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40-Plus

Season 50, Game 39
San Antonio 134, Los Angeles Lakers 94
31-8, 2nd in the West

What the heck do I need to say about a 40-point shellacking of the Los Angeles Lakers?

It’s always nice to bounce back so positively after a tough loss. This team has shown plenty of resiliency in that regard, and you’ll rarely see two flat games in a row. It’s always nice to beat the Lakers, but without Kobe around, it lacks a little punch.

The Spurs scored 134 points, a high for the season. They beat the Lakers by 40, a high for the season. They shot 60.5% from the field, an almost impossible number in a professional basketball game. (Also, a high for the season.) They were 48% from 3, 90% from the line. Pau Gasol was 9-for-9, Kawhi Leonard was 9-for-13 (and could have scored 40 if the game was even remotely close), Tony Parker was 6-for-10 (and got anywhere he wanted; I’m not sure if this is a positive in the ledger for Parker or a complete indictment of the Lakers’ porous defense), and Jonathon Simmons was 6-for-8.

Those are just the stand outs. Every single player who suited up for the Spurs scored a point. Which leads to my favorite stat of the night: the Spurs outscored the Lakers 28-19 in the fourth quarter.

This was a fourth quarter that was entirely garbage time, with both teams liberally playing the end of their benches. Normally, in a blow out, the losing team will often make up ground in garbage time, particularly against the Spurs. The Spurs are often still running their system, while the opposing team is players gunning for shots and more playing time. If nothing else, it’s usually very high scoring, as the game can often devolve into “summer league”-style play.

But on this night, the Spurs deep bench put up 28 and, more impressively, held the Lakers bench (though Julius Randle still played most of the quarter) to 19, the lowest scoring quarter of the night for Los Angeles. Sure, you can argue the Lakers bench is bereft of talent. I’d prefer to see it as the Spurs continuing to run their system and bust their butts on defense.

The Spurs travel to Mexico City to face the Suns on Saturday. The last time the Spurs tried to play in Mexico, something caught on fire, the building filled with smoke, and the game was canceled. I don’t think that will happen this time.

Mexico City is at alitude (higher than Denver), and Phoenix has been there since Wednesday (and already played one game there), so this has trap game potential. It’l be interesting to see how Pop plays this one. Either way, this is a team we should beat anywhere, any time, under any conditions.

Go Spurs Go.

Bucking the System

The Spurs fell to the Bucks on Tuesday and I found myself gazing into the pixels of my television saying repeatedly, “Wait, what?”

This game might have been one of the biggest eye rolls of the season, as the Spurs are miles ahead of this Milwaukee team, yet somehow managed to find a way to lose this game.

It was honestly quite annoying from the perspective of a Spurs fan in California who didn’t get to start the game until about 10:15 p.m., loyally watching in its entirety, even though a 57 minute commute in the pouring rain at 6 a.m. was only hours away.

Sure, the Spurs were without LaMarcus Aldridge, but they squandered this game. I’ve been a pretty loud critic of LA, but it was clear how badly this team needed a second option late in the game. Everyone seemed out of sorts. Even Kawhi committed a bizarre touch foul near the end of the 1st half, to a guy no one has ever heard of, while shooting a three from half court with two seconds left in the half.

Wait, what?

The Spurs have a plethora of capable players who can fill in as second fiddle to the Klaw. However, last night it seemed obvious that the role of third option is undefined. We tend to think in order of hierarchy and structure. If Kawhi is one, and LA is two, then someone must be three, right? If Tony Parker is the number one PG and Patty Mills is two, then that clearly makes Dejounte Murray number three, obviously.

Well, not exactly.

The Spurs have typically fully embraced the cliché of “next man up.” A lot of teams claim to adhere to the adage, but the Spurs actually believe in it. But this year, it seems to be a bit… off. No one seems to be really quite sure who the third guy up is.

Is it Pau Gasol? Or Tony Parker? Yea, but Patty scores. Then again, Danny Green gets paid $10 million a year. Manu Ginobili is also there. Is Boris Diaw still available?

Now granted, there is no real shortage of talent on this team. There are role players for days. With Juice, the Latvian Mamba and Dwizzy Dwayne all being nice surprises in the middle to end part of the rotation, anyone can score in a variety of ways.

But on a night when Antekeo… Antotake… the Greek Freak (thank God for that nickname)… was limited to nine minutes, the “next man up” mentality was shaky at best.

Kawhi is clearly the Alpha on this team and contributed another 30 point game. Team scoring was balanced from a stat sheet perspective. But late in the game, the Spurs needed that second punch guy to kind of help out a bit. You know, command a double team, or something.

