The San Antonio Spurs outscored the Phoenix Suns 35-13 in the opening quarter and never looked back in their 105-91 win Saturday night at the AT&T Center. The game was far more lopsided than the final score would suggest as San Antonio held a 20-plus point lead for much of the game.
Steve Nash played the opening six minutes of the game, but never returned as coach Alvin Gentry saw this one getting away from the Suns early and chose to rest his 38-year old point guard. The Spurs shot 53 percent from the field and 50 percent from beyond the arc as they torched the Suns’ defense with their ball movement and penetration.
The most interesting thing about this game was the difference between the two offenses. The Suns were constantly moving without the ball but had a hard time getting open. The Spurs moved very little without the ball, and seemed to be wide open on every play. What led to this dichotomy? The answer is spacing.
The Suns were consistently initiating their offense below the top of the key. The perimeter players were on or inside the 3-point line on almost every possession. This clogged driving lanes and prevented penetration. Without spacing the Suns’ pick-and-roll couldn’t be effective because it drew two defenders into a small space with no room to maneuver for the ball handler or the screener. Initiating the offense at such a low point on the court also led to 12 turnovers – all steals by the Spurs. San Antonio’s defenders were able to gamble when Phoenix tried to swing the ball from one side of the floor to the other because the angle of the pass was so flat. The Suns shot themselves in the foot offensively by choosing to operate in such a small amount of space. This is something they’ll see quite clearly in the game film and must correct going forward.
On the other side of the court, the Spurs’ spacing was perfect. San Antonio’s standard set was a “1-4 Low” where the point guard started three to four feet beyond the 3-point line and the other four players began the play close to the baseline. This setup created a huge gulf of open court between the ball handler and the rest of the team and provided a ton of room for the ball handler to operate.
The Spurs would initiate this offense with Duncan in a pick-and-roll or straight dribble penetration. When the Suns showed in help defense, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili did a great job hitting the open man — either Tim Duncan or a shooter on the perimeter. Because of the distance the Suns’ help defender was forced to cover, there was no chance of him closing out on his original man. The Spurs had wide open looks all night long — especially starting rookie Kawhi Leonard, who was 3-for-3 from downtown. In addition, most of Tim Duncan’s 19 points came off plays where Marcin Gortat was forced to help or rotate to another player and was late in recovering to Duncan.
When Gortat did matchup with Duncan one-on-one, he never closed out on him hard. In fact, the first and only Sun to close out hard on Duncan, get into his body, and make him uncomfortable was Ronnie Price with 2:40 left in the second quarter (Duncan missed the shot badly.) Marcin gave Duncan far too much room to operate and Tim made him pay for it with 13 points in the first quarter and 19 for the game.
Duncan, despite being in his 15th season, is still an incredibly efficient and effective scorer when he faces up. He connected on three jumpers while Gortat was guarding him as well as a nifty one-dribble move to the middle for a three-point play. On the defensive end, Duncan held Gortat to six points (3-for-12 from the field) and seven rebounds.
One quick note on Marcin: he is fading quite a lot on his jumper. Instead of engaging his legs and jumping straight up in the air, Marcin is jumping backward on every single jumper whether or not there is a chance of his shot being blocked. This motion flattens out his shot and decreases his shooting percentage. In this game, it was clear he was afraid of Duncan’s defense, but I’ve also observed this trend in his shot against smaller defenders as well. The 10-15 foot jumper is a key part of Gortat’s game as it forces defenders to play him out that far and gives him the opportunity to use his quick feet and strong body to score inside. If that jumper becomes a weakness, his overall offensive game will suffer.
Getting back to the Suns’ poor defensive showing, it is clear to me that San Antonio had the best ball movement of any Suns opponent this season. But this is only half the story of Phoenix’s awful performance tonight. The other half is exhaustion. Tonight was the final game of a four-game road trip. Phoenix has also played its last eight games in eight different cities. Coach Alvin Gentry tweeted after the game: “Spurs jumped on us early. We were never in the game. Tired legs after being on the road for 2 wks. Have to regroup for Mon.”
It was apparent from the outset the Suns did not have the energy to compete tonight. While San Antonio had a day off to prepare for this game, Phoenix’s legs were beat from a tough win in Houston last night. This was evident not just in Phoenix’s defensive sluggishness, but also in its offensive execution.
The Suns hit only two of their 16 attempts from beyond the arc. They were also terrible finishing at the rim. The Suns missed at least 15 shots at the rim. Some of these were well defended, but others were just out and out misses. The one thing the Suns had going was their mid-range game. The areas where they came up short are the types of shots that require the most legs. They were beat, ready to get back home, and it showed on the court.
The sole highlight of this game was the effort given by the reserves. Robin Lopez, Markieff Morris, Sebastian Telfair, and Michael Redd weren’t on the floor when the Spurs came out swinging for the fences in the first quarter, and thus they weren’t shell-shocked like the starters. Gentry put these four and Grant Hill on the floor just before the halfway point of the opening period, pulling all the starters off the floor. Every moment they were on the floor, they hustled and gave 100 percent.
The best example of this effort was the 10-0 run led by Telfair that cut the Spurs’ lead, which was once 28 points, down to 13 with 2:21 left to play. Phoenix was never going to win this game. That was apparent early, but Telfair and Redd never stopped attacking. Redd finished the night with 13 points. Telfair had perhaps his best line of the season with 21 points, six rebounds, four assists, three steals and only two turnovers in 31 minutes.
The good news for the Suns, if they can take anything good away from this blowout loss, is that they got two crucial road wins on this trip. After playing a huge stretch of games away from home over the last three and a half weeks, the Suns now have five of their last six at home. The sooner they can put tonight’s game out of their mind, the better off they will be.
Phoenix is currently 1 1/2 games behind Houston and Denver, the seventh and eighth seeds in the Western Conference. On Monday, the Suns will face a Portland team that just lost its best player.
If they hope to win that matchup and continue pushing for a playoff berth, they must dismiss this defeat as just a bad dream, wake up tomorrow, and move on.