Author: Jeff Koch (page 1 of 30)

Aldridge Too Much For Wolves As Spurs Notch Another Key Win

Season 51, Game 70
San Antonio 117, Minnesota 101
40-30, 7th in the West

I could get used to this winning thing.

It’s a small hurdle for the usually lofty standards of the Spurs, but Saturday’s win against Minnesota marked the first 3-game winning streak the Spurs have had since the end of December. Almost 3 months without winning more than 3 games in a row (and often losing a bunch of games in a row). On that face, this was another huge win for the team.

But it’s not just that the team is winning; it’s how the team is winning. They are fighting; they are competing; they are playing with an edge. In other words, they look exactly like the Spurs you would expect to see playing without their best player: they might not have the talent to compete with you, but they’ll be damned if you’ll get anything easy or they’ll beat themselves.

And yes, every win has been at home, where the Spurs have been solid all year. But two of the three wins were against West teams competing for the same playoff spot, and getting those wins was crucial to playoff hopes. Basically, every game from here on out is a “Not-quite-a-playoff-game-but-more-than-a-regular-season-game” game, and the Spurs are (finally) showing up for these games.

The story of Saturday’s win against the Wolves must necessarily begin with the play of LaMarcus Aldridge. Granted we’re all subject to recency bias, but this may be the finest game he has played as a member of the team. After a slow start to the game, he was absolutely electric in the second quarter, willing the team to an 11-point halftime lead. He was getting his offense in every way possible: his patented midrange jumpers, bullying in the post, from the flow of the Spurs offense, and fighting his ass off under the rim to get offensive putbacks.

When the game was still in doubt in the 4th, he once again had a little personal scoring flurry, helping to put the game out of reach for good with about 4 minutes to go.

When LaMarcus wasn’t beasting, the rest of the team was playing more in line with “the beautiful game” of seasons past, rather than whatever it is we’ve been subjected to this season. The key to the Spurs’ offense is to play fast but not be in a hurry. Make quick decisions, keep the ball and yourself moving, but don’t settle for anything. Again, over these last three games, something seems to have clicked back into place for the squad, and the offense is just playing at a much higher level.

Rudy Gay also had a really nice game. It feels like he is finally getting comfortable coming back from his injury and fitting into the Spurs’ offense. For a player like Gay, there is a delicate balance of getting your own and flowing in the system. Or, between being too selfish and too selfless. He is a gifted scorer, and that role is much needed coming off the bench. Playing alongside Pau Gasol, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker (our new Hall of Fame bench crew) is allowing Gay to fit in perfectly.

Gay has also been better than advertised on defense. In the 4th quarter, he and Aldridge were fierce rim protectors, notching several blocks and generally stopping the Wolves in the paint. If he can play the 4, the Spurs have a potent closing lineup available to them.

A very banged-up Warriors team comes to town Monday night. This isn’t “must win”, but with the state Golden State is in (Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, and Play Thompson are all out, and Draymond Green is not 100% health), the Spurs should be favored to win the game.

Go Spurs Go.

Spurs Get Key Win in Rugged Battle With Pelicans

Season 51, Game 69
San Antonio 98, New Orleans 93
39-30, 8th in the West

It wasn’t always pretty, it wasn’t always easy. But it was a victory.

For the first time in a very long time, the Spurs strung two wins together, and in doing so, put themselves back in the playoff picture. Only a Clippers loss to the Rockets allowed them to squeak back into 8th. But a few more wins, and they’ll shoot all the way back up to 4th. That’s how tight this Western Conference race is.

After a very easy (and expected) win agains the Magic on Tuesday, Thursday’s contest against the Pelicans set up to be a more thorough test of the Spurs, hoping to provide an indicator of what we might expect over the final stretch of games.

The team started hot, scoring 37 in the first quarter, and 60 in the first half. Pop recently changed up the starting line-up, putting Danny Green back in as the 3, sliding Kyle Anderson to the 4 and LaMarcus Aldridge to the 5. Pop has long been reticent to go small (and especially to start small), but I like this new wrinkle. Aldridge is more and more the prototypical center in this “new” style NBA, and Anderson’s future in the league is almost certainly as a small 4. Against most teams, he has enough size and length to defend the opposing 4, while his PG-like skills cause problems on offense for most opposing defenses.

In the very small sample of this starting line-up, the team is definitely getting off to better offensive starts, which is critical.

