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Concussed

Season 50, Game 64
San Antonio 92, Oklahoma City 102
50-14, 2nd in the West

The Spurs were due a loss. After flirting with one for the last two weeks but always escaping with the win, the L was coming for them sooner rather than later. In the wake of Wednesday’s huge comeback win, Thursday’s back-to-back in Oklahoma City was the perfect spot for the loss.

It’s fine. I expected to lose that game. The Spurs are still 9-1 in their last 10 games and still moving in the right direction. The Thunder had lost 4 in a row and were hungry for a win. Sometimes it’s that simple: motivation, rest, location. Those three things can tell you a lot about the outcome of a game.

Pop was clearly playing with a different set of priorities. He spread the minutes around, and tried out some new combinations. The game was likely lost at the beginning of the 2nd quarter, when the Spurs trotted out Forbes, Murray, and Dedmon together for several minutes. That’s a lot of inexperience and lack of corporate knowledge in one lineup. Most teams make their move against the Thunder when Westbrook sits (usually the start of the 2nd and 4th quarters, respectively); the Spurs lost ground both times.

Credit the Thunder, though; they played great. A team not known for their shooting made their shots. And even without Durant, they continued to give the Spurs fits with their size and aggressive offensive rebounding and general rough and tumble interior play. The team is flawed, but it would be a very difficult first round match-up.

While the loss is of little importance, there are a few things that are more concerning long-term. The first of this is most obvious: Kawhi Leonard’s health. Concussions are serious business. What can appear minor or incidental can linger for weeks. Often, even when players come back from concussions, the effects can wreak havoc on their attention, focus, and overall ability to play at a top level. The Spurs can ill afford a concussion to adversely affect Leonard for days, let alone weeks. Here’s hoping it’s minor.

Beyond that, the depressed play of a few role players continues to cause worry. Mostly Dedmon and Simmons. After moving to the starting lineup and having an impressive few weeks stretch, Dedmon has been a complete non-factor in most recent games. His energy, defense, and rim running have been average to ineffectual, and he’s had almost zero impact plays. This leaves a big hole in the starting lineup. I still like Gasol off the bench, and Lee works better off the bench, too. I don’t know if there’s a good answer other than letting Dedmon play through it and hopefully figure it out.

Simmons also seems off since the All-Star break. He routinely seems to make the wrong decision on when to drive, shoot, or pass. His drives to the rim have been less effective, he’s been a bit careless with the ball, and his minutes have not been very productive. He seems hesitant and lacking in confidence on the court. After usurping Anderson’s spot in the lineup, the team can’t afford for him to regress. Backing up Kawhi isn’t big minutes, but it’s important minutes.

Still, the Spurs are sitting in a great position. The Warriors are reeling, and that 1-seed is there for the taking. Golden State comes to town Saturday night for a hugely important game. Kawhi isn’t playing. On the other side, Curry, Thompson, Green, and Iguodola are all sitting, and Durant is still out with injury. Has a game with such impact ever been played with less impactful rosters?

The Spurs have a golden opportunity to get a win and move into a virtual tie with the Warriors for the top spot (though the Warriors would still technically hold it). Here’s hoping they seize that opportunity.

Go Spurs Go.

 

Fifty the Hard Way

Season 50, Game 63
San Antonio 114, Sacramento 104
50-13, 2nd in the West

I’ve seen a lot of Spurs basketball, and I feel confident saying that first quarter was the worst quarter I’ve ever seen the team play.

“Complete trash” is the phrase that comes to mind. Evans, Koufos, Hield, and Labissiere all looked like they were going to have career nights, while the Spurs looked like they had forgotten to shoot. Parker was horrible. Dedmon was horrible. Simmons (starting in place of Kawhi) was horrible. It looked like the game was over after about 8 minutes.

