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De-Rooked

2017 Western Conference Playoffs, First Round
San Antonio 94, Memphis 105
Spurs lead series 2-1

The Grizzlies did what we thought they would do, what they had to do.

The lower-seeded team winning Game 3 at home after going down 0-2 to start the series is one of the safest bets in sports, particularly when the disparity between the two teams isn’t enormous (sorry, Pacers). The energy of the home crowd mixed with the desperation of going down 0-3 (and essentially ending your season) is a potent cocktail.

And let’s face it: the Spurs, perhaps despite their reputation, aren’t the kind of team to put the clamps down in a Game 3 scenario like this. If you’re not predicting a sweep, then you’re predicting the Grizzlies will win at least one game: Game 3 was the most likely candidate.

That said, we can’t just dismiss the Spurs’ performance. They played well in the first half, fighting off the first rush of energy from the Grizzlies and keeping the game close, only down 4 at intermission.

The second half was a different story. Pop did a wholesale line change only a few minutes in, hopefully sending a message to the starters. You might argue that subbing the bench in so quickly might have cost the Spurs a chance in this game. You might also argue it could be what wins them the series. (We’ll see in Game 4.)

The biggest disappointment in the 2nd half was Kawhi. After another monstrous first half, he was unusually quiet in the second half. He had one big dunk and that’s about it. This isn’t the 2014 Spurs; they aren’t good enough to survive down performances from their star. As Kawhi goes, so do the Spurs. They might not always win when he plays well, but they will surely lose when he doesn’t.

There’s plenty more blame to go around. After a good opening to the series, Parker was terrible in Game 3. Zero points, zero assists, zero steals, 19 minutes. It’s like he was a ghost out there. When Conley is the counterpart, that won’t play well.

While Patty had a bit of a bounce back game (though we’ll need at least one hot shooting game from him this series), Manu and Lee continue to really struggle. Manu has yet to score in this series, and it looks like his age caught up to him right around April 14th. We can handle low-scoring performances from Manu, but he’s really not doing anything else, either.

After a great regular season, Lee is struggling to find his playoff mode. His defense was surprisingly good in the regular season, and it’s been surprisingly (or perhaps not) bad in the post-season. This might be a bit of an exaggeration, but at one point in the 3rd quarter he gave up 7 straight and-1 baskets. On offense, it looks like he hasn’t caught up to the speed of the playoffs, with his cutting and passing just a bit off rhythm.

With such little production from the bench and some glaring holes in the starting line-up, the Spurs are ripe for a loss or two. Let’s hope it’s not more than that.

On the plus side, Kyle is playing very well in his role and minutes. He’s not a series-swinger, but he can be a difference-maker and X-factor. His length is important on defense, and his patience and slithery-ness on offense work in the postseason.

Gasol is also playing well in his minutes and his role. Again, a series can’t hinge on his play, but it can be lost on it.

Simmons showed good energy and reliability off the bench. While he can’t cannibalize Anderson’s minutes, perhaps he might be inserted in instead of Manu or even Parker at times.

Aldridge also had a solid game on both ends. Still, as the clear #2 player on the team, we need more from him.

Game 4 now becomes the swing game of the series. A Memphis win and we’re in for a long one. A Spurs win and it will just about seal it. Memphis has clearly found some things they like, and if they continue to get 2011 Z-Bo, they will be a tough out. If 2017 Z-Bo returns, the Spurs should win Game 4.

I’m excited to see how the team responds after the Game 3 shellacking. Despite it looking like the Spurs we’ve known for so many years, we actually don’t know a whole lot about this squad and how they’ll respond to their first playoff adversity. Game 4 will tell us a lot about the character of this team, win or lose.

Game 4 is Saturday night.

Go Spurs Go.

Photo credit: Eric Gay, Associated Press

Don’t Panic

2017 Western Conference Playoffs, First Round
San Antonio 96, Memphis 82
Spurs lead series 2-0

I suppose we should start with what happened after the game.

