MILWAUKEE – The San Antonio Spurs are known for their League of Nations roster: stocked with players who learned the game in places other than the familiar U.S. breeding grounds of urban playgrounds, suburban gyms and AAU traveling leagues. The Spurs also are arguably the most deft passing team in the NBA.
Coincidence? We think not.
A few hours before the Spurs put on a clinic of ball sharing and movement Wednesday night against the Milwaukee Bucks, coach Gregg Popovich talked about the emphasis placed on that in the development of international players. It’s pretty clear that the culture of passing has permeated the Spurs, who lead the league in assists (25.7 apg).
“It’s fundamentals that have been poured into them since they were kids, and we [in this country] don’t have that,” Popovich said after a morning walk-through at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. “They go to these academies – Tony [Parker] and Manu [Ginobili] went when they were, what, 15 years old – they have a couple classes in the morning and then all afternoon they’re doing passing drills and shooting drills. Really honing skills in the way they play.
“I won’t mention the team, but a team we played this season … there was a foreign kid on there and the kid was open all the time. He was out there wondering, ‘What the…? I can’t get the ball?’ You’d see that look on his face five times during the game. While an American kid is dribbling in place, holding the ball. The guy played on a good team overseas, in a good program. He came over … [there], he gets the ball and shoots it. Now, it doesn’t come.”
It comes in San Antonio. The Spurs wrapped up the Bucks with passes Wednesday, knocking Milwaukee’s defense off-balance as the ball moved from here to here to here. They had 19 assists on 28 field goals in the first half, with just two turnovers, in opening a 69-52 lead. By the end, the Spurs had 32 assists to eight turnovers. At times, it looked as if they had a three- or four-pass rule before a shot could go up.
“We don’t [have a rule],” Popovich said, “but they know if there’s somebody more open, it’s got to go there. Good to great.”
That is, from what might be a good shot to an open man who then has a great shot.
The Spurs have had seven games of 30 assists or more this season and are 7-0. That includes a 38-dime performance at Charlotte Dec. 8. Parker was the high man with 11 this time, but Ginobili had six off the bench, Boris Diaw had four and Tim Duncan, in yet another throwback game, passed for six to go with 28 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks.
Notice the country of origin of those four: France. Argentina. France. The Virgin Islands. Notice, too, the familiarity built over years between three of them and the, err, tendency to play the way Popovich requires.
“We’ve been playing like that the last two, three years,” Parker said. “Up-tempo, trying to push the ball, trying to get everybody involved and move the ball and always get a good shot. On our team, we have to move the ball. That’s what Pop wants and that’s what we do now.”
Duncan said that the game actually is as easy as it looks, when the Spurs are sharing the ball like that.
“It’s easy to pass the ball and move the ball when you know that somebody else is going to move it and pass to you when you’re open,” he said. “So it’s contagious in that respect – as long as you know everybody else is going to do it, there’s no reason for you to be selfish. Because when you’re open they’re going to find you.”