This “1st Quarter Surrender” has been going on for five games now. In that stretch, the Spurs are allowing an average of 32 points in the first quarter. Over the remaining 3 quarters, they are allowing an average of 68.2 points, just double what is happening in that first quarter. Broken down further, they allow just 21.5 pts/quarter from the 2nd quarter on, after that 32 mark in the first. Or, 2.67 pts/min in the first, and 1.79 pts/min after that.

Why does the first quarter defense suck so bad? Theoretically, it should be better with Dedmon in the starting lineup, paired with Leonard, Green, and Aldridge (3 of the better defensive players on the team). Parker isn’t that bad at defense. Is it just a lack of preparation? I wouldn’t expect that from that group of players.

Dedmon, in particular, has been fairly unremarkable (ranging from mediocre to bad) in this recent stretch, after being so impressive in the month prior. I still think starting him over Gasol is the right call for a variety of reasons–especially how it sets up the game long rotations–but it is a bit disconcerting to see Dedmon struggle lately. Here’s hoping he regains his confidence and rhythm.

Back to this train wreck of a first quarter. The subs came in and it barely helped. Yet, you could see the spark of something there. It took for the lead to balloon to 28 points before that spark finally ignited.

Manu Ginobili was a goddamn monster in this game. It was a vintage performance, complete with clutch shots, crazy playmaking, reckless abandon, passion, and plenty of ‘what the hell?’ moments. Make no mistake, though: Ginobili won this game for us. Without his energy and refusal to lose, the team rolls over and takes the L.

Patty Mills and David Lee also came along for the ride. Mills, while still struggling to shoot consistently, was his usual firecracker self, a bundle of energy and freneticism on both ends of the court. David Lee continues to be perhaps the biggest revelation of this season (non-superstar division), showing out on both ends of the court. He gets the team at least 2-3 cheap and easy baskets every game. Tonight, his fight helped bring us back.

Beyond those three, it was a trio of deep bench players that had the fight to bring the team back. Anderson, Murray, and Bertans all played big minutes off the bench and kept pounding that rock.

With Kawhi and LaMarcus sitting, a loss wouldn’t be completely unexpected. Nor really that big of a deal. Once down 28, it seemed like the loss the team had been so artfully eluding over the last 5 games was finally coming for them.

And yet, with tonight’s win and Golden State’s loss to the Celtics, that 1-seed is in sight. Almost unthinkable at the beginning of the season, it now seems almost like a 50/50 proposition. With Durant down, the Warriors struggling, the Spurs surging, and two games left head-to-head, the Spurs could easily overtake the Warriors in the standings.

After tonight, they are just 1 1/2 games back. We’ll see where that stands after the two teams play on Saturday. With The Rockets almost certainly lodged into that 3-seed, the 1-seed has a distinct advantage in the Western Conference this season. While I value rest and health, I would like to see the Spurs go for it (without pushing any player too hard). It could be the difference between another disappointing second round exit and a chance to play for the title. Seriously. Those are high stakes.

First things first: the Spurs face Westbrook and the Thunder in OKC Thursday night.

Go Spurs Go.

Say His Name

Season 50, Game 62
San Antonio 112, Houston 110
49-13, 2nd in the West

His name is Kawhi Leonard.

Good lord, that was a fun game (It’s easy to say that in retrospect, rooting for the victor. Rockets fans might have a different perspective), capped off by as sudden and definitive a submission into the MVP race as you’ll ever find by one Mr. Kawhi Leonard.

With one shot and one block, Kawhi let it be known to the NBA world that he is the greatness we aspire for in our best. As Spurs fans, we’re spoiled getting to watch him play night in and night out. I’ve literally seen every second Kawhi has been on the floor this season. Last night was the rest of the NBA’s glimpse into what we all already know.

I won’t say Kawhi is the definitive MVP. I don’t watch Harden, Westbrook, or LeBron the way I watch Kawhi. Just as the rest of the world has a blindspot for Kawhi, I see too much of him. And too little of the others. He is the player I would choose over any other right now. He is the reason I can hardly believe my luck as a Spurs fan, getting to root for a championship team and All-NBA caliber player for going on 20+ straight years now.

