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Feeling Minnesota

Season 50, Game 70
San Antonio 100, Minnesota 93
54-16, 2nd in the West

Kawhi Leonard looks tired.

The Spurs won the game (Minnesota has been playing great lately, but the Spurs just kind of own them right now), but all I could think watching it was that Kawhi just isn’t quite right.

He’s short on his shot. His percentages are dipping ever so slightly (more dramatically from 3, where he is slumping). He misses key defensive rotations. Everything just seems to be a bit more labored than usual.

Mind you, he’s still great. And he’s still efficiently productive. But he just looks tired. Which isn’t surprising, given the load he is asked to carry each and every game for this team. His offensive responsibilities aren’t quite to the level of Harden or Westbrook, but his defensive responsibilities more than make up for it. Pound for pound, possession for possession, no player is asked to do more for his team than Kawhi Leonard. And it’s starting to show.

Will Pop rest him? He usually reserves that for his older players (and it pays dividends for them, long-term and short-term). By doing so, he would be acquiescing the 1-seed. But that might be a forgone conclusion, regardless. The 2-seed and health is more important that the 1-seed and a tired Kawhi.

On the bright side, Aldridge has been playing better than ever. His jumper is rounding into form, and he’s been the most aggressive I can remember him in a Spurs’ uniform. Gasol can’t miss on his shot, and he’s a natural fit with the second unit. Ginobili and Mills are both playing great. When Parker is rested, he is filling his role perfectly. Lee and Dedmon provide amazing depth in the frontcourt.

The rest of the squad is rounding into playoff form. But Kawhi is the center of the whole operation, the keystone that holds everything in place. In a sense, the team’s entire playoff fortunes rest on him. Will he have the energy to meet the challenge?

The Grizzlies come to town Thursday night. The Spurs own them one. (Or two, but we’ll start with one.)

Go Spurs Go.

Good Tony Is Good For A Night

Season 50, Game 69
San Antonio 118, Sacramento 102
53-16, 2nd in the West

At least this time the Spurs didn’t wait until they were down 28 to start their comeback.

Continuing the trend of sluggish starts, the Spurs let the Kings jump out to a quick double digit lead. Once again, they were sluggish and out of sorts on offense, and nothing was coming easy. About midway through the first quarter, the Spurs started pressing full court, forced 4 straight TOs, and got themselves back in the game.

While I like a lot of the young players on this Kings team post-Cousins trade, they’re just not a very competitive team. If the game is competitive, it’s the Spurs fault. Thankfully, it was only competitive for about 20 minutes.

The most important takeaway from this game was the play of Parker. After his first shift, he looked great. By extension, so did the rest of the team. You can actually trace the moment when the Spurs seized control of this game to the moment that Parker started to play well in the 2nd quarter. He made some vintage drives to the rim. His stroke looked pure on the midranger.

In the third quarter, he went into set-up mode, and the offense hummed inversely proportional to how it clunked in the first quarter. The end result: a season-tying 41-point third quarter.

All of this just helps to illustrate the Parker problem: to be great, the team needs him to be good. (Not even great, just good.) And when he is good, the team is great. But getting a fresh, consistent Parker is near-impossible. Game to game, you have no idea which Tony is coming to play. But the only path to true greatness is with a good Tony.

So how can the team be a championship contender when the only truly reliable variable is that Tony will be not be reliable?

And moving past this season, what do the Spurs do about Tony? Easing him to a lesser and lesser role will not be as easy as it was with Manu and Tim, and the team might have to choose between keeping Tony and keeping a younger, more valuable piece. Can they make the cutthroat business decision they never had to make with their other legacy players?

Thinking too much about it makes my head and my heart hurt. But make no mistake: a Tony Parker reckoning is coming, sooner rather than later.

Until then, there’s still a season to play out. The Spurs travel to Minnesota for a one-off roadie on Tuesday night.

Go Spurs Go.

Two Steps Back

Season 50, Games 67 and 68
San Antonio 106, Portland 110
San Antonio 96, Memphis 104
52-16, 2nd in the West

After taking the 1-seed (and taking control of their seeding destiny), the Spurs went on a 2-game losing skid and lost both.

The Spurs have the toughest schedule remaining, with most games against playoff teams fighting for seeds or teams fighting for their playoff lives. In a sense, the playoffs have begun.