That was one helluva rant by Coach Fizdale. As an impartial observer, I loved it. Impassioned, well-reasoned (as far as rants go), and highly quotable. Grizzlies fans should love it; it’s a coach absolutely going to the mat for his team.

As a Spurs fan, I’m indifferent to it. I understand the gamesmanship of it. The Spurs are absolutely taking it to the Grizzlies and getting the calls. I do wonder, though, if he went a bit too far. Calling referees “unprofessional” probably isn’t the best way to get a friendlier whistle.

So we’ll see what happens in Game 3. You can expect an amped crowd and a ton of scrutiny on the fouls. If there’s a team that can fight through it, it’s the Spurs. Avoid the silly fouls early in the game, and everything should be leveled by the fourth quarter.

But enough about that; let’s talk about the game.

The Grizzlies are good, and they get the most out of their resources. But it really does feel like they are just outmatched at this point. I’m not sure there are adjustments they can make, or players they can magically make appear that can guard Kawhi Leonard. Conley or Gasol or ZBo can go off for a quarter or two, and it might be enough to steal a game; but it sure does seem like they just don’t have enough firepower to outscore the Spurs nor enough defensive stamina to slow them down for an entire game.

The Spurs are showing me everything I wanted to see in these playoffs so far. (Yes, it’s only two home games, but I’m taking it!) Kawhi is on another level right now, and is the best player in the series by a significant margin. His best individual playoff performance in Game 1 was short lived, as he followed it up in Game 2 by besting it. Nobody on the Spurs had half as many points as him; nobody on the Spurs had half as many rebounds as him. That’s crazy.

While a quieter performance, LaMarcus is also impressing me. This is the ideal version of Aldridge as a #2 on a high-level playoff team. He can carry the offensive load when Kawhi sits. He is a beast in the paint on both ends, giving sneaky good rim protection. He is playing with the energy and ferocity of a role player, not a star. He might be losing some of the limelight, but he is earning his playoff bona fides.

Danny Green, Pau Gasol, and Tony Parker also played great. But you know who hasn’t been all that awesome? Manu, Patty, and David Lee. Imagine what might happen if the bench unit matches what the starters are doing? Now that would be a blow out.

More likely than not, though, Patty, Manu, and Lee will need to step up during a game when Tony, Danny, or Pau just don’t have it going. And what a luxury to be two deep at every significant role player position. And this doesn’t even begin to mention Anderson, Simmons, or Bertans, all who could come in and alter the course of a game in one 5-minute stint.

Which brings us back to the original point: the Grizzlies just don’t have the resources to hang with the Spurs. They can (and will) grit and grind all they want, but there’s just not enough of either to beat the Spurs 4 out of the next 5 games.

Game 3 is Thursday night in Memphis. Let’s see if the Spurs have it in them to really put this series out of reach.

Go Spurs Go.

Opening Statements

2017 Western Conference Playoffs, First Round
San Antonio 111, Memphis 82
Spurs lead series 1-0

That was a bad start to the game but a wonderful start to the series.

After that first quarter in which Memphis barely missed a shot and San Antonio looked like they were warming up for a rec league game, the Spurs took complete control of the game. The Grizzlies had played well enough in the opening frame to make the game seem closer than it was for much longer, but make no mistake: this was an epic blowout.

To wit: After scoring 30 points in the first quarter, Memphis scored 52 points the rest of the game, or about 17 per quarter. And this number was helped by a 12-point “flurry” in the extreme depths of garbage time as the game neared completion. They had 70 points with about 4 minutes left.

On the other side of the ledger, the Spurs took a 13-point deficit and turned it into a 36-point lead at one point. That’s almost a 50-point swing in about 30 minutes of game time. For the first time facing these Grizzlies this season, the Spurs offense looked unstuck.

