A Spurs Lineup That Could Spell Trouble for the Thunder

One Spurs lineup has been the most effective of any five-man combination in the NBA this postseason. Are the Thunder ready for it?

The San Antonio Spurs’ Coach Gregg Popovich won his third Coach of the Year this season and you’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t think that Pop’s one of the best coaches of our time. We’re all witnessing a true master at work.

He led the Spurs within one victory of a franchise record in wins this season, finishing with the best record in the NBA at 62-20. He did this despite several players from his main rotation missing big chunks of time due to injury and, well, them being super old in general.

Pop combatted all normal signs of aging by masterfully managing the minutes and games played by his vets, finishing the season as the first team in NBA history to be devoid of a player putting up 30 or more minutes per contest. For that reason, as you can imagine, the Spurs had a pretty big number of lineups that saw the floor this season.

There were 87 five-man combinations alone that saw 10 or more total minutes for San Antonio this year (compared to 53 for the Portland Trail Blazers, for instance). Rotations tighten up a bit in the NBA Playoffs, but in a mere 12 games, the Spurs have already had 27 different combinations play at least 5 minutes and 11 lineups that have played 10 minutes or more.

Perusing lineup data can be an interesting practice. Some things, such as offensive or defensive ratings or shooting percentages, can be way out of whack because of a small sample size. Hey look, a lineup had a +170.7 net rating! Yeah, well, it’s because that lineup outscored a team 12-2 in three minutes of playing time the one time those five guys were on the floor together. That doesn’t count!

Once minutes pile up, however, a lineup’s true ability tends to shine forth. If you look at the five most used lineup from the San Antonio Spurs so far this postseason, there’s one that shines a lot brighter than the others. See for yourself:

LineupMINOffRtgDefRtgNetRtgREB%TO Ratio+/-
Duncan, Green, Leonard, Parker, Splitter121103.
Duncan, Ginobili, Leonard, Parker, Splitter56121.477.743.657.3%8.2+51
Diaw, Duncan, Ginobili, Leonard, Parker48118.1124.9-6.848.1%16.7-14
Belinelli, Diaw, Ginobili, Mills, Splitter20106.1148.8-42.841.7%20.1-17
Belinelli, Diaw, Duncan, Ginobili, Parker1974.5102.0-27.542.4%14.3-14

How much time you spend poring over lineup data is your own business, but as someone who spends far too much of his free time looking at this stuff for kicks, I can tell you that I’ve rarely seen a lineup that gets so many minutes be that effective. At the very least, rarely is one lineup so much more effective than the other top minute-getters.

The Spurs are 8-4 this postseason with a +81 point differential. They’ve been flat out unstoppable at times, yet four of their five most used lineups (including their starting five) have a negative point differential during their time together on the floor.

The lineup of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker, and Tiago Splitter, however, has a +51 differential in its 56 minutes together. That mark represents the best plus-minus of any lineup used this postseason by any team. Furthermore, the 43.6 net rating is the best of any lineup in the Association that’s played at least 25 playoff minutes together. They rebound the ball more and turn the ball over less than any other lineup that the Spurs use with any frequency.

Simply put, they’ve been amazing together. Let’s break down the lineup’s effectiveness game-by-game and by series, starting with Round 1 versus the Dallas Mavericks:

Game 18W192+1742.9%0.0%
Game 23L78-169.2%75.0%
Game 33L64+250.0%33.3%
Game 43W91+833.3%0.0%
Game 57W1411+342.9%23.1%
Game 61L02-20.0%50.0%
Game 75W1811+787.5%50.0%
Total32W 4-37339+3447.3%24.5%

The 47.3% to 24.5% difference in field goal percentage speaks to both this lineup’s effectiveness in getting quality shots and to its defensive prowess.

The combination of Parker and Ginobili playing the guard positions, regardless of age, creates great movement on offense for the Spurs. Both players handle the ball very well and initiate attacks by driving. Of every playoff backcourt, they’re leading in combined drives per game at 20.1 (with Parker’s 12.3 pacing the league on an individual basis).

On the defensive end, Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter represent two of the top rim defenders in this year’s playoffs. Timmy is only allowing a stingy 38.5% shooting at the rim (3.8 makes for 9.8 attempts per contest) and Splitter is backing him up by only allowing 49.2% (2.6 of 5.3). Couple the rim protection down low with the elite perimeter defense of Kawhi Leonard and its no trouble to see why they give opposing offenses fits.

San Antonio took seven grueling games to dispose of Dallas, but this lineup still finished a +34 in 32 minutes of floor time. In the wins in particular, the lineup outscored the Mavericks 60-25 and were a big part of the series victory. Then, the Spurs made short order of the Blazers in five games in Round 2 and the lineup in question was back at it again:

Round 2 vs. BlazersMINW/LPTSOPP PTS+/-FG%OPP FG%
Game 11W40+466.7%0.0%
Game 25W127+545.5%33.3%
Game 310W3121+1052.9%30.0%
Game 45L1416-270.0%63.6%
Game 50W-----
Total23W 4-16144+1756.1%38.1%

The lineup was a +19 in 16 minutes of floor time over the first three blowout wins over the Blazers. They held a sharp-shooting Portland team to 38.1% from the floor whenever they faced them in the series and weren’t even needed together in the final closeout game, which the Spurs won decisively.

Pop has long been known as a coach that keeps his cards close to his vest. To wit, this extremely effective lineup faced the Oklahoma City Thunder for a grand total of 4 minutes during the season series (all five guys were only available for one of the four contests). Two years ago, when these two teams faced off in the Western Conference Finals, the lineup never even saw one second of floor time against the Thunder (Leonard and Splitter were still relatively unseasoned).

The lineup change is a relatively simple one, as it only takes out regular starter Danny Green and replaces him with sixth-man-extraordinaire, Manu Ginobili. Even so, there were times this season when Splitter was a DNP-CD and he only started in 50 of the 59 games he played. This lineup was only the eighth most used in the regular season, amassing 87 minutes over a full 82 games (a number they could very well pass this postseason). Many would argue that these are the five best Spurs and should play the most anyway, but Pop has always opted for deploying his guys strategically and at the perfect moment.

That moment might be right now.

In 2012, the Spurs were outplayed by the young and chaotic Thunder, but this lineup could be the perfect antidote. It sacrifices Green’s shooting ability, but the drive and kick of Parker and Ginobili, Kawhi’s all-around two-way game, and the post effectiveness and rim protection of Duncan and Splitter make this iteration of the Spurs darn near perfect on both ends.

These numbers likely won't result in a starting lineup change, but we could very well be in for increased minutes of this lineup, particularly in crunch time. If the Spurs want to put their best foot forward and get the Thunder back for bouncing them two years ago, based on recent returns, this might be the way to do it.

Of course, if it ends up not being the perfect lineup to face this particular team, Pop has never been one to stick with something out of habit. For now, let’s just enjoy how good they’ve been and watch for how good they could be.