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Exceptionalism, Wasted

2017 Western Conference Playoffs, First Round
San Antonio 108, Memphis 110 (OT)
Series tied 2-2

I’m of two minds about this game.

On the one hand, it was a fantastic basketball game, everything we love about playoff basketball.

On the other hand, the Spurs lost.

But then again, it was likely Kawhi Leonard’s best playoff game (in a lead performance) and arguably the best 10 minute stretch of playoff basketball by any Spurs player ever.

And yet, the Spurs lost.

It’s actually pretty easy to figure out my feelings on that game. Despite the gloriousness that was Kawhi Leonard, that game hurt. Now we have a series. While I still favor the Spurs, the Grizzlies winning would not shock me.

Let’s talk about Kawhi first. Man, oh man. The thing I was most curious to see in this postseason was Kawhi. Did his game have another gear? Could he show up in the playoffs? Through 4 games, I think we have our answer, and I think we have our player moving forward for another generation.

His fourth quarter (and OT) Saturday night was something else. He just took that game over on both ends of the court. I feel more confident with the ball in his hands that I have since early-aughts Tim Duncan in the post. His ability to get a clean look at the basket from any position on the court is remarkable. And his court vision is improving by the game. (I think he’ll average a career-high in assists next season.)

But that brings us to the rub: the rest of the team needs to do something. Anything. (By that I mean hit a wide open shot when it’s presented to you). Fun fact: the Spurs are now 0-4 on the season in Memphis. In those 4 games, they’ve shot 32-for-101 on 3s, for a whopping 31.7%. Take away Kawhi’s crazy 7-for-10 in Game 4, and that drops to an abysmal 27%.

The Spurs total FG% from the floor in those 4 games in Memphis is 42.3%, 41.9% if we remove Kawhi’s game 4.

This is not good. But it also hints at an easy solution: make your shots, especially the wide open ones.

Despite their reputation, Memphis is allowing the Spurs wide open looks. They just can’t make them in Memphis. Green was 0-for-10 from 3 in the last two games; Manu was 0-for-5; Parker was 0-for-2; Gasol was 0-for-3; Mills was really the only player to hit anything, going 4-for-9 in the two games.

The Spurs need to hit open shots. Memphis is too good at grinding out wins to get into trenches with them. The Spurs need to win this series with offense, shot-making, pace, and space. Right now, they are 0-fer on those things away from the AT&T Center. When the game slows down, gets really physical, and becomes a nip and tuck affair, the advantage is squarely with Memphis.

This points to another disturbing trend in these last two games: the Spurs inability to dictate the terms of the fight. Yes, they played it tough in Game 4 and had multiple chances to win. But it never felt like the Spurs controlled that game. Memphis controlled that game (and likely deserved the win because of it). The Spurs aren’t really taking anything away from them, or making them uncomfortable anywhere. Conley is abusing us, Gasol is abusing us, Randolph is bullying us, and the Memphis role players are playing great (while the Spurs’ are shrinking).

The good news? All of these things could be said about Memphis after the first two games. Heading back to San Antonio, the friendly confines of the AT&T Center should do wonders for the team. You know who is 0-4 in San Antonio this year? Memphis. If this turns into a home court series, then the advantage clearly lies with the team who has home court advantage (and is the reason the regular season matters).

But we  can’t rely solely on returning home. Memphis is confident and feels like they’ve found something against this Spurs team. San Antonio needs to disabuse them of this notion quickly and emphatically in Game 5.

And they need to get Kawhi some help.

Green’s defense has been wonderful, but he needs to hit open shots.

LaMarcus has had stretches of brilliance, but he plays passive for long stretches and usually needs some inciting incident to wake up. It’s Game 5; come ready, LA.

Parker has played well, but you can only expect so much from him. He is no longer what he used to be (and what Mike Conley currently is). We need to make up for the difference somewhere else.

Lee has been unable to find any of that regular season magic, and seems overmatched by the playoff (and Memphis) intensity.

Mills hasn’t had a breakout moment yet, which he is usually good for every few games.

Anderson and Simmons have played solid in moments, but one of them will likely need a burst somewhere along the way.

Gasol has been solid, as well, but will likely need to provide even more scoring punch off the bench.

Dedmon (who was out sick for this game) is playing with his usual energy, but the team seems to have forgotten (or other teams have figured it out) how to get 3-4 cheap buckets with him at the rim every game (read: alley oops!). His defense will be needed, though, as the Spurs really need to hold Memphis in the low-to-mid 90s to win these games.

Bertans showed me something in Game 4, and the floor is just spaced so much better when he is on the court. I expect a few more minutes for him in Game 5.

Manu… I’m not ready to talk about Manu just yet. Whatever magic he and Vince have had to play so well at this age, it looks like Manu’s has run out. If Manu gives us anything (playmaking, 3-point shooting, pesky defense, ferocious energy and competitive fire), our bench can come alive and provide a comfortable margin for victory.

I said that Game 4 was really going to show us what kind of team we had. Despite the loss (and the many worrying trends), I liked the heart the team showed. They had that game to win, and they couldn’t. But that game could have also been an overwhelming loss, and they didn’t let that happen.

They’re coming home, where so often the little things tend to turn in your favor.

Game 5 is Tuesday night. Let’s get it.

Go Spurs Go.

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!

GAME ONE
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.

GAME TWO
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.

GAME THREE
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.

 

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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