Spurs and Heat help prove that defense wins championships

VIDEO: Tim Duncan talks with the GameTime crew after the championship clincher

SAN ANTONIO — Entering the 2014 Finals, the 2000-01 Lakers were the last team to win a championship after ranking outside the top 10 in defensive efficiency in the regular season.

They still are.

The 2003-04 San Antonio Spurs, who — in a season between championships — allowed 8.5 fewer points per 100 possessions than the league average, were one of the best defensive teams in NBA history. The Spurs’ D continued to rank in the top three over the next four years, but could only go downhill after that incredible 2003-04 season. And it proceeded to go downhill every single year for eight years, until it dropped out of the top 10 in 2010-11 and 2011-12 (see table below).

Out of the top 10 is not where you want to be. Over the last 37 years (since the NBA started tracking turnovers in 1977-78), only three teams have won a championship after ranking outside the top 10 in defensive efficiency in the regular season. Twice as many champs have ranked outside the top 10 in offensive efficiency.

And though their offense had developed into a beautiful machine that ranked in the top two those two seasons, the Spurs knew they had to get better defensively.

“We thought that’s what was missing against Oklahoma City [in the 2012 conference finals],” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said a year ago, “that we couldn’t make stops when we needed to. We would call them ‘stops on demand.’ In fourth quarters and big games you have to be able to do it.”

You can’t just flip a switch in the playoffs. Habits have to be built throughout the season, so that when the time comes, you can fall back on what you have developed.

“We slipped a little bit,” Tony Parker said, “and we knew if we wanted to get back to the top, we needed to get back to where we were [defensively] when we were winning championships.”

So the Spurs went back to the drawing board in the summer of 2012. And as a team that has embraced analytics, they dug into the numbers and realized that being a great defensive rebounding team (which they were) didn’t matter if you didn’t defend shots well enough (which they didn’t).

“What we found,” Spurs general manager R.C. Buford told NBA.com last week, “were that teams who weren’t as effective defensive rebounding were still ranking incredibly high in defensive efficiency. The areas that they were focused in appeared to us to be field goal percentage defense. So we felt like we needed to go back to parts of our system that would improve our defensive field goal percentage.”

Basically, they needed to better contesting shots, both inside and outside. Easier said than done, but some shifts in personnel certainly helped. Tiago Splitter had two years in the Spurs’ system under his belt, Kawhi Leonard had one under his, and both have played bigger over the last two seasons.

In that time, the Spurs allowed just 93.4 points per 100 possessions in 1,907 minutes with Leonard and Splitter on the floor, the lowest on-court DefRtg of any two-man pair in the league that has played at least 1,200 minutes together over the last two seasons. The tandem of Splitter and Tim Duncan has protected the paint as well as any big man combination in the league. And Leonard has quickly become one of the world’s best perimeter defenders.

Their teammates and coach were quick to point out the importance of those Leonard and Splitter, but also said that there has just been a better collective focus on the defensive end of the floor over the last two years.

“[It was] just coming in here from day one in training camp and making it a priority,” Duncan said, “making them understand that every game, every film session, everything else, this is what we’re going to hang our hats on.”

“We just worked at it,” Popovich added. “I mean, it’s basketball. There is nothing magic about it. You know, we worked at it and the guys committed to it, and we got better defensively.”

With better defenders and a better focus, the Spurs went from 11th in defensive efficiency in both ’10-11 and ’11-12 to third last season. Not coincidentally, they got back to The Finals for the first time in six years and came within six seconds of winning a championship.

This season, they brought back their core (and the best defensive lineup in the league) with one more year together in their system. Though no player averaged 30 minutes per game, they again ranked in the top five in defensive efficiency. And in the Western Conference playoffs, they got those “stops on demand,” holding the offenses of both the Portland Trail Blazers and Oklahoma City Thunder well under their regular season efficiency marks and setting up a Finals rematch.

The Miami Heat have gone in the opposite direction in the last two years. After ranking in the top five defensively in their first two seasons together, the Heat ranked seventh last season and 11th this year.

Dwyane Wade‘s “maintenance program” — he played just 54 games in the regular season — had something to do with this year’s regression. But so did bad habits. The Heat’s defensive scheme can overwhelm offenses when it’s sharp, but can also get broken down pretty easily when it’s not. It was inconsistent all season, pretty darn awful at times (especially in January), and finished just outside the top 10.