This Bucks team is too freaking long for a lot of the Spurs guards. They hounded Kawhi all night and he still played admirably. But this was the first time all season where it really showed how badly the Spurs need LaMarcus on this team. We all want him to be either a) the LaMarcus Aldridge that abused Tiago Splitter three years ago, or b) Tim Duncan incarnate. And he’s neither of those two things, but every bit as valuable if this team wants to make a real playoff run.

At the moment, everyone is so caught up in being a role player, that no one is really comfortable being the next guy up. Tony and Manu can’t do it every night, which is completely fine. But they are also learning to adjust to their new role. How often should they defer to Kawhi? How often should they take over? Can their body still take over anyways?

And let me say this: Manu did not lose that game last night. He might have missed the game winner, but that shot was about as good as you could hope for as far as game winners go. A wide-open three-ball, from the corner, from a hall-of0famer, who has been in the league since the 60s, at home, in rhythm? I’ll take my chances. The ball goes in or it doesn’t. (I mean, it did hit the side of the backboard and resembled me in my Tuesday night 30+ league, but whatever. You are old, not me).

The point is, now is the time to find out who the “next man up” is. Against a Bucks team in January playing without Antekeotekskeofhfahfabfgwaffweyuufgu, without LaMarcus Aldridge in the huddle, and without playoff elimination game on the line.

On the surface this looked bad, but in reality, this is the appropriate time to have these growing pains.

It’s fine that Patty Mills got outplayed by Matthew Dellavedova.

It’s fine that Malcolm Brogdon had 17 points and man-handled Tony Parker.

It’s fine that Michael Beasley had a season high 28 points and Pau Gasol had six.

It’s fine that Kyle Anderson suddenly has fallen out of the rotation and will probably be a “throw-in” on some random trade in the next 24 months.

It’s fine that Patty Mills has the highest Player Efficiency Rating of any guard on the roster.

IT’S FINE THAT ZAZA PACHULIA HAD MORE ALL-STAR VOTES THAN KAWHI IN THE FIRST ROUND OF VOTING.

Look, I’m mad that the Spurs lost to the Bucks. I’m mad that the Warriors still have a better record. I’m mad that the Spurs haven’t found their full post-Tim Duncan identity yet. And I’m mad that our guys keep getting gastroenteritis. (STOP EATING TACO CABANA ON GAME DAYS.)

But I’d much rather these things happen in January than June.

Featured photo credit: ESPN

Get It Out Of The System

Season 50, Game 38
San Antonio 107, Milwaukee 109
30-8, 2nd in the West

Michael. Fucking. Beasley.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Our tale of woe begins with about 2 minutes left in the first half, and the Spurs comfortably on top by 13, looking to cruise to another home win. Instead, the Spurs give up a 7-0 run (including 3 free throws on a shooting foul with 0.9 seconds left at half court, what the…?), and go into the intermission with just a 6-point lead.

Still, with Giannis barely playing because of an illness (he didn’t play at all in the second half), the Spurs were still in good position to get the win. Enter the aforementioned Michael Beasley.

He couldn’t miss. He completely bullied the Spurs’ defense. The Bucks continually ran pick and roll to get a small switched on to him, and then just threw him the ball, and he’d hit the shot or attack the rim. And he made good decisions with the ball, finding open shooters at the rim (Greg Monroe) or behind the arc (Malcolm Brogdon, Tony Snell).

Two nights after singing the praises of the Spurs defense, it absolutely stunk tonight. By my very rough estimates, the Spurs got 3 stops in the second half (number approximate). And it wasn’t just a lot of lucky shot making. The Bucks did whatever they wanted on offense, basically breaking the Spurs defense down every possession. It was hard to watch. The Spurs defenders looked confused, unsure of what the scheme was.

For a while, it looked like Kawhi might win this thing alone, but eventually he ran out of magic. The offense was humming most of the night, keeping a 3-6 point cushion most of the second half. But about halfway through the 4th quarter, it just completely broke down, and the Spurs could not get an open shot. Two back-to-back 3s from Davis Bertans and Danny Green seemed like it might miraculously bring us the win, but the Bucks played harder, played smarter, and deserved the win.

The Spurs had a chance for the win (or tie) on the final possession, and ran a beauty, getting a wide-open corner 3 from Manu Ginobili at the buzzer. He shot it off the side of the back board.

It was that kind of night.

