Perfect formula: The hazmat team
Finding the perfect formula
Posted: May 10, 2005
OK, so you flunked chemistry. Perhaps you can't tell an ion from iced tea. Maybe you're a moron when it comes to boron. No problem. This is the NBA, and the chemistry lessons here are different than what you might remember from Chem 101.
Just trust the league's master chemist, Gregg Popovich, the guy who puts together and coaches the Spurs. Over the course of seven years as championship contenders, the Spurs have been aces when it comes to chemistry tests. This season -- one in which the Spurs finished with the second-best record in the league (59-23), dropped their first playoff game to Denver, then buzzed the Nuggets in five -- certainly has been no different.
"Things are going to happen over the course of a year," says Spurs forward Bruce Bowen. "But we have always been able to deal with whatever comes up."
This year's litany of things that have come up includes two new starters, one (center Nazr Mohammed) added at the February trading deadline and another (shooting guard Brent Barry) after the first game of the playoffs. But change has little effect on the Spurs. Popovich quickly drills new players in the Spurs way, making transition periods quick and seamless.
How else could the Spurs have lost star forward Tim Duncan for 12 games late in the season and still have gone 8-4? How else could they have brought in Glenn Robinson, a player unwanted in Philadelphia because of selfishness, just 20 days before the postseason and turn him into a productive reserve? How else could Popovich -- gasp! -- bench All-Star shooting guard Manu Ginobili during the playoffs and, rather than inciting a major player protest, wind up with Ginobili happily accepting his role?
As the Spurs opened their second-round series against the Sonics, the on-court results of their chemistry were obvious. San Antonio wanted to focus on limiting Ray Allen, the highest-scoring player in the postseason's first round. With just 2 minutes gone in the first quarter of Game 1, Bowen was manning Allen, but Duncan and Mohammed were watching him, too. When Allen tried to use a double screen on the baseline to pop open and receive the ball, Duncan ran out to cover him, keeping Allen from even sniffing a pass. Thus, the tone was set for the Spurs' 103-81 victory.
"That's what this team does," says forward Robert Horry. "We have each other's backs. There is not a single selfish player here."
The absence of selfishness is the most important element of Popovich's very impressive mix of chemistry. Ah, but there is much more to this lesson.
TIM DUNCAN: Iron ore
Earth's most important mineral makes up the planet's core and yields its toughest and most useful metals -- iron and steel.
At the core of the Spurs is Duncan. He has carved out his niche as an anti-superstar, a player devoid of bravado, one who prefers midrange bank shots to rim-rattling dunks. He does not thump his own chest, unless, perhaps, he has a cough.
But no star player leads by example better than Duncan, and the playoffs have been proof of his toughness. He sprained his right ankle three times this season -- the last and worst sprain in late March sent him to the injured list for 12 games. His teammates estimate he is operating at about 80 percent, and Popovich says he doesn't expect to have a fully healthy Duncan until next season.
Care to guess how many times Duncan has mentioned the ankle after a poor showing? "Not once," Horry says. "You'd never know he was injured."
You'd also never know he was a superstar. Although he is a two-time MVP and a maximum-contract player, Duncan demands no special treatment. In Game 3 of the Spurs' first-round series against the Nuggets, Duncan clearly was hurting from the start -- he was drubbed defensively, allowing six points by Denver's Kenyon Martin in the first four minutes. Popovich lit into Duncan for his lack of defense in a way most coaches simply can't talk to their stars. Duncan accepted the criticism without complaint. His impact on the team's chemistry is clear.
"How many guys can a coach sit down and talk to like that?" says Sonics guard Antonio Daniels, Duncan's teammate in San Antonio for four years. "The other guys know if he talks to Tim that way, he is going to talk to everyone that way, and you had just better accept it. That is a great thing."
Even with the bum ankle, Duncan has been effective. He struggled at times in the team's opening series, but he has gotten stronger as the playoffs have gone on, and his 39-point, 14-rebound effort in Game 4 of the first round stands out as one of the most remarkable performances of the postseason. Even when his scoring has been unreliable, he still has drawn double-teams and has made exceptional passes out of the post.
As Popovich described the Spurs' offense in the early stages of the playoffs: "We don't know what the hell we're doing. But giving the ball to Tim Duncan is smart."
A reactive gas that attacks other chemicals and, in the stratosphere, protects the planet from ultraviolet rays.
Attack and protect -- that sums up San Antonio's defense. No team is more focused on keeping offenses from penetrating the paint than the Spurs -- and no team is more successful. During a season in which NBA scoring bounced higher, the Spurs' "D" allowed just 88.4 points per game, fewest in the league.
That did not change in the first round of the playoffs -- San Antonio limited Denver to 41.7 percent shooting. "It's hard to find holes," Allen says. "Them and Detroit; they have the two defenses that you know nothing is going to come easy."
San Antonio's defense starts inside with Duncan and Mohammed, a pair of 7-footers with shot-blocking skills (the Spurs ranked second in the league with 6.6 blocks per game). The guards attack ballhandlers aggressively and funnel them toward the baseline. If the guards get beat, the big guys help. That's where the Spurs' chemistry really kills opponents -- San Antonio has the crispest, most precise rotations and help defense in basketball.