It got better in the playoffs, but the champs never really put 48 minutes of great defense together. In the conference semifinals and finals, they allowed both the Brooklyn Nets and Indiana Pacers to score more efficiently than they did in the regular season. Getting through the first three rounds was about how good the Heat were offensively, especially in the fourth quarter, than an ability to get consistent stops.

That wasn’t enough in The Finals. The Heat finally ran into a team that was great on both ends of the floor. And they got slaughtered.

The Spurs’ offense, of course, was a thing of beauty. And once it got going, the Heat could do nothing to stop it. They didn’t have a great defense to fall back on. They couldn’t get stops on demand.

Their not-top-10 defense, those bad habits and that inconsistency, had come back to bite them.

“We were always trying to conjure something,” Shane Battier told Bleacher Report after Game 5. “But you can’t win a championship trying to conjure something. It has to be who you are, and it has to be pure, and that wasn’t the case for us this year.

“We just didn’t have the fundamentals to stop an offensive juggernaut like the Spurs. And we were exposed.”

But you don’t get the largest point differential in Finals history (70 points over five games) with what happens on just one end of the floor. The Spurs didn’t just eviscerate the Heat defense, they shut down what had been a ridiculously good offense through the first three rounds, particularly in Games 4 and 5, when they held the Heat under a point per possession.

“We felt confident coming into the series that we were going to be able to score,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Maybe not as much as we typically are used to, but coming off of some very good defensive teams and series in the Eastern Conference, we felt we could rely on that. But they shut us out of the paint pretty consistently.”

Don’t let anyone tell you that “defense wins championships” is just a cliché, because it has plenty of evidence — including the result of the 2014 Finals — to back it up. These were two great offensive teams. But only one had been defending at a high level all season.

As a result, they’ll be holding a parade down the Riverwalk.

Spurs defense, Tim Duncan era

Season DefRtg Rank Lg. OffRtg Diff. Playoffs
1997-98 96.2 2 102.0 -5.8 Lost conf. semis
1998-99 92.1 1 99.2 -7.1 Won Finals
1999-00 95.7 2 101.2 -5.6 Lost first round
2000-01 94.9 1 100.2 -5.4 Lost conf. finals
2001-02 96.5 1 101.6 -5.1 Lost conf. semis
2002-03 96.6 3 100.7 -4.1 Won Finals
2003-04 91.6 1 100.0 -8.5 Lost conf. semis
2004-05 95.8 1 103.1 -7.3 Won Finals
2005-06 96.9 1 103.4 -6.5 Lost conf. semis
2006-07 97.4 2 103.7 -6.3 Won Finals
2007-08 99.5 3 104.7 -5.3 Lost conf. finals
2008-09 102.0 6 105.4 -3.5 Lost first round
2009-10 102.0 9 104.9 -2.9 Lost conf. semis
2010-11 102.8 11 104.5 -1.7 Lost first round
2011-12 100.6 11 101.8 -1.2 Lost conf. finals
2012-13 99.2 3 103.1 -4.0 Lost in Finals
2013-14 100.1 4 104.0 -3.9 Won Finals

DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions


  1. lacrampa says:

    NBA : 1-spurs 2-mavs 3/4/5/6/7/8/9/10/11/12/13/14/15/16 : hyped jokes

  2. imisswatchingthethunder says:

    Did someone mention the Thunder? I miss them.

  3. okcDoke2014 says:

    Heat’s lack of bench depth and looming free agents looks like rebuilding is here right now

  4. Eric Warren says:

    Yes the Spurs’ defense was amazing but the important factor was borrowed from the Magic Johnson Lakers of old…you got to have a great, deep bench. Everyone who called off the bench performed well. There were times in the series that the Heat had their starters on the court and the Spurs had their bench in, thus allowing the Spurs’ starters to get a good rest. My congratulations to Pops and the management staff of the Spurs for a job well done. Yes I’m a Spurs fan…Go Spurs Go!

  5. Larry Murdaugh says:

    The heat played less then adequate basketball the whole final series.
    It’s almost like they knew their time for being champions.
    On the other hand the spurs executed almost faultless games in the series.
    I applaud the sprurs, and the heat for a series final that will go down in the NBA history books.
    their team put on an basketball clinic.
    All the want to be basketballs stars i hope you took notes, for unselfish team work.