The Bucks play the Spurs tough (remember the Spurs won by 1 in Milwaukee on a goaltend in the final seconds), and their length and athleticism clearly bother the team. Part of the offensive confusion was the Spurs continually passing up open shots for fear of the Bucks defenders, or passing it into traffic and into turnovers. They just look a bit shook by the Bucks.

Manu and Patty Mills, in particular, played very bad. Even ignoring that last shot, Manu was a complete liability on the floor. He couldn’t find his usual seams on offense, which slowed down the second unit. On defense, he gambled too much and didn’t play good positional defense. (He twice gambled for steals that both times led to 2 easy points for the Bucks. Those 4 points loom quite large in the final accounting.)

Mills was way off his game, as well. Matthew Dellavedova (his fellow countryman) completely owned him on both ends. I could say more, but do I really need to?

The Spurs have been playing well and were due a loss. The way I’m describing it, you’d think they’d got blown out on their own floor. They lost by 2 without their second leading scorer against a very good (if inconsistent) team while not playing their best. They had a shot (literally) to win it at the buzzer. As frustrating as the game was in the moment, it’s not a bad loss in the aggregate.

The Spurs finish their home stand Thursday night against the Lakers. I expect a bounce back.

Go Spurs Go.

Big Still Matters

Season 50, Game 37
San Antonio 102, Charlotte 85
30-7, 2nd in the West

Fun fact: the Spurs are closer in the standings to the 1-seed Golden State Warriors than they are to the 3-seed Houston Rockets.

Another fun fact: the Spurs currently rank 1st in the NBA in defensive efficiency and 4th in offensive efficiency. The only team that compares? The Golden State Warriors, who are the inverse (1st in offense, 4th in defense). With these numbers, the Spurs are 2nd in Net Rating (the difference between the two efficiency numbers, and one of the clearest indicators of playoff success), only trailing the Golden State Warriors. They are closer to the 1st place Warriors than they are to the 3rd place Raptors (who they just beat by a rather healthy margin).

All of this is to say: the Spurs are still pretty, pretty, pretty good. After an offseason arms race between the Cavs and the Warriors, when it seemed like the rest of the NBA was being left behind (and an offseason when the Spurs lost their two-decade franchise player and seemed prepared to take a mini-step backwards), the Spurs are still right there, knocking on the door and pushing the “greatest team ever assembled”.

To be sure, the Warriors are still heavy favorites. And the Spurs’ regular season success hasn’t always translated to post-season success in recent years. But nobody thought the Spurs would be in this position at this point in the regular season, yet here we are again, on pace for 64-66 wins and threatening to steal the 1-seed from the Warriors.

There are plenty of reasons why the Spurs are still great. Kawhi is one of the most dominating players in the league, LaMarcus seems to have rounded back into his “Top-20 Player” form. Pop is Pop. The team still develops talent incredibly well, and gets the absolute best from every player on the roster. Even with more roster turnover than usual, the system and culture is so firmly entrenched that the Spurs almost have a built-in advantage over 95% of the rest of the league.

But there’s been another, more surprising reason the Spurs have remained strong: the big man rotation.

Coming into the season, the biggest question mark on the roster was big man depth. After LaMarcus, it was all questions, guesses, and hopes. Gasol is a champion, All-Star, and sure fire Hall-of-Famer. But it was safe to wonder if his best years were well behind him. David Lee had washed out of his last three teams, and it was fair to assume he was washed up. Dwayne Dedmon was a tantalizing prospect with crazy athleticism, but could barely see the court in dysfunctional Orlando; what could he offer the Spurs? And Davis Bertans was a European prospect that we’d all heard about, but what were the chances he’d actually produce?

All five big men have been nothing short of spectacular in their roles, turning the question into an unquestioned strength.

After a slow start, LaMarcus has been his usual All-Star self lately, playing with an aggression and passion we’ve never seen from him in San Antonio. Pau Gasol still has struggles on the defensive end (though the coaching staff has done a wonderful job minimizing them), but his offensive productivity has been critical. His midrange jump shot is money, he is extending his range to 3 efficiently, and his passing out of both posts fit the team perfectly.

Lee might be the biggest surprise. After being usurped in Golden State by Draymond Green (and this change almost directly leading to the Warriors super team we see today), Lee wasn’t able to find a home in Boston or in Dallas, two teams notorious for being able to fit just about anybody. His career seemed teetering towards retirement. But his willingness to recommit himself to his conditioning and accept a role off the bench has enabled him to find a spot here in San Antonio. As a willing passer and smart cutter, his fit on the second unit is perfect. His defense has been better than we could ever hope, his athleticism has been surprising, and he is a wonderful teammate.