The Spurs, however, are not ready for the playoffs just yet. On Wednesday night, they faced a playoff-level offense in the Blazers, and the defense was not up to the task. On Saturday night, they faced a playoff-ready defense in the Grizzlies, and the offense was not up to the task.

In both games, the team played fine…for the regular season. There was nothing egregiously bad about either game. The other teams just played with a higher level of intensity over the 48 minutes and took the win, rather than hoping for it. The Spurs were just a step slow on rotations, a moment slow on making the right read and proper play out of it, and just not ready for the increased intensity of the game.

It seems as if the Spurs won’t have the luxury of gliding into the playoffs. They may not be ready for the playoffs, but the playoffs are ready for them. Their remaining schedule includes the Grizzlies twice, the Jazz twice, the Warriors and the Cavs once each, the Mavs, the Clippers, the Wolves, and the Thunder. All of these opponents will have stakes and will be looking for the “big win” against San Antonio. The Spurs better be ready.

Many of these teams could also be first-round opponents. The most likely first-round match-up at this point is Memphis, Oklahoma City, or Los Angeles. All three teams have presented problems for the Spurs this year (combined, the Spurs are only 2-5 against those three teams this season), and could be a heavy burden in the first round.

On the plus side, nothing sharpens a team for the playoffs like a tough schedule. We hope.

A few more thoughts from these two games:

–It was great to see LaMarcus back, and without limitations. He was definitely rusty against the Blazers, and it might have cost the team. But he looked sharper against Memphis, and his ability to hit that midranger and bang in the post will be critical in the playoffs. He has a lot riding on these playoffs.

–Memphis’ defense was about as good as we’ve seen this season. Tony Allen on Kawhi was surprisingly effective, and their rotations and close-outs clearly had the Spurs moving quicker than they would like. Adding a semi-potent offense to this defense makes Memphis a scary first-round opponent. Even if you beat them, you pay a toll.

–So much of the NBA these days is the variance of 3-pt shooting. There is much belief that the only real defense for 3-pt shooting is just preventing the shot. Outside of that, it’s mostly just noise and anomaly. In these two games, the opponents shot a combined 22-for-52 from 3, for 42%. That’s really good. If the two teams shoot closer to league average, that might be the difference between two losses and two wins. Sometimes, all you can do is shrug.

–Simmons had a good game against the Grizzlies after spending a few weeks in Pop’s doghouse. Hopefully this is a sign of things changing for him. His athleticism and skill will be needed in the playoffs.

The Spurs return home for a quick back-to-back against the Kings on Sunday night. Sacramento gave the team quite a scare a few weeks ago, so here’s hoping the team can take care of business and get back on the winning track.

Go Spurs Go.

First For A Night

Season 50, Game 66
San Antonio 107, Atlanta 99
52-14, 1st in the West

With Monday’s win against Atlanta, the Spurs did something most people thought impossible before the season: they took possession of first in the West. Yes, yes, technically they are tied with Golden State. But the Spurs own the tiebreaker, so I’m taking it: the Spurs are first.

Most of us thought the Warriors would be just too good to really be challenged for the top spot in the West. But with the injury to Durant and some recent lackluster play, they are vulnerable. Most probably also thought the Spurs would be good but not quite this good. After losing Duncan and making no big offseason splash, the Spurs were set to fall back just a little bit.

Nope. The emergence of Kawhi as a super-duper star and the unrelenting consistence and excellence of the Spurs system dictated otherwise. Same story, different season.

The Warriors play the Sixers at home tonight, so they will likely claim that top spot back again, for the night. But the race is real, and the 1-seed is up for grabs.

As for Atlanta, they played hard, as they usually do. And they lost, as they almost always do in San Antonio. 19 straight years now they’ve lost in the Alamo City. That’s…not good. While the Hawks have done their best to mimic the Spurs, they haven’t been able to model the same consistency and continuity. The team that won 60 games a mere few seasons ago is all but gone, and that style of play with it.

The Spurs lost in OT in Atlanta earlier in the season, so the Spurs had extra motivation to avenge that loss. Coming back from a concussion, Leonard looked solid early, but struggled with his shot in the second half. Still, he made big plays when he had to, and iced the game at the free throw line.

