Video Game Villainy And The San Antonio Spurs

In 1985, the North American video game industry was in peril. While the Atari company had seen great success in the years leading up to 1983, when worldwide video game revenues reached a staggering $3.2 billion, it offered up Ginobili- and Wade-sized flops with its port of the arcade hit, Pac-Man, and the awful, awful adaptation of the classic candy and flying bicycle advertisement, E.T. Those failures, coupled with a glut of knockoff console competitors with exclusive licensing deals, led to a collapse in revenue to $100 million by 1985. It seemed that video games, particularly at home, were a fad.

That sounds ridiculous today, when video games are as ubiquitous as cell phones and iPads. That omnipresence of role playing heroism has the 1985 North American release of the Nintendo Entertainment System to thank for its existence*; were it not for the introduction of a niche product from a small Japanese toy and playing card manufacturer, Angry Pigs and Dwarf Fortress might instead be bestselling novels. With a design more readily integrated into a mid-80s entertainment center than prior garish, top-loading consoles, a firmer grasp on the distribution of software and innovative hardware on both the system (the directional pad on the controller, the various light gun and trick-you-into-exercising peripherals) and game (cartridges with battery backup capable of saving progress) sides of the equation, the NES relaunched a revolution, to the anguished cries of the Parker Brothers.

*Though if the video games have gained sentience and thank the NES for anything, we must destroy them with fire.

Part of establishing a new pecking order is laying ground rules. The hardware limitations of the NES with regard to image rendering and AI made for a similarity in the design process of its various games, which in turn gave rise to formulas that still provide the alchemical touch to turn “boy meets girl, girl gets kidnapped by evil sorcerer, boy discovers untold power within and slays evil sorcerer” into cold, hard cash. All of the classics — Mega Man, Castlevania, the various games in the TMNT franchise, Metroid, The Legend of Zelda — were built on a similar foundation. The player progresses through a level, defeating various lesser minions and avoiding pitfalls and Joakim Noah-loaded traps. At the end of the stage, a boss battle presents itself. When the hero is victorious, often the vanquished boss leaves behind a new weapon of some sort, which will likely be the weakness of the next big bad meanie. Lather, rinse and repeat until the world is saved.

I always kind of sympathized with the bosses, especially those whose defeat meant the rolling of credits. What must it be like, I wondered, to live such a lonely existence? Your station in life couldn’t be more literal, chained by some unknown force to the only area you can safely call home. Outside your door lie your bastions and battalions, sworn to fealty yet doomed to futility. That infamous hero marches toward your door, laying waste to everything. No puzzle is challenging enough, no subordinate sufficiently skilled to forestall the coming demise.

Yet for all the thunder and fury pointed in your direction, there is tranquility, too. You are, after all, the Big Bad. Everything the hero had to overcome to this point is your doing. Give it another minute or two, and your incantation/new super robot/transformation into an evolved alien being will be complete, and then who’s going to stop you? No one, that’s who, and definitely not this twerp who thinks you’ll lie down and let your quest for world domination end so easily. You don’t care that they took down the first boss, clad in purple and gold, without having to use anything but the wooden sword with which they started their long journey. And you watched how mightily they struggled with the new breed of super-sniper they ran into on the second level, and you laughed your mighty villain laugh. Hell, if anything, you should be the favorite! You’re the one with the upperhand, not to mention the triple fire missile burst. If this interloper brings the Cut Man weapons, you’ll throw up your shield. Frankly, nothing can stop you. From this point on, it’s smooth sailing for you and that giant red crystal in the middle of your chest that’s definitely not your weak spot.

…oh, goodness, your weak spot. It’s sticking out again, isn’t it? This is the problem with being the villain in one of these things and not the hero — you’re always going to have a weak spot. If you’re lucky, it’s a tiny window. If you’re unlucky, the last upgrade that antagonizing protagonist grabbed will finish you off in about four shots. Either way, you know that you’re doomed if a concerted effort is made to whale away on that one little flaw you couldn’t quite cover up. All the smoke and mirrors and offensive maneuvering in the Dark World won’t amount to a petrified princess and a portal to another dimension against the wiles of a focused foe.

