Most recently running into the wrong side of a loss against the Spurs was affectionately referred to as "running in the Spur's buzzsaw" by many fans. An uptempo pace coupled with mind-numbing efficiency allowed the Spurs to run roughshod over most teams.
But Popovich has flipped the script this year. The Spurs plod along at one of the slowest paces, and are known more for their suffocating defense than their offense. The beautiful ball movement that won them the 2014 Finals is a rarer sight on the starting unit, as the offense has integrated LaMarcus Aldrige's pick and pop's and Kawhi Leonard post-ups.
But a forgotten aspect of those finals was how the players moved just as often as the ball. One Spur would hold the ball, but the other four would be in constant motion - an orchestra of harmonized cuts and curls that freed up scoring opportunities. More players are spotting up this year, as the offense takes a 90s era vibe full of midrange shots and low-high post play. Instead of flitting around off-ball, the player movement has now switched to defense.
Defense Wins Championships
The 2015-16 Spurs have perfected defense in the modern era of basketball, just like they did in 1999 and 2004, but also nothing like how they did in those years. Once again the Spurs sit atop the list of the league's stingiest defense, but now in a way more similar to last years Warriors. In the past, the Spurs were such a formidable unit because of the impenetrable backline formed by Tim Duncan and David Robinson.
They had their share of cagey wing defenders in Manu and Bruce Bowen, but the defensive strategy was to funnel ball-handlers into the Twin Towers. Now every Spur defender moves on a string. The strength is not in the individual defenders (evidence by Duncan playing just 8 minutes in a victory over the Warriors) but in the collective unit. Watch how all five Spurs defender's help on Curry.
At every point on his loop around the half court, Curry is either bumped, face guarded, or doubled by a Spur. They've become experts at help defense, abandoning non-threats and collapsing on the most dangerous opponents. Duncan (and most bigs in their set) even shows to the three point line to make sure Curry always has a defender in his face. Duncan can leave his man to "show" on the pick and roll like this because he's confident someone will pick up his man, like Patty Mills attempts to do.
This cohesiveness allows the Spurs to try more complicated defensive tactics, becoming a switching and trapping vice grip that seems to be the lovechild of the Lebron-era Heat and the current Warriors. They have a pair of defensive stalwarts on the wing in Danny Green and Leonard that allows them to cover huge swathes of space. Green can lock down the better of either guard position, similar to Wade's old defensive role, and Kawhi is the Spur's answer for pretty much any number one offensive option.
Sacrifice Is the Heart of Leadership
Benching Duncan, the man in the middle of every Spurs defense for the better part of two decades, actually unlocks another lethal aspect of their team. Running with Aldridge at center and cycling in one of Diaw or West at the four allows the Spurs to switch everything on and off the ball. Aldridge is able to use his length at the rim to contest shots like most pivots, but still has the agility to guard either big stepping out on the perimeter.
When the Spurs defense really rolls along, it actually increases the pace for short periods of time. Green and Kawhi hound ball-handlers farther away from the basket than any other wing duo, and love to turn a simple switch into an all out trap when they can. They're great at closing hard on traps the minute an opposing player dribbles near the baseline and using the "third man" strategy to force panic turnovers.
Gregg Popovich has more COTY awards than any other active coach, and his name is constantly in the running every year. Perhaps his case is pleaded more quietly this year, but don't be fooled by the voter fatigue.
Eschewing his old defensive principles, he's created an even stouter fortress to compete with. Even sitting his old pal Duncan doesn't change the fact that the Spurs defense keeps chugging along.