Of course, the real issues in this long losing morass has been closing games in the 4th quarter. While the offense was still pretty ugly (a trend that started at the start of the second half), the defense was very good, particularly in the closing moments of the game. The Pelicans were limited to only 35 points in the second half, with just 15 coming in the 4th quarter. The Spurs didn’t score a basket in the final 5:55 of the game, but it didn’t matter, because their defense completely stymied the Pelicans, and they made just enough free throws to pull out the win.

Before we wrap this up, let’s give special recognition to Manu Ginobili. He had a stretch in the 3rd quarter where he took a charge from Anthony Davis (seeing a split second ahead of everybody else, he clearly stepped into the charge, baiting both Davis and the refs), blocked Davis from behind (what Spurs fans like to call “a Harden”), then pulled a Chris Paul and baited Davis into another foul by running him over at half court. And lest we forget, the charge was almost the direct cause of Alvin Gentry getting a technical foul, while Davis was assessed a technical after the second foul. Naturally, Ginobili made both technical free throws. For good measure, he knocked in a bit 3-pointer a few minutes later.

All this to say, at 40 years of age, Ginobili is as electric as ever. Never retire, Manu.

This was a huge win in the playoff race, as the Spurs gained a whole game on the Pelicans by both winning and forcing the Pelicans into a tough loss. The Pelicans now go home and play 5 games in 6 nights due to a being forced to play a game from earlier in the season that had to be rescheduled. That’s a brutal stretch, and hopefully the Spurs can make up even more ground on the Pelicans over the next week.

On Saturday night, the Spurs play another game with huge playoff implications against the Minnesota Timberwolves. They are playing without Jimmy Butler, so this is another great opportunity to get a good win and make up some ground in the West.

Go Spurs Go.

Spurs Get Rare Easy Win Against Tanking Magic

Season 51, Game 68
San Antonio 108, Orlando 72
38-30, 9th in the West

It’s been over a month since the Spurs won a game without any anxiety or undue late game stress. What a joy, so quickly forgotten in this agonizing season.

There’s not much to say. The Magic really didn’t want to win this game, and the Spurs really did want to win this game. Add that up, and the result is fairly easy to determine.

Of course, the last time the Spurs played an opponent that really didn’t want to win a game, they almost lost the game at the buzzer on a Marc Gasol banked in 3 that maybe could’ve been a foul and given the Grizzlies a chance to tie the game. With the way this season has turned over the last few months, we don’t take any game or win for granted.

Coming off that difficult road trip, the Spurs kick off 6 straight games at home. Regardless of opponent, it’s a huge confidence boost to start the homestand with such a dominating win. Even though the opponent wasn’t always up to the task, just seeing the ball move around and watching the offense hum (and shots go in) can do so much for the psyche and confidence of a team.

Now stealing a couple of wins against these Western Conference opponents doesn’t seem like quite the chore it did 48 hours ago. The Warriors and Wolves are banged up, the Pelicans are still a one-man band, the Wizards are as up-and-down a team as there is in the NBA, and we definitely owe the Jazz a loss. Put together a respectable stretch of home games (4-2, maybe even 5-1), and suddenly we’re right back in this thing.

For a night, it was nice to be reminded of the Spurs we all remember and cherish. Can we get an encore performance?

We’ll find out Thursday night against the Pelicans. This is a really important game for the playoffs, as a Spurs win and a Pelicans loss are both very good things.

Go Spurs Go.

Spurs Eke Out Win Over Hapless Grizzlies

Season 51, Game 64
San Antonio 100, Memphis 98
37-27, 5th in the West

The Spurs win, hallelujah!

It’s more a sigh of relief than an exultation of joy, though. True to recent form, the Spurs tried their hardest to give this game away in the final minute. Up 9 with 90 seconds left, the Spurs barely won. You and I both watch enough basketball to know just how difficult this feat is.

Luckily, the Grizzlies were in no mood to win this game, as winning is losing for the franchise fighting like hell to get to the bottom of the league.

In summary: the Spurs barely hung on to beat a team that is tanking so hard winning this game would have been a disappointment. Ladies and gentleman, you’re 2018 San Antonio Spurs.

Tony Parker played extremely well, with scoring bursts in the first and fourth quarters to help put this game out of reach. LaMarcus Aldridge didn’t play well in his return from injury, clearly still bothered by the tweaked ankle. Pau Gasol hurt his shoulder and Rudy Gay busted his ear drum, as if this team didn’t have enough odd injury woes.

