It looked like they would choke away the game of the year when Oklahoma City went supernova towards the end of the fourth quarter, but the San Antonio Spurs held on and knocked out one of their closest competitors in the Western Conference on Thursday night, in a 154-147 double overtime dreamscape.
The Spurs relied on LaMarcus Aldridge all night, and the best player you probably forget about on a regular basis delivered a career night, putting up 56 points on 20-for-33 shooting and adding 9 rebounds and 4 blocks. The Thunder had no answer for him, particularly in the decisive second overtime. He scored seven points in that last session, including the game-sealing free throws.
The win could be chalked up to a great player enjoying the game of his life, but it wasn’t just the LMA Show. The Spurs have not-so-quietly been the best team in the NBA over the last month or so. Since a December 5 loss to the Lakers, San Antonio has reeled off a 14-4 record that includes big wins over fellow playoff teams like the Nuggets, Raptors, Celtics, Clippers (twice), and now Thunder. More impressive is that they’ve done it by doing what San Antonio does better than any other team in the league: going against the grain.
As I wrote in analyzing Brook Lopez’s hilarious three-point obsession this year, the NBA has moved even more dramatically in the direction of a hyper-efficient threes-and-layups styles of offense. Not every team does this well, but nearly every team has done it. San Antonio’s two best players are mid-range savants, though, and rather than ask them to do what everyone else is doing, Gregg Popovich seems content to let them do what they do best. For the season, both DeMar DeRozan and Aldridge shoot over 95 percent of their shots from two-point range, with a disproportionate amount of shots from 10 feet or further out. (DeRozan shoots 51.2 percent of his shots from 10 feet out to the three-point line, while Aldridge is at 44.2 percent.)
It’s not just those two doing work within the NBA’s black hole zone, either. Rudy Gay continues his own personal battle against perceived efficiency (33.6 percent of his shots come from mid-range), while Derrick White is chucking up a more reasonable 24.6 percent from the area. The Spurs have figured out that there is a tactical advantage buried in the most tactically unfashionable shot in the game, and have embraced their mid-range aces’ ability to score from the least-desirable places on the court. Conventional wisdom and league-wide trends be damned, it’s working.
Over the last 15 games, San Antonio has the best offensive rating in the league, with its 116.6 rating putting them just ahead of the James Harden Show in Houston. One of the misconceptions about mid-range offenses is that they revolve around isolation plays; the idea is that every mid-range attempt is the desperate residue of a star player’s failed attempt at hero ball. The Spurs are a bit too good for that, although you can see it when things aren’t clicking, as at the end of both the fourth quarter and the first overtime against the Thunder on Thursday. When the Spurs broke down in those moments, the offense was every bit the stereotype—balky, broken possessions built around DeRozan pounding the ball for a seemingly endless amount of time before chucking up awful mid-range jumpers.
Most of the time, though, San Antonio is getting those mid-range shots by design, with ball movement the forever strategy: in those same 15 games, the team is third in the league in assist ratio, as 19.7 percent of its possessions have ended in an assist. Derrick White has developed into quite a passer over the last month, and he had some beautiful dimes against Oklahoma City on Friday that show off his progress as a playmaker, as highlighted by NBA writer Jared Dubin:
This renewed focus on the mid-range doesn’t mean that the Spurs have abandoned the three-ball entirely, of course. It’s more that they pick their spots from behind the arc, instead of defaulting to it in the way that other teams tend to. In the team’s last 15 games, they’ve only hoisted a measly 24.3 attempts from three, which is 28th in the league. But they’re hitting them at an NBA-high 43.6 percent; the Clippers, who rank second, are only hitting 39.7 percent. Against the Thunder, San Antonio started a ludicrous 13-of-13 from three, including a scorching sequence in the first quarter where they hit four straight three-pointers, three of which from Marco Belinelli. (Side note: more highlights should come with Japanese commentary.)
How does Popovich continue to do this shit? When the team traded away Kawhi Leonard—the first superstar to join the Spurs since Manu Ginobili in 2002—for the productive but very flawed DeRozan, it was fair to wonder whether the reign of Spurs excellence would finally end. After all, Popovich was one of the first coaches in the NBA’s modern period to emphasize ball movement and three-point acumen, neither of which are things DeRozan has ever been accused of prioritizing.
Instead of trying to fit DeRozan into a Moreyball-style offense, Pop went the complete opposite way, allowing his two mid-range obsessives to just do what they do best. It took some time to jell, particularly as the team suffered through injuries early in the season, but it’s all clicking now. Aldridge’s individual bonanza on Friday was an anomaly, but it followed the blueprint that the team has ridden all the way to the sixth seed in the West. The Spurs shot 80.8 percent of their shots from two-point range, but when they did step out behind the arc, they were on fire, hitting a ridiculous 84.2 percent from downtown. The Thunder had no answer for San Antonio’s star big, but they also had no answer for Patty Mills draining an ice-cold pull-up three-pointer out of nowhere.
The good news for the Thunder is that they’ll get another shot at the Spurs right away—the two teams play again in OKC on Saturday night. The bad news is that they’ll be facing a team that looks like an unexpected juggernaut when they do. San Antonio just weathered one of the best Russell Westbrook performances of the season—a 24-point, 24-assist, 13-rebound triple double—and still came out on top. Maybe Aldridge won’t turn into the human version of a starred-up Super Mario again on Sunday, but the Spurs offense doesn’t need that from him in order to win. As they’ve proved over the last month, San Antonio is more than capable of spreading the ball around and killing you with a thousand mid-range cuts.