Season 51, Game 34
San Antonio 108, Sacramento 99
23-11, 3rd in the West

The Spurs have survived (and thrived) this season – in the absence of Kawhi Leonard – in large part thanks to the play of their starting bigs.

It’s not the “sexiest” way to play, nor the style that is en vogue. And one could reasonably argue that it won’t get you very far in the playoffs. But, if your goal is to win regular season games and establish some modicum of consistency while players rotate in and out of the rotation, lineups change incessantly, and minutes restrictions severely hamper the development of chemistry, there are worse strategies.

It helps to have LaMarcus Aldridge playing the most well-rounded ball of his career. I won’t necessarily say it’s his best ball, because some of his Portland seasons were exemplary; but I would argue that he is a more complete player now. His offensive gravity is the cornerstone of the Spurs’ offense, whether he’s making or missing shots. When he’s making shots (as he did Saturday night against the Kings), the Spurs have the foundation of a potent offense.

But it’s everything else he’s doing now that is leading to winning. He’s rebounding; he’s passing; he’s setting great screens; he’s doing the dirty work. Most importantly, he is also the backbone of the Spurs’ defense. He’ll never be Tim Duncan, but he is playing the role that Duncan did in the middle stages of his career: anchor of both the offense and defense.

Pau Gasol is well past his prime, but his play this season continues to show that the Spurs have figured out how to maximize the tail-end of players’ careers by limiting wear and tear and emphasizing body maintenance. Gasol looks great this season and has found his niche and role in the system. He is probably the team’s best passer, leading the team with 3.2/game. (This also demonstrates how well the Spurs share the ball, with the team leader being this low.)

While he is not fleet of foot, he is still very tall and very long. By getting in great shape this season, he moves just well enough to still be a positive rim protector and an above average rebounder.

His chemistry with Aldridge is also very impressive. Their high-low game connects at least a few times a game, and they play off of each other very well on both ends.

Gasol notched a triple-double against the Kings: 14 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists. While it was impressive, it was also emblematic of what the Spurs expect from him: a well-rounded game, contributing in lots of areas, but likely not dominating any one area.

A few more notes from the Kings game:

–Keeping with the theme of old farts playing well, Manu was excellent in Sacramento. He hit a couple of big 3s early, and then got to the rim for some impressive finishes late. Seriously, he looked quicker than 90% of the Kings roster, at almost twice the age.

–Murray had another impressive game. He will likely be the next Spurs player to register a triple-double, and it will happen soon. It looks like he is finally starting to read and understand the game. It also looks like he’s starting to trust his jump shot. When his basketball IQ and shooting ability catch up to his natural gifts, he will be an outstanding player.

–Kawhi Leonard sat out again, as the team prefers he has two days of rest after playing. I understand easing him back in slowly, but I’m starting to wonder what the end target is here. While he’s played four games back, he still doesn’t look like himself; the team is still not pushing him; the other players on the court are building no chemistry with him; and the team is worse when he is on the court.

This is to be expected for some time, but how long? The team has no shot at post-season success without him, but right now they are a better regular season team when he doesn’t play. It still doesn’t feel like he is part of the team or part of this season, which is an unsettling thought as we approach Christmas.

If it takes this long to come back, and then this much maintenance once he is back, it begs the question: Will he ever be fully ready this season? Can the Spurs spend an entire season waiting on him?

What in the heck is going on with this injury?

I hope Kawhi comes back fully healthy soon. And I hope the team figures out how to win games with him. But I’m starting to wonder.

Those dark thoughts aside, the Spurs just finished a tough 3-game road trip with a 2-1 record. They get Christmas off for the first time in a long time, which is nice for us fans who’d prefer the day off, as well.

The Spurs face the Nets at home on Tuesday.

Go Spurs Go.