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Old 01-17-13, 05:32 PM
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Fluid passing keys offensive masterclass

It was late last Wednesday that Gregg Popovich, seething like we hadn’t seen this season, cut off his press availability after about three questions following a 108-105 victory over the Lakers.

There was plenty to be ticked about – Stephen Jackson’s foolish ejection, nearly blowing a 16-point lead with seven minutes left – but what really drew his ire was the lack of offensive fluidity that has become the Spurs’ trademark in recent seasons.

“I didn’t recognize that basketball team,” Popovich huffed, criticizing the lack of ball movement and shot selection before stalking back to the dressing room.

The Spurs were made to suffer through an overtime loss at Memphis before getting their groove back with a pair of victories over Minnesota and, last night, those same Grizzlies.

Wednesday’s 103-82 triumph was especially impressive considering the quality of opponent. Memphis boasts one of the league’s top defenses, a distinction boosted with rugged performances in the previous two meetings.

But the Spurs might as well have been playing against air in last night’s matchup, particularly during a blistering second quarter in which they made 16 of 20 shots en route to 38 points, their second-best period of the season.

Even as the pace cooled during a more defensive-oriented second half, the Spurs didn’t. They eventually finished with a 63.8 effective field goal percentage, more than making up for a slow tempo that produced about seven fewer possessions than they normally get.

Not surprisingly, Popovich was pleased.

“It’s the best we’ve played in about two weeks,” he said. “We’ve had a tough time putting it all together the last couple of weeks for whatever reason. The guys did a great job of moving the ball, moving bodies and not catching and holding it.”

That fluidity, such a crucial aspect of the Spurs’ offense, is typically reflected in their assist total.

Over-emphasizing assists is always a dangerous thing. It’s a subjective stat with a wildly varying degree of utility, from Magic Johnson’s spoon feeds to the ball-pounding variety of Cleveland-era LeBron James. And of course, a key ingredient is making shots. Do that, and you’re going to rack up dimes.

Take Tim Duncan, who shot 9 for 17. Although he appeared to be working a few feet further than normal, he didn’t take any noticeably different or better shots. He just hit them, even though he said afterward that his shot still feels rusty after his recent slump.

But in the case of the Spurs, who have a fleet of capable and willing passers rather than a single conductor, it’s not much of a stretch to use the assist as a benchmark for their success.

Not only do they lead the league in raw assists at 25.5 per game, their percentage of assisted baskets (63.6, per Hoops Data) is second.

The Spurs surpassed both figures against Memphis, racking up 33 on 44 makes last night for a sterling 75 percent. It marked the eighth time they have had at least 30 assists this season. Not surprisingly, the Spurs are 8-0 in those games.

They were especially effective in the second quarter. Working inside/out to near perfection, they had 14 assists on 16 baskets – eight at the rim, another in the paint, and seven on jump shots of varying distance. (See shot chart.)

This was the Spurs at their best — and they did it without Manu Ginobili, second only to Tony Parker in his importance and effectiveness as a creator.

Obviously, you’re not going to make 80 percent of your shots in a quarter very often. Indeed, it’s doubtful the Spurs will do it again this season. But as long as they can maintain the fluid ball movement that produced it, they’ll surely live with the results.

Related link: Spurs Nation
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