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Same Problems, Different Season

Season 50, Game 74
San Antonio 98, Golden State 110
57-17, 2nd in the West

With this loss, the Spurs all but seal their fate.

It’s not a bad fate. The 2nd best team (by record) in the NBA is a place many would be envious of. There will be tough series along the way, but the Spurs should be the favorites to make it to the Western Conference Finals. And as the wisdom goes, once you’re there, anything can happen.

The problem is, that “anything” will need to happen against the Golden State Warriors. And the Warriors are really really good at basketball. And likely only getting better.

Did we learn anything from this game? Perhaps. Without Kevin Durant, this felt a lot like last year’s Warriors team. And while we didn’t hold up our end of the bargain to meet them in last year’s playoffs, this game felt like a similar domination last year’s squad had over us.

To be fair, we did dominate them for about 10 minutes. But the 22-point lead we opened up on them pales in comparison to the 34-point beatdown they put on us over the final 38 minutes. As promising as those opening minutes were, the closing minutes are equally as demoralizing.

Let’s not read too much into one game, though. If we wanted to go down that route, we could look at opening night and say, “See, we can beat these guys fairly easily”. Still, I think last night is probably more indicative of a future playoff match-up, and there’s definitely some worrisome observations:

–Kawhi had a very bad night, and is having a pretty disappointing (by his extremely lofty standards) end of the season. As I’ve been saying for a few weeks, he looks a little tired. His shot seems a bit flat. He’s really slumping from deep. He’s made a few more uncharacteristic defensive mistakes than usual.

Teams are really starting to double-team him, and it’s a new process for him to learn. To his credit, his playmaking has been really good of late. Like most things with Kawhi, you can almost seem him learning in real time. We have 8 more games for him to figure out how to play with more defensive attention and still be efficient and effective.

Kawhi needs to have a dominating playoff run.

–Parker looks unplayable against these guys. We’ve discussed the Parker Problem quite a bit, but it’s starting to feel like we’ve passed critical mass. Waiting for “good” Tony feels a lot like waiting for Godot.

–After a sterling regular season, the Spurs’ bigs are starting to look like who we thought they were on the defensive end. Lee and Gasol both struggled containing the Warriors’ smalls, and their ability to hit the 3 stretched our defense thin and broke it. Aldridge and Dedmon had better luck in that regard. But we still need a better answer.

–The Spurs bench was outplayed by the Warriors bench. Remember, the fear with getting Durant was that it would cost them depth. For them to have more depth and have Kevin Durant is a slap in the face.

To beat the Warriors, the Spurs have to decisively win the bench battle. This has been a fairly consistent theme over the last few season when the Spurs are finally eliminated from the playoffs: the team that beats us gets better bench production, despite our bench being the better bench in the regular season.

Mills, Ginobili, Lee, and Gasol really need to show up.

–Pop needs to figure out who the back-up wing is. Simmons is in an extended dog house stay. He can be hit or miss, but his athleticism is sorely needed.

–Danny Green played really well.

What’s next? There are still 8 games left in the regular season. All the Spurs need to clinch the 2-seed is one more win, or one more Rockets loss. Seems likely to happen.

So let’s assume we have the 2-seed. Does Pop start resting? I think it’s smart to prepare physically for the playoffs, but you can’t just throw away 8 games. Particularly when we still have to face the Thunder, the Jazz (twice), the Clippers, the Grizzlies, and the Blazers. The team still needs to play competitive basketball and figure out rhythm and chemistry issues.

That being said, the actual won-loss record is of less importance. So I imagine Pop will use the games as laboratories to try and fine-tune some things going into the playoffs, without overextending anyone. Personally and selfishly, I’d like to see the team get at least 3 more wins to reach 60. That seems doable.

Personally and selfishly, I’d also like to see the team beat the Thunder on Friday night.

Go Spurs Go.

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.

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.

 

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.

Re-Tuning

Season 50, Game 57
San Antonio 105, Los Angeles Clippers 97
44-13, 2nd in the West

I’m certain the extended All-Star is a good thing. The players and coaches get a real vacation in the middle of the season, a chance to get their minds and bodies right for the stretch run and playoffs. (It also allows the trade deadline season to have its own stage, but that’s another story entirely.) It likely has a very positive impact on the quality of the late-season games.

But man if it isn’t hard to get back into the season after a full week off. (The All-Star game does not count.) It feels like I forget how to watch basketball. There was a moment when I thought Gasol was Splitter, which confused me.

It seems like it’s hard for the players to get back into it, as well. This game was played hard, but it wasn’t necessarily played well. The Clippers are the easiest team in the league to dislike (the Rockets are nipping at their heels in this department), so it’s doubly frustrating that they have the Spurs’ number. In the end, we got the win against a loathsome  rival, so it was a good game.

Kawhi seemed to be having a hard time getting back into the flow. He strikes me as a player that relies heavily on rhythm and repetition (he always seems off in the first game back from missing even a few games), so the week off is probably hard for him. He played with good energy, but his rhythm was way off. He was forcing shots and passes, and just didn’t seem in the flow of the offense.

Also, he almost fouled out, which might have been a good thing. The Spurs played a long time in the second half without their All-Star, and might have been better for it. Patty Mills, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, David Lee, and Pau Gasol carried the team through the 3rd and 4th quarters, not only keeping them afloat, but taking control of the game.

In this particular game, with Leonard out of sorts, it was probably better for the team to not rely on him so much. In the long run, it could also pay dividends to get comfortable playing well without always relying on Leonard. (Kawhi will also likely be better not having to do so much.)

Pau Gasol celebra un triple ante los Clippers / Kelvin Kuo (USA Today Sports)

The other point of interest in this game: the return of Gasol. What made it especially interesting was that he didn’t start the game. This was likely just to ease him back into the system and the flow of the team. But it also presents an interesting question.

Is Gasol better coming off the bench?

Coupled with that question: is Dedmon better in the starting line-up? Dedmon offers a skill set the Spurs haven’t had for years. He’s an athletic big man who is super mobile, protects the rim, and excels rolling in the pick and roll. His skill set is a nice fit with the starters, who could use that jolt of athleticism and superlative defense against other team’s elite big men.

Gasol, on the other hand, is actually a perfect bench player in today’s NBA. His shooting and deft touch are a perfect fit with the bench. His defense won’t get as exploited against second-unit big men. And his post game is more useful against other team’s back-up big men. While he is still a solid starter, he could be a “superstar” bench player, much like Ginobili still is late in his career.

Would Gasol accept this role? Likely not.

Would Pop have the balls to do it? Probably, though he is also smart enough to know if Gasol’s psyche could handle it.

One thing is certain: Dedmon has earned playing time, no matter when and where it comes.

The Spurs finish off the Rodeo Road Trip Sunday afternoon against the Lakers in Los Angeles. Much like the Sunday matinee game in New York, this has “trap game” written all over it. Here’s hoping the Spurs beat it… this time.

Go Spurs Go.

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