Which brings us to Dedmon and Bertans, and Saturday’s game against the Hornets. It’s no secret that Dedmon is my favorite role-player on the team. I love his energy, his willingness to do the dirty work, and his contentment and self-confidence in his role, with no seeming desire to venture out of it. He runs hard, he rebounds, he defends like crazy, and he attacks the rim on offense. His presence alone brought the “alley oop” (since most Spurs fans are probably unfamiliar with this, it’s a play in which one player lofts a pass to the rim for another player, who leaps, catches it, and ‘slam dunks’ it in one motion for the easy score) to the Spurs playbook, and we all thank him for that.

The Hornets game was almost a perfect encapsulation of his role. In 23 minutes, he was a perfect 6-for-6 for 15 points, 10 rebounds, 2 steals, 1 block, crazy energy, and great defense. The entire dynamic of the team shifts when he is on the court, in a really positive way.

If Dedmon’s game was a microcosm, Bertans game was a tantalizing glimpse. Davis’ role on the team has been up and down, but mostly he’s been an end-of-bench player. While a pro for years overseas, he is an NBA rookie in a new country, and the coaching staff is bringing him along slowly. He was billed as a sharp shooter, but he also has surprising athleticism on both ends of the court and is a secretly really solid defender.

Against the Hornets he was the match that lit the game on fire: 21 points on 6 shots in just 18 minutes. 21 points on 6 shots is almost impossible. You have to not only be a 3-point marksmen, but you have to be aggressive enough to draw a lot of fouls. Bertans did both: 4-for-5 from deep, 7-for-8 from the line.

And one really nasty dunk for good measure.

As he said after the game, he likes to keep his athleticism secret. But word should soon be out. While his most productive role on the team might still be as a stretch big shooting from deep, he is far more than a one-dimensional player. He has a chance to grow into a huge piece for this team alongside Kawhi in years to come. (This is where we mention that Bertans came to the Spurs via the George Hill-Kawhi Leonard trade, as if that deal wasn’t lopsided enough.) Hell, he has a chance to be a huge piece off the bench this season.

If he can crack the Spurs suddenly deep and potent big man rotation.

The Spurs play Milwaukee in San Antonio Tuesday night. The Bucks are the darlings of the NBA right now, so let’s hope the Spurs take them seriously and get the win.

Go Spurs Go.

Featured photo credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Messed Around and Won By 30

Season 50, Game 36
San Antonio 127, Denver 99
29-7, 2nd in the West

The funny thing is, I don’t even feel like the team played all that well in this game.

The defensive execution was sloppy at times, as Denver got good looks on a lot of nifty back cuts and ball movement. The offense seemed a step slow at times, with lots of missed cutters and a bit too much fancy passing (instead of making the right pass).

The way the game started, it seemed like the Nuggets might drop 150 on the Spurs. They made their first 9 shots, then converted an And-1, then drew 3 straight shooting fouls. It was 3:27 in the 1st quarter before the Spurs recorded a ‘stop’, and even that was a pretty wide open miss. At that time, the Nuggets were 10-of-11 from the floor, 6-of-7 from the FT line. The Spurs got four stops the entire 1st quarter. Four.

And yet only trailed by four points. While the offense wasn’t totally in sync team-wide, the individual shooting performances were phenomenal. The team shot 56% overall. Parker was 10-for-11 for 21 points (with 9 assists to boot); Aldridge was 11-for-18 for 28 points (Denver had nobody who could guard him); Gasol was a nifty 7-for-9; and the team was 12-for-24 from 3, outpacing the Nuggets by 15 points from deep (18 if you disregard the 3 the Nuggets threw up at the buzzer in a 30-point game).

(Photo: David Zalubowski/Associated Press)

Eventually, the Spurs were just too much for the Nuggets’ defense. In sync or not, the Spurs’ offense operates at a level far above the Nuggets’ defense. After a shaky start, Kawhi started to come alive a bit in the second half. Every time the Nuggets threatened to get close, the Spurs had an answer.

And after giving up 33 points in the first quarter, the Spurs only surrendered 66 the rest of the game. That’s very good defense, even if it didn’t always look that way. After starting 10-for-10, the Nuggets finished the rest of the game 29-for-76 (38%).

While the individual pieces don’t always seem to make sense (with a few giant exceptions, obviously), the Spurs always figure out how to play really solid team defense. After a slow start to the season, they once again sit atop the league in defensive efficiency. Yawn.

The Spurs return home to face the Hornets Saturday night, which kicks off a 3-game homestand.

Go Spurs Go.

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