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Winning A Lose-Lose

By Jeff Koch on December 30, 2010.

Ronald Martinez/NBAE/Getty Images

San Antonio 99, Dallas 93  //  28-4  //  1st in the West

During the TNT broadcast of the game, analyst Mike Fratello talked about a conversation he had had with Pop before the game, and how Pop had described this type of game as a “lose-lose” game for the Spurs: beat a shorthanded team and all you’ve done is exactly what you should have done; lose to a shorthanded team, and suddenly that team is miles better than you. The Spurs have had the good fortune of playing many teams this year missing key players. But as anyone who watches basketball knows, shorthanded teams can be the most dangerous to play. The team coming in at full strength has a natural let down as the expectation suddenly turns to an easy win; the team without a key player is motivated and hungry to prove they can win without him, and generally step up their intensity and desire.

Playing the Mavs without Dirk is especially dangerous, as the Mavs are loaded with talented players who at one time or another have been stars and best players on teams. Jason Kidd. Jason Terry. Shawn Marion. Caron Butler. All of them are capable of scoring 30 points and dominating a game. Besides, I don’t care if it’s JJ Barea battling Chris Quinn out there–whenever the Mavs and Spurs play, it’s a battle. This game was going to be competitive no matter what.

It’s kind of a hard game to get the pulse of. The Mavs were the stronger team from the tip, but our bench opened up a huge lead bridging the first quarter into the second, only to have Dallas’ zone totally discombobulate us for the last 6 minutes of the half, in which we only scored 3 points. In the second half, both defenses dug in, the Spurs slowed down and relied on playbooks of yore by dumping the ball into the post to Duncan (who responded quite effectively). Late in the game we opened up a double digit lead, but did our best to give it away with foolish turnovers and bad shot selection. Without Dirk, the Mavs just weren’t up to the task, and we eventually iced the game at the free throw line, despite some late Mavs 3s.

Maybe the nicest thing to take away from this game is the effective and surprising play of Gary Neal. In the National Media, the story on Neal is “3-Point Shooter”, and “another unearthed gem by Pop and Buford”. Both stories are true, and the second one is especially good. But Spurs fan are starting to understand just how much more he is. His 3-point shooting is something to behold, and even when he’s cold, he’s still a threat to hit a big 3 at any time. And boy does he hit the big ones. He has a complete lack of fear of the big moment. In the Mavs game he was about to get pulled by Pop for taking a bad shot on the previous possession, only Ginobili didn’t get to the scorer’s table in time. Still in the game by accident, the ball found its way to Neal’s hands late in the shot clock, and he stepped up and calmly buried the 3 that probably finally buried the Mavs. Oh, and just for good measure, he hit 4 free throws in the next 45 seconds of game time.

And that’s where the more is coming in. As teams are getting wise to his 3-point shooting and running him off the line, he has developed a deadly step-in off the dribble jumper. He can also drive the lane well and finish with a tear drop. He has more athleticism that would initially appear. Most importantly to Pop and his playing time, he fights hard on defense, even if he sometimes makes mistakes. But he’ll push through every screen and bust his ass on every rotation. He has quickly moved up the depth chart and has firmly ensconced himself in the rotation.

As a 26-year old rookie who was undrafted and played for 3 years in Europe, Neal fits two different molds that Pop and the Spurs love: the player who has something to prove, and the player who is over himself, unimpressed with all the superfluous stuff, and just wants to do his job and win games. I love watching him play, and clearly the front office knew what they were doing when they signed him to a contract out of summer league. Lucky Neal, and lucky us.

This was the last game of the Spurs for the calendar year 2010. Have a safe and happy New Year’s Eve, and we’ll see you all back here in 2011!

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