With the first game of 2014 under their belt, the San Antonio Spurs looked like an entirely different team than the one that finished a very eventful 2013, and not in a good way.
The struggling New York Knicks came to town to kick off 2014, a team that had been beaten by the Spurs by 31 in Madison Square Garden already this season. But the Knicks too looked like a different team on Thursday night, forcing a close battle throughout and eventually winning by a score of 105-101.
So what went wrong? What drastic changes did the 9-21 Knicks make to bounce actually look like an NBA team and beat a title contender?
In case anyone isn’t aware, NBA.com has integrated a form of player tracking into their statistical database called SportVU, making it easier than ever to get the best and most updated stats as soon as the scouts themselves do. These stats are much more in-depth than your typical basketball stats; SportVU uses player tracking to both (you guessed it) track each player every second they are on the court, but also generate stats that show missed or gained opportunities.
After studying the Four Factors, Advanced, and Scoring stats of each game between the Knicks and Spurs this season, it is clear that one thing is certain: the Spurs’ defense was awful last night. All of the offensive stats are rather similar for the Spurs while comparing the two games, but those of the Knicks are like night and day.
To start off the Spurs’ woes, they allowed far too many offensive boards.
The Knicks obtained 26.5% of their offensive rebound opportunities, up almost 9% from their previous 17.6% from the November 10th loss. What this means is that for every missed shot the Knicks had on Thursday night, they they got the offensive board a little more than a quarter of the time, which led them to 12 second chance points. 2 of these second chance points came in crunch time as Iman Shumpert flew in the lane and put back a miss with 23 seconds remaining, giving New York the 2 point lead and ultimately the win.
While watching the game, I noticed that the Spurs were having a tough time rotating on the perimeter, leaving Shumpert wide open for 3 much more than contesting his shot. The numbers back this observation up.
The Knicks’ Effective Field Goal percentage skyrocketed from their previous, increasing from 41.5% to 57.2% from loss to win. This stat gives insight in to how well a team takes advantage of the shots they are given by the defense, weighting 3-point shots 1.5 times those of 2-point field goals. What this shows is that the Knicks took advantage of this slow rotation on their shooters, making the shots they should make and passing on those they shouldn’t. On Thursday night, the Knicks took 5 fewer 3-pointers than the game on November 10, but still made 3 more than in their loss.
While these stats show a true weakness in the Spurs’ game, it also shows that they have the ability to still perform at a high caliber. Their offensive numbers remain relatively constant on a game-to-game basis, balancing inside and outside scoring and taking advantage of opponents’ miscues.
The Spurs demolished the Knicks once on a near perfect game early in the season, but still almost pulled out a victory despite defensive lapses. San Antonio’s offensive will always be there due to the system that they run, focussing on picks and spacing rather than relying on one-on-one isolations.
I don’t want to use their age as a cop-out as so many do, but that perimeter rotation looked much worse than ideal Thursday night. The silver lining to this loss is that coach Pop and Duncan were both very embarrassed by their defensive performance.
Take comfort in knowing that the professionals themselves understand when their exact performance is sub-par directly after a game rather than waiting for confirmation from the basketball stat nerds like myself.