Posted by Neil Paine on May 10, 2010
The Suns and Spurs never faced each other in the playoffs before 1992, but they've been making up for lost time ever since. In the 18 years since then, the two teams have met in 47 games across 10 playoff series, with San Antonio winning 25 of the games and 6 of the series. While neither team has a huge edge in the aggregate, the Spurs definitely had Phoenix's number prior to this year. From 2003 to 2008 San Antonio had beaten Phoenix in 4 straight playoff series (winning 16 of 22 games), and going back to 1996 they had beaten the Suns in 6 of the last 7 series in which they faced off.
More specifically, the Spurs had won 12 of 16 over the Suns during the Mike D'Antoni/Steve Nash era, including 5 games in which Phoenix was favored by Vegas to win. Simply put, San Antonio had become Phoenix's bête noire, the opponent that fate seemed to match their best teams against and then conspired to ruin them via circumstance (Joe Johnson's broken eye socket in '05, the Horry/Nash incident of '07, etc.). Going into last week's series, the question on many lips was whether or not the Suns would ever be able to come out ahead of the Spurs in a 7-game series.
Seven days later, consider that question answered. Flying in the face of analysis that said San Antonio was the better team and that Phoenix's inconsistencies vs. an injured Portland squad would come back to haunt them, the Suns simply came out and dominated the Spurs, beating them by 9.3 points per contest and leaving no doubt as to which team deserved to move on. What changed for Phoenix in 2010, vs. their losses in 2005, '07, and '08? Let's go to the numbers:
A few things that jump out from that table:
- The pace was faster in 2010. From 2005-08, the Spurs were able to keep the pace at or near the league average, which played into their hands as the slower team and kept the Suns out of their run-n-gun game plan. This year, though, the Suns made the Spurs play at their tempo, more than a possession per game faster than the league average.
- The 2010 Spurs were unable to dominate on the boards like in years past. The Suns were absolutely crushed in terms of rebounding from 2005-08, with San Antonio leveraging their customary combination of Tim Duncan + a rebounding-specialist center (Rasho Nesterovic, Fabricio Oberto, Nazr Mohammed, Francisco Elson, Kurt Thomas) into a huge edge on the glass over a Suns team that employed 3's at the 4 and undersized 4's at the 5. Not so in 2010 -- the Suns have gotten bigger & the Spurs have gotten smaller, and the result was a 7.3% swing in rebounding percentage to Phoenix.
- The vaunted Spurs defense was a no-show. We already knew the Spurs' defense is not what it was in their dynastic heyday, having slipped to 8th in the league this season, but this Phoenix series simply reinforced how far they've fallen. In the past, San Antonio held the Suns' high-powered offense to just 108.7 pts/100 poss. -- a full 5 points of offensive rating below their regular-season average -- and it proved decisive in their victories. But in 2010, they allowed Phoenix (115.3 regular-season ORtg) to treat them even worse than the typical NBA defense!
- San Antonio no longer held the edge in 3-point shooting. During their domination of the Suns, San Antonio actually beat the Suns at their own 3-point shooting game, making 110 in 16 games (vs. Phoenix's 93). But Phoenix flipped that script in a huge way in 2010, outshooting the Spurs 41 to 23 from downtown in their 4-game sweep.
- The Spurs didn't make their free throws. From 2005-08, the Spurs made 5 more FT than the Suns and the two teams basically shot the same % from the line. In 2010, the Spurs shot 6 more FTAs than Phoenix but made 5 fewer FT -- Phoenix went from having a 0.6% edge in FT% to an 8.2% one.
- Sharing the rock became a bad thing. In keeping with their reputation as a passing team, the Suns led the Spurs in Ast/FG by 2.3% from 2005-08 (for all the good it did their offense). But in 2010, the Spurs actually assisted on 9% more of their FG than Phoenix, yet their offense fell more than 4 pts/100 possessions! Why? Because the people doing the passing were Manu Ginobili (7.5 APG), Tony Parker (5 APG), & even Tim Duncan (2.5 APG), who combined to shoot 48% from the floor; the beneficiaries of the assists were Richard Jefferson & George Hill (3.0 combined APG), who shot 39%.
- The Suns simply made more of their shots. In the end, it comes down to the painfully obvious fact that Phoenix shot well from the field, while San Antonio didn't. Of the Four Factors, Phoenix's biggest edge was in the most important one -- effective field goal % -- which means they turned their attempts from the floor into more points than the Spurs did. Specifically, the Suns had 6 regulars shoot better than the league average eFG% of 50% (including 4 of their top 5 minute-getters during the series); by contrast, San Antonio had 4 and only 1 (Tim Duncan) of their top 5 in minutes shoot better than the league average.