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The Closer Problem

By Jeff Koch on March 24, 2013.

Houston Rockets 96, San Antonio Spurs 95
(53-17, 23-13 away)

With about 6 minutes left in the game, it seemed as if Houston had seized control and would pull away to victory. The score was still close, but the tempo and the energy had clearly shifted to the home team, and the Spurs seemed unable to stop their high-powered offense. With the Spurs recent woes in finishing games, hope seemed to be slipping away.

Then a funny thing happened: the defense tightened up,  Tony Parker went on his very own 12-0 run, and the Spurs gained a small measure of control. Parker was brilliant in this 3-4 minute stretch, attacking, finishing in the paint in the way only he can, hitting jumpers, and converting his free throws. Everything was working.

(Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

With just under 2 minutes left, the Spurs got a steal on the defensive end and were on a fast break, led by Kawhi. Up 4, a conversion would put them up 6 and put them in prime position to pull out the win. But Green’s lay-up was blocked and the Rockets converted a 3-pointer on the ensuing break. 5-point swing, 1-point game.

But that’s not where things fell apart. Because Parker got fouled on the next possession and put us up 3. What cost the team was not trusting the offense to Parker in the last few possessions.

And this is a big turn from seasons past. For many years, Parker was our opener, the guy who could get us going in the first quarter and pace the team. But it was always Ginobili down the stretch, with the ball in his hands, making the plays and decisions that would win us ball games. But it’s become quite clear over the last month or so that Ginobili is not that player any more. At least not reliably so on a night-to-night basis. With Parker out 8 games, we had a lot of trouble in the last 3 minutes of close games (even though we still eked out a few wins in them). Parker came back against Utah, and was brilliant in the last few minutes of regulation and particularly OT, when the team ran away with the game.

Tonight looked to be the same. Parker took the game over, and we seemed in position to win. Then for whatever reason, we took the ball out of his hands, had two empty offensive possessions, and let Houston sneak by us for the win. The possessions were sloppy, poorly executed, and hard to watch (as a long time watcher of the Spurs’ usual brilliance down the stretch of close games); and the final play, with 4+ seconds left, was just horrendous. The team is usually masterful coming out of TOs and getting last shots, and this was an embarrassment. I’m not sure if Ginobili was supposed to get the ball back and he was just too covered (because he often lacks the athleticism to get separation anymore) and Duncan couldn’t get it back to him, but I’m certain that a tightly contested Duncan 18-foot jump shot from a spot on the floor that he doesn’t normally shoot from is what the team wanted to try and win the game.

Copyright 2013 NBAE (Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)

I can live with the loss. But my question is: why wasn’t the ball in Parker’s hands? Not even factoring in that he scored 12 consecutive points, why wasn’t he controlling the offense in the last few minutes? And why didn’t we give him a chance to win the game, or at least make the winning play? The Rockets switched Parsons–a long, solid defender–on to Parker. But that shouldn’t matter. The way Parker has played this season, he owns the benefit of every doubt. Besides, Asik was guarding Duncan, who always gives him fits; and Ginobili was being guarded by Beverley, a really solid defender at the guard position.

It could just be that Parker is still finding his legs, and didn’t have the horses to finish. Again, I’ll buy that for one game. But this is something to keep an eye on the last few weeks of the season. There is no more guessing, no remaining question: Parker is our best offensive player, our lead guard, and the guy who should have the ball in his hand in key moments.

The next time this happens, it might be in the playoffs. And a 1-point loss might mean a whole lot more then. Personally, I want to win or lose with the ball in Parker’s hands.

Some more notes from tonight’s dispiriting loss:

–Leonard continues to impress, as per usual, but he still has a tendency to disappear for long stretches of the game. He seemed to be a complete non-factor for most of the second half until the closing minutes. This isn’t entirely his fault, as the team isn’t geared around him. But I’d like to see a little more aggression from him.

–Duncan played great again, but I thought he went at Asik one-on-one a little too much. He has a lot of pride, and sometimes it costs us solid offensive possessions.

–Is there any more frustrating player to play against than Harden? He draws more cheap fouls than any player in the league. On replay most of them appear to be fouls, but he flops and flails and throws his arms into people in such an annoying fashion, it’s hard to watch that get rewarded.

–A pet peeve of watching broadcasts: when they go right to the replay after a made basket, and miss the ensuing few seconds of the next possession. It doesn’t normally matter, but tonight (watching the Houston broadcast, mind you) I totally missed the De Colo steal to Leonard for the dunk on a Rocket inbounds because they were replaying an earlier possession. And since it was against Houston, they did not bother to show that replay.

–Another interesting thing to watch over the next month is who finishes close games. Duncan and Parker will be a given. But who gets the final 3 spots? As far as I can see, it will be between Leonard, Green, Ginobili, and Splitter. Now if we go small (like tonight), Splitter will be the odd man out. But if we stick with two bigs, which two do you want between Ginobili, Green, and Leonard? And isn’t it crazy that this is even a question? Personally, I’ll always take Leonard, and I might choose Green more often than Ginobili. Manu is still the better overall player, but Green is a better defender (very important in crunch time), and he is also a better 3-point shooter at this point, as well. And that improved 3-point shooting might be more important than Ginobili’s overall better floor game, especially with Parker and Leonard able to handle the ball.

The Spurs have a brutal 4-game stretch coming up: Denver, Clippers, Miami (possibly riding a 30-game win streak!), and then Memphis. This is an important week for the playoff seedings.

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