But here’s the dirty little secret even Spurs fans are reticent to admit to themselves: we never thought Kawhi would be this good. We never thought he’d be Tim Duncan-level. It’s almost blasphemous to speak the thought aloud and give it life. But there it is: Kawhi might end up being as good as Duncan was.

He is already a more dominant and more complete offensive player. Duncan is probably the first or second best defensive player ever, and by virtue of being a big man, his importance on that end will always outshine Kawhi’s. But Kawhi is already in the conversation for most devastating perimeter defender of all time, to go along with an ever-blossoming dominant offensive game.

Both players are perfect fits for their eras. (Another reason Spurs fans should be blessed.) Duncan came to dominance in a time when big men defined championship teams, and size and defense were the building blocks. In today’s era, with the game getting smaller and faster, having the dominant wing (LeBron being the absolute prototype) is the path to dominance. You need a player who can play both big and small, who can shoot, drive, pass, and run the offense, without being overpowered or outmatched on either end of the court.

I love Kawhi. I love everything about his game. This season has been one of my favorites almost entirely because of him. But it wasn’t until Monday night that I ever entertained the notion that he might go down in Spurs’ history as Duncan’s equal.

Monday night was the first time I ever entertained the notion that Kawhi might be the foundation upon which more championships are won. Sooner rather than later.

His name is Kawhi Leonard.

The Spurs go for win number 50 on Wednesday night in San Antonio against the now Boogie-less Kings.

Go Spurs Go.

 

Double OTs

Season 50, Game 60 and 61
San Antonio 101, New Orleans 98 (OT)
San Antonio 97, Minnesota 90 (OT)
48-13, 2nd in the West

Let’s begin this with our semi-regular reminder that Kawhi is pure awesomeness on the basketball court: Friday night in New Orleans: 31 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists, and 3 steals with only 1 turnover in 40 minutes; Saturday night against Minnesota: 34 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists, 6 steals, 1 block with only 1 turnover in 44 minutes while continuing to haunt Andrew Wiggins’ nightmares.

At this point it’s becoming rote to discuss Kawhi’s amazing season. But there’s something else important here other than his complete dominance. Having a player like Kawhi is often the difference in these types of games when nothing is coming easy, the offense is stagnant, the shots aren’t falling, and the legs are heavy with exhaustion. Often, the team that has that player–the player that the entire team trusts to make the winning play and will fight tooth and nail to get that player in position to win the game–will win the game.

We saw it Friday night in New Orleans, a place that must give the Spurs players and staff nightmares. The Spurs had no business winning that game, and yet they did. Kawhi struggled early, but was huge down the stretch, and probably the difference in a tightly contested game.

We saw it again Saturday night against Minnesota. The team was obviously tired and a few steps slow from the quick turnaround from the night before, playing a well-rested and young Timberwolves team. The Spurs had no reason winning that game, and yet they did. Kawhi struggled early, but was huge down the stretch, and probably the difference in a tightly contested game.

Rinse, repeat.

You know who else was huge in these games? LaMarcus Aldridge. While his scoring is down this season, he has turned up his all-around floor game recently, turning into a rugged, physical, do-all-the-little-things-to-win elite role player type. His defense was incredible in both games against elite big men. He had 15 rebounds and 3 blocks against the Pelicans, and was about the only defender able to hold either Cousins or Davis in check. Against Minnesota he had 10 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, and 2 blocks, while battling Towns. More importantly, it was his energetic and aggressive play in the 3rd and 4th quarters that seemed to spark the Spurs, giving them life to claw back into the game and steal the win.

He also had 21 and 18 points in the two games, respectively. But it’s the rest of his game that is the better barometer for how the team plays.