"It's something that we work on from the first day," Tony Parker says. "We come into training camp, and the coaches start saying, right away, 'This is how we are going to play defense.' They make it clear."
MANU GINOBILI: Nitroglycerin
This is one of the most explosive chemical mixtures known to man, the stuff that makes dynamite blow. What good is chemistry if you can't use it to blow things up every now and then?
Blowing things up is the specialty of the Spurs' packet of Argentine TNT. Ginobili's combination of athleticism, defensive intensity, shooting skill and psychotic lefthanded forays to the rim make him the best player in the postseason when it comes to exploding the tempo of a game. Ginobili complains about the slow pace of NBA games, especially in the playoffs. "Sometimes it takes awhile for the game to get going," he says. "I want it to be always going."
Ginobili's first-round numbers -- a team-high 22.8 points per game, 45.5 percent 3-point shooting, 6.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists -- demonstrate how varied his game has become. But the most important number from that first round was this: 50. That's how many free throws Ginobili shot in five games against the Nuggets, which caused Denver coach George Karl to complain that Ginobili's style is little more than "just put your head down and run into people."
There is some validity to Karl's complaint -- Ginobili attacks the basket at odd angles and often initiates contact. But that is what makes Ginobili so explosive. His ability to get to the line simply is a result of the pressure a defense faces against a player as aggressive and skilled as Ginobili.
"The best way to keep him off the line is to keep the ball out of his hands," says Sonics coach Nate McMillan. "We have to keep pressure on him so he can't hold the ball. Once he has the ball, though, you have got to keep your body in front of him because he is quick and he is fearless. If you don't, you wind up just swinging at him. But either way, he is going to go to the basket and draw contact."
And that only makes Ginobili more dangerous. "Every team would love to have a guy like Manu," Barry says, "because he comes in and the game changes immediately. You can get some momentum going real quick."
TONY PARKER: Isooctane
Mix gasoline with the right number of hydrocarbons and you get isooctane, 100-octane gasoline that is the smoothest-burning stuff you can put in an engine.
Trying to stop Duncan's offense is tough. Trying to reel in the Spurs' 3-point shooters, that's tough, too -- they ranked eighth in the league in accuracy in the regular season. And forget about slowing down Ginobili.
But for Sonics coach McMillan, Seattle's most important defensive job against the Spurs is to stop the engine: Parker. "So much of what they do is because of screen-and-rolls with Parker, where he can beat his man and get into the paint," McMillan says. "Then your defense has to recover."
During a Sonics practice before Game 1, assistant coach Dwane Casey stressed the importance of shadowing Parker to the Sonics' perimeter defenders. "Get up on him; make him get rid of the ball quickly," Casey said.
Parker is the third offensive option behind Duncan and Ginobili, but he has the speed and ability to create shots for himself. That means that when Duncan or Ginobili is not at the top of his game, the Spurs have a reliable option to fall back on. When Duncan fouled out of Game 4 in the opening round, Parker picked up the scoring load, netting 11 points in overtime to win the game.
"Duncan is going to get the big numbers," says a Western Conference scout, "but you can live with that and still beat them. It's Parker who makes that team go. When he is off, you tend to see the whole team struggling more."
Because of that, Parker faces more criticism than his teammates. He averaged career highs of 16.6 points, 6.1 assists, 3.7 rebounds and 1.2 steals during the regular season, but he is only 23 and still battles inconsistency. Parker was not very effective in the first three games of the first round, and he fell apart against the Lakers in the second round of last year's postseason. He's also a favorite Popovich target.
"I always am the one who takes the pressure," Parker says. "When we have a bad game, I hear about it. But it's OK, I understand it. I am the point guard, so I have to play well all the time. I don't mind the pressure."
BRUCE BOWEN: Ammonia
A colorless, easily unnoticed gas that can be a toxic irritant in high doses.
Look for the Spurs to try to give Allen a very high dose of Bowen. Allen, who historically has had problems with Bowen, slammed Bowen's physical style of defense even before the second round started. "He pulls you, he grabs you, he hits your elbow every time you shoot," Allen told reporters. "When you go to the basket, he pushes you and then he falls. Stuff like that is not really basketball."
That's nothing new for Bowen. He shrugs at Allen's complaints. He willingly has sacrificed his reputation to fill the defensive stopper role for the Spurs. Bowen has had run-ins with Allen, Vince Carter and Michael Finley. Former Mavs coach Don Nelson labeled him a dirty player. Three years ago, McMillan called Bowen a bully.
Bowen is one of the league's best one-on-one defenders, a master of footwork, anticipation and hustle. His tactics push the boundaries of the rules, and he sometimes flat-out breaks the rules. But he knows how to get away with tricks. If opponents are preoccupied complaining about those tricks, then Bowen's job as an irritant is done.
"I'm out there to defend," Bowen says. "The team counts on me for that. If that bothers some people, I don't worry about it."
G.W. Bush: Keeping Nixon out of the basement in the presidential standings
I still don't like the guy... and I still think he's a moron for picking the Suns over the Spurs in 2003. And didn't he pick the Nugs over us this year too?
This... is... SPURTA!!!
This... is... SPURTA!!!
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