  6. Mace1xONEx1 says:

    James and the Heat will be right back to where they were these last four years!….This demoralizing defeat that was the 2014 NBA Finals, they may have needed just that. After four consecutive Finals appearances (five overall), including two straight titles (three overall), the league may have awoken a sleeping giant. They have the greatest weapon in LeBron James and the team is yet to utilize that advantage to it’s full potential. The Heat’s mastermind Pat Riley is too talented not to know what it’ll take to keep James in South Beach. As long as the “Best Player in the World” resides in Miami, the Heat aren’t expected to dwindle anytime soon. Besides, who would question James leaving the Heat? He knows better. Everyone does.

    • dg says:

      “James and the Heat will be right back to where they were these last four years!….”

      Yup, being the best team in the D-league eastern conference.

  7. pascalpedro says:

    fatigue affected the disorganized heat in the finals. not like spurs coming out of the bench energized as coach pop rotated his team well.

  8. KnowGreatnessWhenYouSeeIt says:

    I’m still tipping my hat off to the Spurs, what a tremendous accomplish they’ve achieved as a unit.. Not to make anything about Miami or the player on their team I’m about to mention, but this is what separates such great players like LeBron James and Michael Jordan; MJ never lost in the finals, LBJ has gone 2-4 on his chase for rings. There shouldn’t be any comparison between the two.

    • disqus_ffVZ6y72Kw says:

      Actually, many forget that Tim defeated Lebron when the cavs made itto the finals

  9. okcDoke2014 says:

    Miami’s got free agents and lacks a little depth. MJ is the owner of two 3peats and is the best because he willed himself plus those around to achieve greatness

  10. there will be NO 3peat says:

    everybody is forgetting who has finally been exposed, and that is coach spo. he is a horrible coach and would not be in this position if he did not have the lame 3 on his team in a weak eastern conference. this year he had to coach more than ever with wade missing so much time, and bosh not being that dominate player anymore. he couldnt hang. i live in miami and watched all of thier games, when there wasnt a mavs game on that i could see, and he just throws guys in and says let me see what happens, when he should know exactly what will happen. they will not be in this position next year, as they have to rebuild. they need a solid pg, a solid backup for wade (maybe a replacement instead), and i bet bosh will leave as his game has diminished playing in the huge shadow that ego called lebron has. i hope they get melo too, cuz that ball hog will screw them all up, and then spo can let him ride the bench hoping that lebron can make him look good. heat are sorry, overated and done. spurs will be repeat. i love my mavs but im not stupid. i see what the spurs have right now.

    • ray says:

      Spo was already in Miami without James and Bosh and was winning with the shorthanded Heat where Wade got injured mostly that time. Testament to his good coaching is how he was able to put 3 superstars to play together. Spo meshed the playing styles of those superstars plus very good role players and was able to appear in the Finals 4 consecutive years. They have their targets at their back since the Big 3 was formed, and teams are always figuring out how to beat them, and the Spurs and Mavs found the answers. But being in the finals for consecutive years is testament to how good a coach Spo is. How about the Lakers when they had Howard and Kobe and Nash, were they successful? And yeah, D’Antoni was a bad coach but Spo didn’t performed like how D’Antoni did. Spoelstra is a good coach. But Pop was better.

      • disqus_ffVZ6y72Kw says:

        Ray you forget the first year Miamis Big 3 were together they made it to the finals and lost. The same situation occurred in LA with Howard also with Shaq, KKobe Payton etc. You build a championship team from within, not without. They tried and were successful by hijacking the league and are putting that same idea out there again with the Melo issue. Spo is a mediocre coach at best. Miami had a winning season under him yes but remember, the East was not really as competitive as the West and also look at what their record was during those seasons without the Big 3. Spo did not mesh any styles…He allowed the culture to develop instead of developing the culture necessary to win. Pop, cultivated each player and developed their weaknesses and capitalized on their strengths…he created a culture for success…There is absolutley NO comparison between Pop and Spo…thats comparing diamonds to cubic zarconia and as far as the team…the heat are a Rolls Royce, looks good everyone is always in awe and it costs as youre paying fro the name…The spurs are like Toyota…one of the most reliable automobiles around…very little maintenance and lasts for YEARS

    • Google007 says:

      You think Miami Heat org and Pat Riley are stupid enough to hire a coach that they don’t think can handle the job? Oh come on! Go hate and cry for your MAVS.

  11. Sam says:

    Crazy to think, San Antonio’s greatest challenge this year in the playoffs were the 8th seeded Mavericks in the first round. Miami just played lopsided basketball in the Finals. Also one of my biggest questions in the finals were, “Where is D-Wade?”

