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Did We Learn Anything Watching Golden State vs San Antonio?

(Photo: Getty Images)

I’m going to level with you all before I get deep into this one.

I have no clue what to expect in a potential Golden State Warriors vs. San Antonio Spurs playoff series. The season series was just about as nonsensical as it gets. Teams this talented and well-coached shouldn’t play three blowouts against one another. Never mind that two of the blowout wins were by the team on the road.

Still, we must have learned something from these games, as non sequitur as they seemed… right?

If nothing else, we’re going to try to learn, so buckle up!

Season Opener
Spurs at Warriors, October 25, 2016
Spurs win 129-100

It’s hard to remember this game, it was so long ago. So much has changed in the world since this glorious night. Back then, the USA hadn’t even elected a reality TV star as president yet! What a world… what a world!

Anyway, believe it or not, in the first game of the post-Tim Duncan Spurs era (coincidentally, the first game of the evil villain Kevin Durant Warriors era), three of the oldest guys left playing basketball strolled into Oakland and “Get off my lawn’d” the Warriors into a pile of rubble. It was beautiful. It made me believe that all our dreams could come true if we simply believed in the powers of light and darkness and manifested those powers directly onto the things we care about. Whether San Antonio wins the Finals this year or not, this game proved to me that as long as your team is the real-life depiction of a Disney villain, you are screwed in the long run.

What went right for the Spurs in this game?

Kawhi Leonard assumed his throne and dropped 35 points and 5 steals on the defending NBA chokeians (that’s a new word I made up for teams that blew a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals, btw), LaMarcus Aldridge dropped another cool 26, and Jonathon Simmons – bless his heart – made us all think this was going to be the year he became a legit bench threat with a 20 point effort and an epic chasedown block on Steph Curry.

The Warriors starters were great, as expected, but their bench was HORRENDOUS. Ian Clark led the bench with 5 points. Nobody on the team had a positive +/-. Zaza Pachulia (who I hate) had more turnovers than shot attempts.

It wasn’t meant to be for Golden State on that fine October night, and while one could argue that it was their first meaningful game with Durant and they still had to learn how to play together, well… actually no you can’t make that argument because that starting unit combined for 84 points while the bench scored 16 points.

And if you really wanted to make that argument, I think San Antonio’s case for potentially laying an egg is even stronger. The Spurs were without Duncan for the first time in 19 years. They replaced him with Pau Gasol, who isn’t nearly as young nor athletically gifted as Kevin Durant, and San Antonio steamrolled the Warriors.

If we learned anything that night, it’s this: The Warriors need SOMETHING from their 5-12 guys – Zaza is included here because, honestly, he is not good enough to start for this team, c’mon – or they aren’t making a third straight trip to the Finals. Strength in Numbers? Not this season.

Warriors at Spurs, March 11, 2017
Spurs win 107-85

Danny Green was the only starter for either team that played in this game. Again, Zaza doesn’t count. Anyway, that tells you almost everything you need to know about this game. Oh, get this! JaVale McGee only played five minutes in this one! In a game where literally only ten people on his team were dressed he only got five minutes.

What did we learn?

Uh… that if somehow every starter from both teams dies before they play next, that lack of bench depth we already knew about is going to be bad news for Golden State. Also, it’s going to be a really shitty and somber playoff series. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen. It was also a good reminder that San Antonio has a good bench. One of the best benches.

Warriors at Spurs, March 29, 2017
Warriors win 110-98

This started as the kind of game where I thought I’d be excited to see Davis Bertans and Kyle Anderson getting fourth quarter minutes against a quality opponent. But by the time the fourth quarter came around and I noticed that Anderson and Bertans were on the court, all I could do was scream and writhe in pain until my girlfriend dragged me out of the bar and into a cab.

This one hurt. Not only would a Spurs win have put the 1-seed firmly within grasp, but San Antonio raced out to a 15-0 lead and ended up losing by 12 to a team that was missing Durant. Ouch. And the Spurs weren’t missing anyone besides Dejounte Murray who wouldn’t have seen anything but garbage time if he were healthy.

The contest was pretty much our collective worst nightmare, and a microcosm of the season. The Spurs have looked like the hottest team on Earth several times this year, including versus Cleveland and opening night vs. these same Warriors (well, minus Durant).

At other times, the Spurs have looked like Brooklyn would give them a run for their money. Sometime we get both versions of San Antonio, and the shitty version sticks around for a lot longer than we’d hope for.

What did we learn?

JaVale McGee still has an atrocious rattail. But in actual basketball…

When the Spurs are operating at optimum efficiency, they can hang with and beat anyone. They led 33-17 at the end of the first quarter, and it wasn’t because they were relying on Leonard to do everything. Yes, the Spurs’ star had 8 points in the first quarter, putting him on pace for another 30 pt game, but contributions from Aldridge and Green helped them get out to their strong start.

As the game wore on, the Warriors figured out to mostly remove Kawhi from the equation, and Kawhi was eventually forced to try and take things on himself despite constant double-teams. It, obviously, didn’t work out.

Tony Parker (who went scoreless) and Manu Ginobili (who missed a lot) both looked very much their age against the younger, quicker Warriors, and neither Patty Mills nor Anderson instilled much confidence with their games either.

Remember that time I talked up San Antonio’s bench to be the best thing since the invention of the 3 point line? Bleh.

That’s all just a really long way to say that if the Spurs match up with Golden State in the playoffs, Kawhi is either going to have to become basketball Jesus, or the rest of the team is going to have to hold up their end of the bargain.

Oh, and playing some defense would be nice too. Sheesh.

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.


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.



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

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.


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

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