By Jeff McDonald
Defense wins championships.
It’s a bromide as old as James Naismith’s first peach basket game, handed down through the ages to junior high players the world over in the form of a T-shirt slogan.
For almost as long, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has believed in the power of defense as well, riding it to four NBA titles between 1999 and 2007.
Last offseason, in part to preserve his own sanity, Popovich vowed to get the Spurs back to playing the brand of defense that stocked the ATT Center trophy case with Larry O’Brien hardware.
So at first blush, what Popovich said after Wednesday’s scoreboard-spinning 117-112 victory at Sacramento might sound like sacrilege, if not surrender.
“We spend more time working on offense these days, because our defense won’t be as good as it used to be in the past,” Popovich said. “It just won’t.”
If the Spurs aim to capture their fifth NBA championship this June, they will do so fighting uphill against tried-and-true conventional wisdom.
In the years since the Spurs won the first of their titles in 1999, only two teams — the 2001 L.A. Lakers and 2006 Miami Heat — have won a title without finishing top 10 in both field-goal percentage defense and scoring defense.
The Spurs (35-14) rank 20th in the former category, surrendering 45.4 percent shooting. They are 17th in the latter, allowing 96.4 points per game.
Spurs forward Tim Duncan, a key component of four teams that suffocated their way to titles, hasn’t abandoned the dream of fielding an elite defensive team again.
“We’d like to be that team,” Duncan said, and the recent additions of Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw should help.
Still, Duncan acknowledges the NBA has changed since 1999. Defense alone might not be enough to win it all.
“You have to score a lot more points now,” Duncan said. “I don’t think it’s the league of old, where you can score in the 80s and defend your butt off and still win championships.”
That’s the reality Popovich has come to accept as he pushes his team to push the pace on offense. A season after posting a Popovich-era record 103.7 points per game, the Spurs are averaging 101.2 this season, third-most in the league, and that offensive firepower has earned the Spurs greater margin for error on the defensive end.
“Nobody’s capable of doing it one way,” Popovich said. “You can’t think you’re going to win every game by scoring 100, or by holding somebody to 80. You have to be able to do things differently.”
The Spurs have pieced together a six-game winning streak using both methods.
In three games, the Spurs reminded of defensive-minded championship teams of yore, limiting opponents to less than 90 points and simply choking them out. In three others, the Spurs gave up triple digits and just outscored the other team.
“It’s good we can do it both ways,” guard Manu Ginobili said. “I think we’re trying to be more the other (defensive) kind of team, the way we won championships. The last few years, we’ve scored more but we haven’t won it.”
Last season’s high-powered Spurs team smoked scoreboards en route to the best record in the Western Conference, then flamed out in the first round against Memphis.
For a blueprint of how the Spurs would like to play, Ginobili points to Tuesday’s 107-100 win at Phoenix.
With Suns guard Shannon Brown blistering en route to a career-high 32 points, the Spurs traded shots with the Suns in the first half. When it came time to win the game, however, the Spurs’ defense tightened, holding Phoenix to just 17 points in the fourth quarter.
“That’s who I envision we can be in the playoffs,” Ginobili said.
The old T-shirt slogan professes that defense wins championships. The Spurs are hoping offense can help get them there, too. Over the next few months, we’ll learn if they are right.