Imitation game: How 'Spurs East' falls short

ATLANTA -- A few days after his team was beat by the Hawks, an NBA head coach was asked to offer a casual scouting report of the Eastern Conference leader. What kind of stuff does Atlanta run in the half court? What are the defense’s tendencies? How would you classify the Hawks as an offensive team?

“Load the video from the Spurs last June,” the coach said. “It’s the same stuff. Most of the league is trying to copy it, but it’s one thing to run it and another to understand it. [Atlanta] gets it -- offense and defense.”

To the extent the Hawks are “The Spurs East,” the coach said, it’s not because they’ve appropriated San Antonio’s playbook -- who among us hasn’t? It’s the Hawks’ commitment to a culture that allows those strategies to succeed. Any team of pro basketball players can learn a play. What’s difficult is actually running “motion" when five players are each hunting for his own shot.

Before Sunday’s game between San Antonio and Atlanta, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich quipped kindly that he “didn’t need to watch film of the Hawks.” Popovich confessed he was only kidding, but the suggestion held: Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but it probably doesn’t demand a close reading.

The Spurs trounced their progenies on Sunday 114-95, as Atlanta looked like an off-brand knockoff of the real thing. The Hawks were a read-and-react outfit that neither read nor reacted. They turned the ball over 18 times -- one bad idea after another. Defensively, the Hawks looked a lot like their opponents during their perfect January -- heads on swivels after a Spurs shuffle cut, lost assignments on the weak side, choosing the greater of two evils on a split.

Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder were slow to move the ball, and the Hawks simply don’t have the iso-assassins to compensate for gummy execution. Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, the Spurs’ stingy wing tandem, can recognize a mirror when they see one, and all afternoon they were a step ahead defensively of the Hawks’ perimeter attack. The masked Kyle Korver, who missed the previous three games with a broken schnoz, didn’t get a shot up until he’d been on the floor for 10 minutes. By the fourth quarter, with the Hawks trailing by 17, the public address announcer clipped his trademark falsetto -- “DeMarre for threeeeeeeeee” -- to a standard-issue “DeMarre for three.”

The Hawks dropped a third consecutive game for the first time all season. While their standing as the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference isn’t in any true peril, there’s a moral hazard to messing around with an eight-game lead. No team wants to enter the postseason with their best basketball three months behind them.

There’s a poetic irony that the loss came at the hands of the Spurs, and Korver noted that San Antonio’s distinguishing characteristic isn’t their system so much as their character.

“Why we have so much respect for San Antonio -- there are a lot of reasons -- but for them to keep their mental edge over the years ... and they win championships, but they still keep that edge,” Korver said. “We’re at a point in the season where we have a good lead in the standings. We know the playoffs are coming. We’ve had this long road trip. It’s easy to kind of relax just a little bit. But the good teams are able to keep their foot on the pedal. So what did we learn from tonight? Bigger picture stuff, like, ‘This is who we want to be, and that’s how we want to play.’ Not necessarily the plays they run and their execution, but just their overall mindset. That was the San Antonio Spurs, and they play like that every night, and we have to keep on trying to be that way too.”

This is the kind of testimonial we’ve heard from leaders on aspirational teams. Chris Paul, for one, has recited a volume of love-letters to the Spurs’ virtues during his media availabilities over the years. Kobe Bryant cited the Spurs' success as inspiration for a potential career rebirth.

The Hawks, too, have drawn inspiration from San Antonio. The roster is populated by Spursian professionals who sublimate their egos. The playbook, a close facsimile of the one San Antonio uses, entrusts those professionals with a system that encourages freedom and approximates basketball ballet when executed unselfishly.

Those are admirable achievements, because there aren’t more than four of five NBA teams this season have gotten that far. But the Spurs parallel truly works for the Atlanta Hawks only if they can replicate the mental endurance. Otherwise, they’re just another good story.