    • timmied says:

      Lol… I agree whole heartedly. .. but only every feared okc…bc they killed us 2 years ago….The spurs don’t make the same mistakes twice!

      • Marvin says:

        Indeed they don’t and that’s what sets them apart from the rest of the league. When OKC took those two home games I got flashbacks to that 2012 collapse, as well. Then I remembered what you just said here, the Spurs don’t make the same mistakes twice. Pop made a couple of minor adjustments and the rest, as they say, is history.

  12. Mace1xONEx1 says:

    James and the Heat will be right back where they were these past four years! As long as “The Best Player in the World” resides in Miami, the Heat aren’t going away anytime soon!

    • Kalbo!! says:

      from the name alone, you could tell how young this kid is. only knows superstar basketball instead of team basketball. kids nowadays.. low IQ..

    • dg says:

      And as long as the Heat remain in the eastern conference.

  13. Leon says:

    NBA Final’s Top Defensive plays did not include Tiago Splitter’s blocked over Wade? What a countdown,blinded by by what seems a good team play by the Spurs.

  14. Kobe-James-Melo-Love-Nash says:

    Duncan is the best in his position right now.. He deserves to be a champion again.. Congratulations SPURS!!

  15. Marc says:

    Spurs cheat … teams have two holders … one on the court and another on the bench! how nice it is to see a team sport played on computer!

  16. okcDoke2014 says:

    Spurs, Grizzlies, Clippers (Microsoft $) and Blazers (Microsoft $) final four out the West next Season. East is harder to predict: Heat, Pacers, ? Raptors ? and ??????

    • timmied says:

      It was hard to predict heat and pacers would make it out the east…… due too poor play….suprise see the pacers kept the one spot being as the pacers self destructed the whole last month of the reg season……. ohh wait so did the heat….. just not as bad as the pacers….The only reason the east is hard to predict is bc they all play poor…

  17. Erik says:

    Perfect example of how a good coach like Pop can make a team of old and random role players play such perfect beautiful basketball and how an amateur coach like Spo can make a team full of stars, the KING and big names play such disgusting and ugly basetball. That was probably the biggest Coaching mismatch in NBA history. The Heat will never reach their full potential as long as Spo is on the sideline. It honestly doesn’t matter what kinda players we get this off season cause Spo never knows how to use a player effectively anyways..

  18. Abdul says:

    Its not just that they are the only organization that has the ability to do this. There are 30 other teams in the league. However half of these other organizations are not basketball intelligent it seems like.

    It takes patience and trust in the players that you draft, and giving them the opportunity to develop during the season or over the course of several seasons. Miami played Lebron 40 minutes a game during the reg season. None of the Spurs starting five played over 30. And it showed during the finals as the bench played very well and the playing time during the reg season payed off. A lot of coaches also play games to win instead of playing games to develop their youth. This leads to players who have potential never maximizing it

    • Abdul (The Real One) says:

      just amazing it takes time and patience too develop your youth players and benches. And most of all defense never give up go back work hard in the it will pay off. I am so happy spurs won a well deserved team number 1 also in the western conference woow. Amazing. I think all NBA teams should learn from this

    • Abdul (The Real One) says:

      I agree with you……..

    • BOTODSKI says:

      offense can have off-nights, but DEFENSE doesn’t have off-nights. And a great defense results into rampaging offense as exemplified by the Spurs.

  19. Matthew says:

    Building a team like that takes a great organization. Winning without big free agency grabs and keeping a rabid fan base. Something to be said for great international players on the cheap haha.

    • timmied says:

      Love it…. u nailed it on the head….. rc bufurd. …Gregg popp… masterminds…..they don’t stroke egos… u play the right way or u won’t play in sa

  20. orthostice says:

    “MJ, Magic, and I wanted to beat one another, not play with one another.”—Larry Bird

    • Saeed says:

      Just consider what would happen if Larry did not have Kevin Mchale and Magic with no Kareem or Jordan with no Pippen. And oh yeah, Jordan Lost a few seasons EVEN with Pippen on the roster. Who James had in Cleveland?
      Who James had this season?
      And who james had on 2012 and 2013. Bosh has not been a great consistent rebounder this 4 years let alone a great player. Wade (except 2011) has had consistent knee problems not playing at a high level. And when these two non-quality players swallow 36 million dollars on the roster, then you should NOT be deep.