The defense was more impressive, though. After that first quarter, they just put the clamps on. Gasol scored a bunch and had a great game, but it wasn’t easy scoring. Gasol’s nature is to be a playmaker first, so it’s not in his nature to be such a dominant scorer. The Spurs seem content to guard him one-on-one, make life difficult, but let him get what he wants and shut everything else down.

Conley is the other primary threat, and the Spurs were amazing corralling and pestering him all night. Parker did great work, but it was really Green and Leonard who frustrated him the most (particularly Green, who continues to be a defensive star). Conley finished with only 13 points on 14 shots. He did notch 7 assists, but for the Grizzlies to have a chance in this series, Conley needs to be an aggressive scorer.

The rest of the Memphis roster (outside of Z-Bo, perhaps) really depends on the play of Conley and Gasol to make everything else hum. By boxing in and isolating their two stars, the Spurs challenged the rest of the Grizzlies roster to beat them. They were not up to the task.

Looking at their roster, it has a bunch of good players, but nobody who you’d expect to go off and have a stellar individual playoff performance. They also have a lot of young players and players new to the playoffs who didn’t seem quite ready for what was going to happen in this game.

The other great revelation from this game was Kawhi Leonard. If this is the playoff Kawhi we can expect, the Spurs will be just fine in this series. He was aggressive on both ends of the court, finishing with a career post-season high of 32 points (on 14 shots). More impressively, though, he had 5 assists, and looked very comfortable taking on the double team and finding the open man. This was a big key coming into these playoffs, and it looks like Kawhi’s playmaking development is ahead of schedule. Adding “playmaking” to Kawhi’s arsenal (on this team, no less) seems almost unfair. I’ll take it.

Game 2 should be a real indicator of where this series is headed. Memphis will surely play better and with less nervousness. Will the Spurs be content getting the one game and let their edge down? Or will they come out even stronger and put the Grizzlies back on their heels, taking full command of the series?

We’ll find out Monday night.

Go Spurs Go.

2017 Playoffs Preview: Referendum Vote

The Spurs have a lot to prove in these playoffs.

For the Spurs, the 2017 Playoffs aren’t about matchups, or adjustments. They’re barely about opponents. These playoffs are about them, their culture, and a referendum on exactly what kind of team they are.

From 2012 to 2014, the Spurs lost in the Conference Finals, lost in the Finals, and won the Finals. It took the perfect storm maturation of 3 generational stars to beat them the first time, and perhaps the most miraculous shot in NBA history to beat them the second time.

Since the 2014 championships, the Spurs have won one playoff series, and that was against a Grizzlies team that was barely able to field a professional starting 5. They’ve lost two series they easily could have won (and were favored to win by many), against the Clippers and the Thunder.

It’s time for the Spurs to decide what kind of team they are.

Are they the playoff beasts of so many championship runs? Or are they the most ruthless and efficient regular season of all time with no extra gear in the postseason?

This is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. The Spurs have essentially perfected the regular season. They maximize every strength of their team, exploit every inefficiency of opponents and the rest of the league, and get the absolute most out of every player (and use their entire roster for season long success).

Many of these things come back to bite them in the ass, though, in the playoffs. Rotations shorten for opponents. Stars play more minutes. The benefits of having a very good 11th man disappear. Intensity is ratcheted up, and everybody is prepared. The system can no longer be counted on to secure the win.

Some may see this as a failing of Pop, but I see it as proof of his absolute coaching genius. The fact that the Spurs can be penciled in for 50 wins (and usually plenty more) every season regardless of almost anything other than the system is a testament to his coaching prowess. Nobody is better.

But there are two games: the regular season, and the postseason. For the last 2 seasons, the Spurs have failed the postseason.

The problem with maximizing the regular season is that you leave no headroom, no place to grow. The Spurs won 61 games this season, the Rockets won 55. But the Rockets might have the headroom of a 62 win team, while the Spurs likely top out exactly where they finished.

Put another way: do the Spurs have a playoff gear?