After their sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs came to a close on Monday night, I think the Memphis Grizzlies can relate to Dr. Wily, Ganon, Shredder et al. The Grizzlies were an astoundingly formidable foe, wreaking havoc with a tightly rotating defense centered on the impish use of space by Marc Gasol and augmented by the madcap mania of Tony Allen. Many, myself included, considered Memphis the favorites in this series. They were a force of their own reckoning, offering the twin cannons of Zeebo and Wendigo and the electric whip of Mike Conley. Against any other foe, they’d likely have seen their plans to seize the Triforce come to fruition, or at least live on until the next “ultimate” showdown in the Finals.

Predictably, though, Gregg Popovich and the Spurs had the player’s guide. The book on Memphis was simple. The Grizzlies had zero outside shooting in their starting lineup other than Mike Conley, whose career 37.5% rate from deep is solid but not spectacular. And much of the load in initiating the offense, obviously, falls to Conley, so his ability to get off a decent look from downtown was in question against San Antonio. Their best option off the bench were Jerryd Bayless and Quincy Pondexter, sub-40% three point shooters in their own right (though Pondexter was just below that threshold this year, and his 152 attempts in 2012-13 account for the majority of his career threes). In the second round, the Spurs were constantly worried about the threat of elite outside shooting. In the Western Conference Finals, they couldn’t have been less concerned with what happened outside 10 feet from the rim when Memphis had the ball.

That weakness allowed San Antonio to pack the paint with extreme prejudice, gumming up everything the Grizzlies tried on offense. Few possessions saw fewer than four black-and-silver clad defenders swarming the post, both before and after the ball made its way closer to the rim; more often than not, a drive by Conley or an entry pass to Randolph (when said passes were there) was met with the crashing wave of five Spurs defenders in full tidal fury, ready to wash any and all efficient Memphis attempts away in a cascade of vertical challenges and moving, churning feet. Those Grizzlies stationed around the perimeter were too often rendered helpless, watching another offensive set swallowed up from their higher ground. Even when they broke through for a short kick toward the shoreline and a couple consecutive threes, San Antonio doubled down on the gameplan. No matter what the boss had to throw at the Spurs, they knew where the weak spot was, and they would not be deterred. As a result, a Memphis team that shot 50.4% from the paint in the regular season managed only 40.9% shooting from the same area in the Conference Finals. And the outside shooters were unable to make the Spurs pay; Memphis shot 34.9% from three in the series, versus 34.5% on the season.

The Spurs’ strategy, in turn, worked twofold. First, it forced Memphis into shots it’s not comfortable taking. During the regular season, over half (52.7%) of the Grizzlies’ attempts came in the paint. Against the Spurs, that number dropped to 49.7%. Unable to convert from the midrange and from outside, the Memphis offense largely stalled; Marc Gasol was unable to do his customary damage as a passer from the elbows, and Zach Randolph was given no quarter among the outstretched limbs of Duncan, Splitter, Bonner and Diaw.

Second, the missed long jumpers on the one end led to easy transition opportunities for the Spurs. The enduring image of Game 4 is of a Memphis miss rebounded by a Spurs wing near the free throw line, who turned up court and fired a pass to a streaking Parker or Duncan for an easy basket. By zeroing in on the offensive weakness of the Grizzlies to the detriment of all other stimuli, San Antonio both smothered Memphis’s scoring opportunities and sparked their own.

For the Spurs, only one more challenger awaits before they claim their prize and restore cosmic order to the universe — at least, as they see it. Perhaps that next matchup will leave those at the controls grasping at straws; after all, the best boss battles are always those that force you to draw deep down into your bag of tricks and find a weakness where there seems to be none.

The Grizzlies were not that challenge. It wasn’t in their programming. They were certainly a deceptively tough fight for those who sail onward, however. And as the victory music plays and the weakness shines on, so too do the strengths. This was a fight in the mud, no matter how clean the black and silver tunic might appear on the other side.

Photo by coming_soon via Flickr. Statistical support from

Andrew Lynch

When God Shammgod created the basketball universe, Andrew Lynch was there. His belief in the superiority of advanced statistics and the eventual triumph of expected value-based analytics stems from the fact that he’s roughly as old as the concept of counting. With that said, he still loves the beauty of basketball played at the highest level — it reminds him of the splendor of the first Olympics — and the stories that spring forth from the games, since he once beat Homer in a game of rock-paper-scissors over a cup of hemlock. Dude’s old.