San Antonio Spurs 114, Detroit Pistons 75
(47-14, 24-3 home)
With a loss in Detroit last month being one of only a few blemishes on the Spurs season, and tonight’s game being the first without Parker, there was no doubt that the team was going to come out focused and hungry. The real question was: how well would they play?
And while you might have to subtract a few points for the opponent, the overwhelming response was “whoa”. A 39-point win in the NBA is a 39-point win, no matter the opponent. Top to bottom, the Spurs played beautiful basketball and showed that they can more than weather the storm missing their MVP.
The beauty of the Spurs’ system might in fact be that the system itself is the star, more important than any individual. No one would argue the point that the Spurs can not win a championship without Parker or Duncan or Ginobili playing spectacular basketball; but the system provides the team to win games in bunches in the regular season while missing any number of players. The system is built on breadth, with no one player asked to carry too much of the burden. The system can withstand the loss of any one player for a period of time in the regular season.
And perhaps in the absence of said player, we can look for some bright spots, some places of growth to prepare for the playoffs. In Dan’s recap of the Kings game, he highlighted 4 potential areas of growth for the team in Parker’s absence: more time for Mills; even more accelerated development for Leonard; development into a strong rotation player from De Colo and/or Joseph; and the return of Manu’s mojo. If tonight’s game is any indication, all 4 things could happen in the coming weeks.
It was a bit of a surprise to see Joseph get the start over either De Colo or Mills (or even possibly Manu), but the reasoning went that Pop didn’t want to mess with his rotations coming off the bench. With De Colo’s less than stellar start in the place of Parker last week, that logic made some sense.
And Joseph delivered in a big way. The improvement in his game from year to year is incredible. He looks like a completely different player out there: confident, smart, aggressive, unafraid. (He is a walking billboard for the D-League; given ample playing time in the same system, he never looked lost playing with the “big” club, and his shot is radically improved.) While he still lacks the aggressiveness and creativity of Parker, he controlled the offense, kept the ball moving, and stepped into his shots when they needed to be taken.
But where he impressed the most is on the defensive end, where he hounded the opposing guards, playing adhesive individual defense and smart team defense, coming up with a few steals and loose balls. The truth is, with Joseph starting in place of Parker, we could very well be starting our best defensive unit with Leonard and Green on the wings, and Duncan and Splitter in the middle. While that won’t be an elite offensive unit, it has potential to be an elite defensive unit. Joseph’s play tonight very well might have played him into regular rotation minutes.
And if Manu continues to play like he has, our bench can come in and blow games wide open against opposing benches. Manu played perhaps the best 10 minutes of his season in the first half, capped off by that sick 4-point play to end the first quarter. (The prettiest play, of course, was that “I see plays happen a split second before anybody else does” pass to Leonard on the break for the dunk.) More important than any individual numbers, is just the confidence and patience Manu is playing with. For someone who plays with such feel and abandon, it sounds like a weird thing to say, but he really needs to let the game come to him, to play within himself. He often gets in trouble when he tries too hard, to do too much. But over the last two games, we’ve seen just how deadly he can be while being patiently aggressive.
As to the other two points, Leonard continued to show parts of his game that we never knew he had. Like working in the low post, with a sweet little turn around jumper. It seems like he wants to add just about every aspect to his game. As long as he doesn’t lose any defensive tenacity, I’m all for it.
And I thought Mills had one of his better games, working with Manu well in the second unit, hitting some big shots, and even showing some nice moves off the dribble.
It’ll be interesting to watch the PG rotations with Parker out. Will Joseph continue to start? Will Mills be the second-unit “PG” with Manu? And where will De Colo fit in?
All of this, and we haven’t even talked about Duncan’s silly stat line: 16 pts, 11 rebs, 6 asts, 5 blks. Ho hum.
The longview with Parker’s absence: how will it affect the playoff seeding in the West? One thing I pointed out in my look ahead post last week was that the #2 seed wouldn’t be necessarily bad for the Spurs (Ric Bucher agrees). I like to think of the playoffs as two little tourneys. The first tourney is the 1, 4, 5, and 8 seeds and the 2, 3, 6, and 7 seeds. The second tourney is the Conference Finals and the Finals. In the first tourney, match-ups are vitally important, and are how top seeds are derailed; in the second tourney, it’s the best of the best, and the better team will usually win out. You just want to get to that second tourney and see what happens. The way I see it, there are 2 teams that could cause us trouble in that first tourney: the Lakers and the Grizzlies. As it stands, if the Lakers make it, it will most likely be as the 8 seed (with Houston sliding into 7 and Utah falling out of the picture), and the Grizzlies will almost certainly be the 4 or 5 seed. Meaning, the 1 seed will have to very likely play both of them to make it to the ‘second’ tourney.
As the 2 seed, the first tourney would include the Clippers, the Warriors, and most likely the Rockets or the Jazz. Tough teams, but all teams that we’d match-up favorably against. As the 2 seed, if we made it to the Conference Finals against the (presumably) top seeded OKC, we wouldn’t have home court advantage. But the Thunder will have had to go through the Lakers and the Grizzlies to get there; a horrible “reward” for being the top seed.
I’m not saying that we want to deliberately fall to the 2nd seed; just that the health of Parker and the team in general is more important than securing that top seed.
Counting tonight’s victory, we have 22 games left. If, in the absence of Parker for a strong majority of those, we play .500 basketball, we finish 11-11 with a final record of 57-25. Assuming this, to fall to the #2 seed, the Thunder would have to finish 15-8 (below their season winning percentage); to fall to the #3 seed, the Clippers would have to finish 15-5 (above their season winning percentage). So barring horrible play on our part (or another bad injury), it does look as if we have a strong chance to still finish with a top 2 seed in the West.
And if we have our team back healthy and playing well, I like our chances from either position.
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