The real issue, though, is the lack of joy. This team used to be so much fun to watch play, and it’s just a slog now. It’s not one thing; it’s everything. Kawhi’s injury; the team’s lack of cohesion and competitiveness, particularly late in games; the boring, plodding offense.

Remember the beautiful game? I wonder if the Spurs do. There offense lacks so much imagination right now, and is so slow to develop and barely creates any advantages or openings. It’s usually one player getting just a slight advantage in isolation and shooting a decent–not good, not great–shot. It doesn’t inspire; it doesn’t awe.

It’s impossible to know the hearts and motivations of people I don’t know and only see through a screen. But it sure does seem like this season has worn on the collective team. The team has always been professional, but they also always exuded a joy, a happiness. Now it just seems so blah.

Maybe this is just my projection of experiencing my first less-than-great season as a fan. Either way, I find it hard to get excited night to night, game to game, when it used to come so easily. I don’t know if Kawhi can fix that, for me or for the team.

After going 1-2 on the most recent homestand, the Spurs now embark on what might be the most difficult 3-game road trip in the league: at Golden State, at Oklahoma City, at Houston. 0-3 is a real possibility. 1-2 should be considered a success.

If the Spurs do go 0-3 over these next three games, I suspect they will find themselves outside of the playoff picture with a real shot at missing the playoffs.

The most important of these games is Saturday night at Oklahoma City, because: a) this is the easiest of the three games, and; b) this is a game against a team in the same morass as the Spurs, so a loss for the Thunder helps just as much as a win for the Spurs.

Here’s hoping there’s still some hope a week from now.

Go Spurs Go.

Spurs Drop Fourth Straight Home Game to Streaking Lakers

Season 51, Game 63
San Antonio 112, Los Angeles Lakers 116
36-27, 6th in the West

After 20 years, we’re finally seeing the limits of “the system”.

There’s only so much talent a team can lose before they stop being good. For years, the Spurs seemed to defy all logic by riding their system and culture and mystique to win after win, even when their best players sat.

But this season is different. The team has less talent at the top (no Big 3 in sight, only role players after LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard), and the rest of the roster is perhaps the weakest it’s been in Pop’s tenure. It’s full of veterans well past their prime and young players years ahead of their primes, and no player or core of players to unify around.

The team fights, and they play to the best of their abilities. That is no longer enough.

Saturday’s game had an eerie resemblance to Wednesday’s loss to the Pelicans. A double-digit lead in the third quarter (15 on Wednesday, 17 on Saturday) slowly evaporated, until the opponent took their first lead of the game with about 2 minutes left. In late game situations, nothing just seems to go right for this team. On Wednesday, the Pelicans had Anthony Davis, far and away the best player on the floor. On Saturday, Lonzo Ball of the Lakers improbably hit 3 3-pointers in the final 2 minutes to give the Lakers the surprising win.

You can’t script these things. The Spurs are doing everything right to “earn” these wins, and yet they’re not.

There’s no one play or player to point to, just a string of unfortunate events and a series of plays executed slightly below average. Add all of that up, and it’s loss after loss.

Would the Spurs have beaten the Lakers with a healthy Aldridge? Probably. But he wasn’t and they didn’t.

The Spurs have now dropped 4 home games in a row, and have lost 8 of their last 10. In those 10 games, the Spurs rank 17th in Defensive Rating, slightly better than the Oklahoma City Thunder and slightly worse than the Orlando Magic. It was defense that carried the team early in the season, and now it’s defense letting them down late in the season.

I don’t know what else to say. Every game feels headed towards the same inevitable outcome. The Spurs needed to win these last two games, and they didn’t. Believe it or not, this Lakers game was one of the easiest remaining games on the schedule for them. They blew it.

The team is in real jeopardy of missing the playoffs. This is not a drill. Every team in the playoff hunt in the West (and some that aren’t) is playing better than the Spurs right now. The buffer they built up early in the season has evaporated. The team is fighting for their playoff lives without their best player and with a less-than-100% second best player (who has been their best player all season because their “real” best player has a mysterious ailment, but that’s another story for another day, maybe).

The team has the hardest schedule left in the NBA. Not one of the hardest; the hardest. There’s no reason to think they’ll make the playoffs, other than “they’re the Spurs and they always make the playoffs”. That doesn’t mean squat right now.

Kawhi might come back. It might not matter.

What a season.

The Spurs play perhaps their easiest remaining game of the season when Memphis comes to town Monday night. They have to win this one.

I have no confidence they will.

Go Spurs Go.


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