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Running to Stand Still

By Jeff Koch on March 16, 2013.

San Antonio Spurs 119, Cleveland Cavaliers 113
51-16 overall, 28-4 home

The Spurs system is an amazing and beautiful thing to watch, and can cover up a lot. But let’s not confuse the baby for the bath water: like any great system, it’s only as successful as the pieces plugged into it.

What the Spurs’ system does is maximize potential; it doesn’t create talent. So while Danny Green, twice cut and on the NBA scrap heap, can turn into the starting 2-Guard for a championship-caliber team, he can not suddenly become Kobe Bryant; Cory Joseph, playing with a newly discovered confidence and competence, isn’t suddenly Tony Parker.

So yeah, life without Tony Parker is and was always going to be tough. Don’t let past success without the stars fool you: Parker is the heart of everything the Spurs do. So any victory in his absence should be treated as such.

I say all of that as a preface because tonight’s victory against Cleveland wasn’t pretty, nor all the heartening. But it was still a victory in a season where every one will be counted.

The only real joy to come out of tonight’s game was Mr. Tim Duncan, following up his outstanding performance on Thursday against Dallas with perhaps an even better one tonight: 30pts (13-19 shooting), 12 rebs, 4 asts, 5 blks. Are you kidding me? If you want a very loose reading of the game, it goes something like this: the Spurs dominated whenever Duncan was on the floor, and got dominated whenever he was off. So the Spurs built a lead in the first quarter; Duncan sits, the Cavs seize control, Pop gets thrown out, Duncan comes back in, and the Spurs fight back to take a small lead into halftime. The Spurs jump out and seem in control in the third quarter; Duncan sits, the Cavs take the lead, the game is teetering on the brink; Duncan re-enters, the Spurs seize just enough control to win the game.

And while the offense was vintage Duncan, working the low post, the most impressive entry on that stat line is the 5 blocks, because 3 of them came at crucial junctures in the last 6 minutes, to stop potential game-tying and momentum swinging baskets. Just amazing.

Leonard was the other player who stood out tonight: 24 points, 13 rebounds (Duncan and Leonard had 25 rebounds between them; the rest of the team had 18, and the Cavs as a team only had 29), 4 asts, 2 stls, 2 blks. He was just a monster, aggressive on both ends of the court. I’m particularly excited about his newly blossoming assertiveness on the offensive end. I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: Leonard needs to start owning that 3rd option role over Ginobili. He still gets lost at times, going long stretches without asserting himself, and he still defers.

The rest of the starters all played well, too. The hidden story of the game is that every starter had a pretty impactful positive in the game +/-, while all of the bench players were pretty bad in the negative, save for Ginobili, who probably only got that + from sharing the floor with Duncan and Leonard for longer stretches. The starters were +20, +25, +16, +16, +10; the bench were -18, -13, -12, -3, -17, and +6. Single game numbers are often misleading for +/-, but they say something when they are that jarring.

What is painfully clear with the eye test is that the defense just falls apart without Duncan (and Leonard, to a lesser degree), on the floor. Tiago has greatly improved his defense, but is still much better in the shadow of Duncan. Even at 36, Duncan can still erase a lot of mistakes. But when the bench comes on to the floor, the opposing teams (pretty bad teams of late) have their way with us. It’s pretty bad.

The other real big concern over the last week or so is the play of Ginobili. In Parker’s first few missed games, Ginobili was brilliant, really being patient and running the offense. But since then, he’s just been horrible. Even with some decent numbers, he has played really bad basketball, often really hurting the team. He gambles on defense more than ever, too often going for the steal, getting out of position, and starting a chain reaction which is leading to a wide open shot for the other team. On offense, he is trying to do too much on his own, trying too hard to attack and force the issue, and taking the team completely out of rhythm. The threat of a drive to the hoop always exists with Manu, but he is at his best as the creative genius, looking to pass and set up teammates, rather than trying to win games by himself. It’s no mistake that the offense completely fell apart at the end of the Dallas game with the ball in his hands. The same thing happened tonight, as our offense went cold the last minute and a half, with Manu forcing things and going away from what worked.

I’m really worried about Manu heading into the playoffs. In a certain role, he is still magnificent and has a lot to offer. But when he tried to do too much, it more often than not hurts the team. I no longer trust Manu with the ball in his hands at critical moments, which almost literally hurts me to write. But it’s true.

The hope is that when Parker comes back, everybody else’s role will fall into place, Leonard’s role and confidence will continue to grow, and Manu will find his spot and his groove.

But I’ve always been an optimist.

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