Matt Bonner started to help better space the floor. The change was less an indictment of Splitter and more a concession that his pairing with another traditional big (Tim Duncan) might not be feasible against a hyper-athletic team fueled by Serge Ibaka's shot blocking.
There was ample evidence to support that notion. The tenor of the entire series shifted with Ibaka's return to the lineup in Game 3, which coincided with San Antonio's free-flowing offense taking a turn for the arduous. Not only can Ibaka's impact be measured quantitatively (the Thunder outscored the Spurs by 11.7 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor in Games 3 and 4, relative to being outscored by 25 points per 100 possessions when he sat), but his influence is palpable. His presence caused Tony Parker to veer through less direct courses and attempt more difficult shots. Oklahoma City's other defenders were more disruptive in knowing they had an eraser behind them. All fell into place for the Thunder with Ibaka holding down the middle, particularly when the crowded combination of Duncan and Splitter empowered Ibaka to help so readily.
The thinking behind the Spurs' lineup response worked more or less as intended, though Popovich later had to replace Bonner with Boris Diaw to achieve the desired effect. Through those adjustments San Antonio managed its most efficient offensive outing of the series. It's team defense, too, dramatically improved, all while Duncan and Splitter didn't share the court for a single second. It's not as if players like Diaw or Bonner are so superior to Splitter as to explain the 51-point difference in the outcomes of Games 4 and 5. Their skill sets simply enabled San Antonio to make a series of relatively modest adjustments.
The beauty of basketball is that even those slight changes can make game-changing ripples in ways we might not expect. Countless parts and variables make up the system within the game, all of which are interrelated in some capacity. Some of the tradeoffs are rather direct and some more subtle, though rare are those aspects of the game that are truly separate.
Take, for example, this development: After sprinting out to 21 fast-break points in Game 4, Oklahoma City managed just four points on the break in Game 5. This is not a coincidence; clearly there was some broader emphasis for San Antonio to get back in transition, though the players' ability to do so was very much linked to the aforementioned lineup change. Consider this sequence from Game 4, in which a cramped post-up by Splitter is swatted away by Ibaka:
The problems posed by playing two traditional bigs against the Thunder do not end with a botched offensive possession. At the time of the block, Duncan, Splitter and Parker all wind up in the lower defensive box. This allows Oklahoma City to treat Ibaka's swat as a shot from a starting pistol; Kevin Durant, Reggie Jackson and Ibaka immediately trigger into a 3-on-2 break, which ends with an Ibaka finish as Splitter trails behind.
The overlap of Splitter and Duncan's offensive skills lends itself to this kind of breakdown. Both can dabble a bit on the perimeter, but neither demands enough defensive attention that far from the hoop to justify loitering much in that space. As a result, many San Antonio possessions -- whether ended by a shot attempt or turnover -- conclude with Splitter and Duncan both deep in the paint and a shooter or two nestled into the corners. Once Oklahoma City was able to make stops, the Thunder athletes tore through that formation to pile up points in transition.
Contrast that arrangement with this sequence from Game 5, where -- thanks to Diaw operating from the top of the floor -- there were three Spurs above the break at the time of the turnover:
Russell Westbrook immediately looked to push the pace after gaining possession, but slowed before even reaching half-court. The reason was floor balance; the sheer number of Spurs retreating acted as a deterrent to fast breaking, even though San Antonio had committed the kind of turnover that might otherwise allow for a transition opportunity. The Spurs saw the same defensive benefit when Bonner was on the floor:
And later when they went even smaller with Marco Belinelli playing in place of a big:
The transition influence didn't stop there. In this more spacious alignment, San Antonio was able to steer clear of Ibaka more often, reducing the potential for blocked shots and quick reversals. The Spurs' spacing also helped relieve the Thunder's defensive pressure across the board, protecting against those perimeter turnovers that fuel fast breaks. Oklahoma City didn't just score far less in transition as a result in Game 5, but had about half as many transition opportunities altogether relative to Games 3 and 4, per Synergy Sports. This is how specific playoff gains are often made -- not with some major adjustment, but through the redistribution of relatively minor resources.
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