The overall team defense was also really good, and allowed the team to stick around when the offense (in both games) was completely stuck in the mud. The Spurs held both opponents under 100 points in games that each had an extra 5 minutes tacked on for good measure. After a 30 points 1st quarter, the Pelicans managed only 68 points in the remaining 41 minutes, or about an average of 20 pts/quarter. The Timberwolves had a 26 point 1st quarter, and only scored 64 points in the remaining 41 minutes. In particular, the 2nd half defense was great in both games. 41 points for New Orleans (then 9 in OT), and an astonishing 28 points Minnesota (then 7 in OT).

Defense is the most reliable “skill” in the NBA, and why great teams value it so highly. Even those these two games were pretty ugly and took a lot of ‘pounding the rock’ to win, it’s still a positive sign of how the team is playing that they were able to get these wins. Even playing an extra 10 minutes over 2 nights.

The Spurs play the Rockets in San Antonio on Monday night. Nothing brings me more joy than beating the Rockets, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Spurs lose this game after their recent hectic schedule. What will be most interesting is how Pop plays it. Does he test a strategy he might imply against the Rockets in a potential playoff match-up? Or does he play it close to the vest?

Go Spurs Go.

 

Dagger

Season 50, Game 59
San Antonio 100, Indiana 99
46-13, 2nd in the West

Just like he’d probably practiced hundreds of times growing up. Just like Mike.

Drive middle, spin baseline (travel? I didn’t see any travel), fadeaway jumper for the win. Over the opponent’s best defender, to boot.

With each game, Leonard adds to his highlight reel. As 20-point games becoming the norm slowly morphs into 30-point games becoming the norm; as his clutch plays and critical baskets continue to pile up; and, most importantly, as his team continues to win at an incredible rate, it gets harder and harder to deny Kawhi’s place in the game.

Is he the best player in the NBA? You could make a cogent argument. Most would still take LeBron. And in a seven-game series, sure, I probably still would. (Kawhi still needs to prove himself in the playoffs as a clear cut superstar.) He doesn’t quite have the panache or gall of Curry. He is not as blatantly talented as Durant. He doesn’t rack up triple-doubles like Westbrook. He isn’t an offensive genius like Harden.

But he’s got a little bit of each of those players in him. He’s made himself into a ridiculously good shooter. He has trained himself to have elite basketball instincts, something that seems almost impossible. While not demonstrably passionate, he plays with a ferocity and intensity that few in the league can match. His court vision is expanding by the game.

Oh, and he plays defense a heck of a lot better than most of his competition.

As the cliche goes, he is probably the best “two-way player” in the league. He might be the most well-rounded player in the league, with no demonstrable flaws in his game. He likely won’t win the MVP. But is there a player you’d rather have on your team right now?

And yet, I still worry the Spurs are relying too much on him, that there is too much burden on his massive shoulders. On Wednesday night, Kawhi took 22 shots (making 11 of them). The next highest shot count on the team? Aldridge, with 9. That’s not the balance we’re used to seeing. Yes, with a talent like Kawhi, the balance must necessarily shift (as it did with Duncan in the early aughts). But is that shifting too far?

His minutes are still relatively low compared to the rest of the league, and the team still has incredible chemistry and cohesion. That’s never a concern for the Spurs. We just want to make sure that Kawhi still has plenty in the tank come playoff time, and that the team is playing great basketball.

With Durant going down to injury and the Warriors not as awesome as last year, there is suddenly a slight crack of an opening in the Western Conference. Golden State is still top dog, but they are not as overwhelming of favorites as before. They seem beatable.

A Kawhi-led Spurs team might just be the team to beat them, as crazy as that might have sounded even 8 months ago.

The Spurs travel to New Orleans Friday night to face the Pelicans for the first time since they traded for DeMarcus Cousins. They haven’t played well with him yet, so let’s hope the Spurs can gut out a win in an arena that has been so unkind to them over the years.

Go Spurs Go.

Photo Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

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