Mills once again looked solid starting in place of Parker, which once again made me wonder if he actually wouldn’t be a great fit in that starting line-up. Hmmm…. The Spurs have some tough decisions to make regarding Parker in the near future. He still has value as he ages (just as Duncan and Ginobili did), but where? And will he accept a much lesser role? And can the Spurs even keep Mills?

The other player that impressed me against the Hawks was Forbes. He hit a couple of big shots. But more importantly, he finally looked like he belonged out there and that he understood what was going on. On defense he was making all the right rotations and reads, and on offense he was in the right spots at the right times. With his shooting stroke, he can be a valuable role player in the future.

Also of interest: Simmons didn’t play until the 4th quarter, and was quickly yanked after a bit of sloppy play. He has been a bit off since the All-Star Break, and it seems as if he is in Pop’s doghouse a bit. His athleticism and overall floor game will be needed in the playoffs, so if there’s something that needs tuning up, now is the time to do it. This will be something to monitor over the next few weeks.

The Spurs face the Blazers at home Wednesday night.

Go Spurs Go.


Let Down And Hanging Around

Season 50, Game 65
San Antonio 107, Golden State 85
51-14, 2nd in the West

What was anticipated to be one of the most exciting and important games of the season turned into a dud, an exhibition of the NBA’s grueling schedule and the grind these players put their bodies through each and every day, rather than the sublimity of their athleticism and talent.

I’m in the minority, likely, as I enjoy the games when the Spurs’ “others” are forced to carry the load. You’ll never get closer to “the beautiful game” we saw in 2014 than when it’s just the bench and non-stars, because that’s the only way that cast of characters can reasonably compete in the NBA. For one night, the ball was whipping around, the team was bombing away from 3, and it was electric in the AT&T Center. (This isn’t to take away from the sheer brilliance of Kawhi and LaMarcus; they just function better in different situations and roles. The way the team plays with Kawhi is still the best path to ultimate success.)

Of course, these “others” had such success in part because of who they were playing against. As Pop said afterwards, “it wasn’t a fair fight”. The Warriors were literally without their five best players on a team specifically engineered to be top-heavy. Even without Kawhi and LaMarcus, the Spurs were no match for that Warriors squad.

The win was nice, and while the game was short on stars, it was long on consequence. With the victory, the Spurs are a mere 1/2 game back from the Warriors for the 1-seed. Also by virtue of the victory, the Spurs now own the tiebreaker over the Warriors. Believe it or not, the Spurs are in control of the 1-seed. While the usual party line still applies that “getting there healthy” is still the most important thing, the difference between the 1-seed and the 2-seed is likely the difference between playing the Nuggets or Blazers, the Jazz or Clippers, and then the Warriors with home court advantage; or playing the Grizzlies or Thunder, the Rockets, and then the Warriors without home court advantage. That’s a stark difference.

With regards to how the two teams actually match up, nothing can be learned from Saturday night. From the Spurs side, it was nice to see Patty get his shot going (and his play did make me wonder how he would look as the full-time starter; his shooting could actually do wonders for the starting line-up); it was nice to see Bertans get some burn and show off his shot and how valuable he could be as a scorer off the bench; it was nice to see Kyle play a solid NBA game; it was nice to see Dedmon get back to his energetic and game-effecting ways; it was nice to se Manu still be the orchestra conductor.

But nothing matters as much as the health of the two at the top. From all accounts, Kawhi’s injury is not serious. He is progressing though the concussion protocol, teammates and staff seemed unworried, and even hinted that they hope to have him for Monday’s game.

LaMarcus, on the other hand, is much more serious. You don’t mess around with brains, and you don’t mess around with hearts. It may end up being a minor thing, as well. But Aldridge’s heart episode is a necessary reminder that this is still just a game played for fun and enjoyment. Ensuring he has a long and healthy live that he can enjoy is much more important. There will be more tests on Monday, and hopefully he’ll be able to return to the court fully healthy soon. The most important part of that last sentence, though, is “fully healthy”. Best wishes and full health, LaMarcus.

The Spurs face the up-and-down Atlanta Hawks in San Antonio on Monday night. The Hawks beat the Spurs in OT earlier in the season, so they are owed one.

Go Spurs Go.

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