      Jeff Van Gundy says Wade is a terrific players, “The demise of DWade has been exaggerated”, that is right but the guy does not mention how much wade is getting paid. Wade is being paid a superstar money but post-2011 Wade is not a superstar. Bosh barely has made the All-Star each year and gets 18 million. With this situation, James have to be shot blocker, has to be point guard, has to defend the best player of the opponent each game. So Larry Bird is comparing himself to chris bosh, ha???
      Kidding me probably, that is what people say when they can not find a way to prove they are better.

      The only thing that creation of the Heat teaches NBA players and GMs is that “Never give 48 million dollars to three role players because that includes a small point of reliability.”. LeBron James is the best player on the planet and if it was not for him, the Heat could never go to the finals let alone winning championship. Go back to Cleveland LeBron and play in your city’s team. You WILL be the best of all time. NO DOUBT.

      • jayr says:

        it’s a horrific arguments saying that Jordan wouldn’t win without Pippen. Yeh, i do agree that Pippen helped a lot but didn’t it take 4 years from Pippen’s draft for the Bulls to win their first Championship? it only shows that the whole bulls team grew together.. each player improved their games from time to time.. I think it would be fitting to say that Pippen woudn’t have won a single championship without Jordan. He always fell short, from the 94 Bulls to the 2000 Blazers..and even during his stint with the Rockets who at that time he has Barkley, Olajuwon, and Drexler around him.. Can you imagine how great that team was?but sadly, they didn’t even make it to the Finals just like with the Blazers with a team loaded with too many talents and Superstars yet, always fell short… Lebron is great, no doubt about that… but saying that he is better than MJ??? i would never agree to that.. I watched both players during the start of their career to their Prime, and I can say, MJ is the better player between them… MJ is the GOAT, no doubt about that… MJ had four Championships in his 10 years (not to include the 94-95 where he retired for the first time)… while Bron has 2 in his first 10 years.

      • wade says:

        Labron has lost three of four finals in his ten years. Making it fifty percent of the years your in the NBA says you can certainly play at a high level, but to if your saying your the greatest or other people to bestow that title upon you then you should be able to win at least half of them; wouldnt you think? MJ did Majic did even while Larry was in his way. Mr. Celtic Bill I think won every time, I could be wrong, but greatness is still a team thing to me; PERIOD.

  21. GoMavs says:

    Huge D won it for San Antonio this year.

  22. Dino says:

    I guess this shows how important a good coach is. Miami with 3 superstars played 4 finals in row.

    • Jr says:

      Most would agree if the Spurs or the Tunder were in the East Conference they too would have been consitatantly playing in the finials year after year.

      • timmied says:

        Agreed… The thunder is the only team I worry about as a spurs fan…..but worse then the Thunder I wonder about the nba and how the control the refs….
        They do all they can to push every game to 7… it was so apparent this year. …. Under the new commissioner. …they just try to hide it w gimmicks….. I hate the nba controlling refs

  23. Hunter says:

    Excellent article, excellent points shown, I wish I saw this coming before I predicted a Heat win in six.

    • Abdul says:

      If you knew anything about basketball you would have known that at least 4 teams in the West would have been predicted to beat the Heat in the finals. Their defense was no longer any good, and their offensive numbers were inflated due to a terrible eastern conference.

    • cp10 says:

      I second that, shame on me for predicting the Heat will 3-peat as well, Spurs deserved and earned it over overHeated Miami; gentleman’s sweep, no less. Shane Battier said that? (above) Wow, he’s quite candid. Next year is a different story as every team will be studying Spurs play and adapting their gameplan.

  24. michael phillips says:

    If anyone ever follow miami heat since coach spo took on the helm, the heat has been one of the worst guarding the 3 point line.The heat needs a defense-minded coaching staff that knows every opponent weakness without compromise.Spurs Danny Green set records for three point accuracy in a nba finals last season.Now, Patty Mills shoots predominately threes, yet for reasons beyond my comprehension is left open ( free as a bird) is never guarded exclusively.I don’t understand the heat’s philosophy. Defense mechanism win games of life.

    • disqus_ffVZ6y72Kw says:

      Two concepts and games characteristics michael phillips, transition offesen/defense and ball rotation. Thats why Mills was so open an dthe Heat were underachievers

    • Blank says:

      I’ll gonna say that only Rick Carlisle has the defensive mindset that can counter spurs offense. Spo and Brooks has so many lapses on this side.. Anyway congrats to spurs and to coach Greg Pop, hes the real deal…