For the last two seasons, it looks like they haven’t. I fear that’s the rule now, not the exception.

So these playoffs become a referendum on the Spurs’ system and culture: is there more ‘more’ here? Is all this regular season success inversely proportional to postseason success? Is there something inherently flawed (vis-a-vis the Playoffs) about their system?

So these playoffs become a referendum on Coach Pop: he has nothing left to prove to anybody. But is there more there he wants to prove? Does he still have the Playoff chops?

So these playoffs become a referendum about LaMarcus: is he who everyone thinks he is? The slightly churlish superstar whose game is a bit hollow?

So these playoffs become a referendum on the Spurs’ depth: can a bench be critical to postseason success? Or is it merely a tool to gobble up regular season wins?

So these playoffs become a referendum on Kawhi Leonard: he is undoubtedly a superstar; but is he a super-duper-star, the type of player who can carry a team on his back through playoff runs? Does he have the natural offensive talents to win playoff games? Can he be the leader of a playoff team, and not just merely a cog in it?

I’m not concerned about opponents these playoffs. Outside of the Warriors, all six teams in the West present a nearly equal amount of challenge. The Spurs main opponent these playoffs is themselves.

Nobody expects any team to get past the Warriors. For this to be a successful postseason, though, the Spurs need to get to the Warriors and the Western Conference Finals. Anything less would be a disappointment.

The Spurs begin their playoffs Saturday evening against the Grizzlies.

Go Spurs Go.

Not Great, Bob

Season 50, Game 82
San Antonio 97, Utah 101
61-21, 2nd in the West

Intellectually I understand that these last 3 games didn’t matter. Intellectually I can rationalize the three losses away, explain how we pulled our starters in the fourth, and didn’t go for the wins. The rhythm was more important than anything else. Keep the team sharp and focused without overextending them.

This is all intellectually sound. But I don’t watch the games intellectually. I watch them emotionally. And my feelings are hurt.

Losing 3 games in a row sucks. Watching the team play poorly sucks. Falling short in the clutch in back-to-back games sucks.

Again, we can return to the erudite and well reasoned to explain that the final 10 games of the season have as much predictive ability on a team’s future success as the first 10 games do. We can even point to the Spurs recent past, when they surged into the 2012 playoffs, only to flame out in 4 ill-fated games against the Thunder. In 2014, they kind of cruised into the playoffs and rolled to a championship.

But then I’ll just fall back to: but it feels bad. I don’t like what I see. The offense seems a bit stuck in the mud. No player appears to be peaking, and many appear to be slumping a bit. How long can you play without an edge before that becomes the normal? How easy is it to snap back into ‘Playoff mode’? Can a sense of urgency just magically return?

It’s been a wonderful regular season with a slightly disappointing ending. Perhaps I just selfishly wanted the team to get to 63-65 wins, instead of stalling out at 61. Maybe I wanted this because I know the playoffs are almost certainly a fool’s errand, with the near-full strength Warriors looming, casting a giant shadow over the entirety of the NBA.

Maybe I wanted those extra wins because I worry that the Spurs will once again disappoint in the playoffs, failing to get to the Western Conference Finals yet again. Maybe, deep deep down, I worry that this is what the Spurs have become: a team that has mastered the regular season, but have no extra gear for the Playoffs. Perhaps I’m stressed because the games really matter now, and I don’t know if the Spurs are up to the task.

We can worry about that later. For now we can take a broad view and marvel that the Spurs once again won 60 games, finished with the second best record in the league, and enter the Playoffs healthy and in good position to advance. The three teams that beat them to close the season all reside in the other half of the bracket, a side of the bracket featuring the Boogey Man of the NBA, so the odds of us having to play any of these teams again is essentially nil.

Feelings aside, there’s plenty to be optimistic about, intellectually.

The Spurs open the first round of the playoffs Saturday night against the Grizzlies.

Go Spurs Go.

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