San Antonio's Ball Movement Is the Key to Defeating Oklahoma City

If the Spurs want to advance to the Western Conference Finals, they'll have to pass their way to it.

Just 10 days ago, most of us were probably thinking that the Western Conference semifinal series between the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder was going to be a route. The Spurs were going to dominate the Thunder in Spurs fashion and waltz their way into the Western Conference Finals.


In the words of Lee Corso, "Not so fast my friend!"

After shooting over 60% in a blowout victory in Game 1, the rested Spurs failed to shoot 43% from the floor and lost by a single point on their home floor in the following game.

As expected, they bounced back in Game 3 with a four-point win in Oklahoma City, but then head coach Gregg Popovich and company turned around and, in Game 4, allowed one player, Kevin Durant, to turn the tide of the series in a big way.

With a win last night, San Antonio would have been headed back to the AT&T Center with a 3-1 series lead, a 93.83% chance of taking the series, and a 66.14% chance of closing the Thunder out in five games, according to our algorithms.

Instead, the two Western Conference foes are deadlocked at two games, and the Spurs carry a significantly lower chance of taking the series (65.12%) without the opportunity to end the series and rest early.

And Kevin Durant isn't the only one to blame for their current situation. The Spurs need to take a good, long look in the mirror.

Share the Love

All season long, San Antonio has been applauded for their amazing ball movement and team concepts -- and why not?

In the regular season, the Spurs ranked third in the league with 24.5 assists per game. Spreading the ball around led to a team shooting percentage of 48.4%, which trailed only one team: the Golden State Warriors.

Their willingness to pass up good shots for the best shot helped lead them to the NBA's fourth-most efficient offense in the regular season, scoring 110.3 points per 100 possessions and 103.5 per game.

This same unselfishness produced an assist on 61% of their made field goals this season, and in their two wins so far this series, the Spurs have replicated that type of offensive attack.

But in their two losses, they've done the opposite.

Take a look at the disparity.

San Santonio Spurs Semifinals Splits Wins Losses
Assists 58 31
Field Goals 84 80
Percent of Field Goals Assisted 69.04% 38.75%

In contrast to boxing's tale of the tape -- telling you each fighter's record and measurables prior to the bout -- this tale of the numbers tells you exactly why the Spurs have been so different from game to game.

When they haven't been swinging and shooting, penetrating and kicking, picking and rolling, they've been isolating, which really hasn't worked out for them.

In 15 such possessions this postseason, Kawhi Leonard has yielded just 10 points. That's not terrible, but this is the playoffs, where mediocrity lives only to die a few games later.

Nonetheless, I can't blame them for trying to get weapons like Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge the ball one-on-one, but it hasn't yielded the same results as the Spurs' ball movement offense.

Space the Floor

The isolation game has been the bane of the Spurs' offense in the playoffs.

Play Type Isolation Post Up Roll Man Transition
Points per Possession 0.68 1.00 1.19 1.52
Playoff Rank 15th 1st 1st 1st

The Spurs have been much more effective in these playoffs when they have dumped it in deep to Aldridge or David West and cut off of them to the perimeter for open shots. They've been particularly great when they've opened up the floor in pick and rolls and transition.

This is where the Thunder have been most susceptible, too. Enes Kanter isn't bad in the post or in situations where space isn't a factor, but when he's in the open floor or involved in a pick and roll, Oklahoma City is at a disadvantage.

The same goes for the Thunder as a team, as they've surrendered 1.38 points per possession and 62.7% shooting in transition this postseason. The Spurs would be wise to take advantage.

Finish the Game

If you've seen the Warriors in a close game this season, you know that, just from watching the game, moving the ball and spacing the floor is how they put the nail in the coffin of so many teams. That would be part of why they finished the regular season ranked second in fourth quarter points per contest (26.8).

The Spurs, who ended the season with 26.1 points per final frame, weren't far behind, rating seventh in the Association. You don't get there without the same type of ball movement that keeps an already fatigued defense on the run.

But in two of the four games (not counting the Game 1 landslide) this series, the Spurs have failed to score more than 21 points in the fourth. Last night, they scored a lousy 16 points to the Thunder's 34. That final 12 minutes is what has the Spurs in a dog fight with one of the most talented teams in the league.

It allowed Kevin Durant to go off and put the Spurs in the predicament they're now in. So, if the Spurs want to advance to the Western Conference Finals, they'll have to do what they have all season -- and that is move the ball.