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Green Light, Go!

Season 50, Game 25
San Antonio 108, Boston 101
20-5, 2nd in the West

As the Spurs approached a game that would make them the second team in the 2016-17 NBA season to reach 20 wins, there were several factors that made a seasoned fan like myself cautious about expecting the win.

With LaMarcus Aldridge out, the first unit would operate differently and sometimes that isn’t a good thing. Secondly the Celtics were missing All-Star Point Guard Isaiah Thomas, which could motivate their players to pick up the slack with extra effort and focus. Finally, since the 2011-12 season, the Spurs are a perfect 10-0 against Boston, which makes the Celtics ripe to play spoiler, the underdog on a homecourt which has seemed far from home for the Spurs, despite it’s location in San Antonio’s deep east side.

So as a fan I went through my officially unofficial checklist of “Things are going to be alright” during the game, to calm my anxiety:

  • Spurs lead in the first quarter… check
  • Danny Green and Manu Ginobili are hitting from behind the arc… check
  • Kawhi Leonard makes his “signature move,” the open court steal and breakaway dunk… check
  • Coach Pop delivers the appropriate level of bellicosity at his team and the refs… check
  • Spurs are the first team to 100 points… check

What struck me most about this game was the pace – fast like the “Warrior Ball” most of the NBA has fallen in love with, and at times extremely fast, like a game of outdoor pick up on a warm day… players driving to the hoop and losing the ball off the dribble… bad passing leading to turnovers galore (not just the expected Ginobili snafus calculated into the game plan)… a game that felt a lot closer than the score indicated, because the scoring was almost automatic in spurts.

Normally I would feel dread coming over the course of a game that was going to get away from the Silver & Black, but it never really felt that way, even as the lead was trimmed to one point in the third quarter.

When your team shoots 55%, scores 48 points in the paint and creates 30+ assists for the game, it’s easy to feel comfortable believing that a win is the inevitable outcome.

To paraphrase Pop’s assessment: “(The Celtics) are a great defensive team; we (the Spurs) were just much better offensively.” It wasn’t an extraordinary quarter that set us apart, it was the attitude. Three – yes, three – ally-oop dunks to Dedmon is encouraging to see in this post-Duncan era of the Spurs Dynasty. Our beloved team has the talent that will do what it can (albeit in a different way than what we expect) to attempt to fill the void of #21. Having Tony take over the fourth quarter while Pau and Kawhi chimed in at the right time to keep the defense guessing made me forget that this is essentially a new team, only 25 games deep into the season.

Are the Spurs finally in a grove, playing the entire 48 minutes with grit and fiber? Maybe.

Will this be another 50+ win season for San Antonio? Probably.

Can this team invoke the dawn of a second iteration of the “Beautiful Game”? Possibly.

The only thing I can hang my hat on is that this team can no longer be labeled “boring.” There is a new attitude coming from this team, who takes its show on the road to ‘The Valley of the Sun’ to play a young Suns team (I feel like I’ve been saying this for almost a decade). It’s my hope the Spurs continue to trend upward in a Western Conference where there is very little separating seeds one through five.

Go Spurs Go.

What Did We Expect?

Photo credit: Associated Press

Before this NBA season started, I expected a few things:

  1. The Golden State Warriors were going to decimate everything and everyone.
  2. The Spurs would still be pretty good, but, barring any major injuries to Golden State they’d be a tier below.
  3. I’d still hate the Houston Rockets with all my heart.

I saw things like Manu Ginobili’s big contract as a sure sign that the Spurs were going to spend the season figuring out how to transition from the Tim Duncan era while sending off the rest of the old guard in comfort.

I saw the Pau Gasol signing as a contingency plan. Hey, crazy things happen in pro sports! What if Kevin Durant and Steph Curry get into a three point shoot-off in practice and both ended up irreparably dislocating their shoulders just three days before the playoffs start? You’d sure be glad San Antonio went out and got Gasol if that path to championship number six opened up!

I saw the drafting of Dejounte Murray as an absolute steal, and hoped that he’d spend the year learning how to take advantage of his raw talent with intensive mentoring from Tony Parker and Ginobili.

Long story short, I saw this year as a rebuilding year, but not your typical rebuilding year. When you’re rebuilding with a two-time Defensive Player of the Year and Finals MVP in his prime at small forward, a perennial all-star and midrange mastermind at power forward, and 7 NBA championships between the other 3 starters, you’ve probably got just as good a chance as anyone.

Except it didn’t seem that way given how the landscape of the Association changed in the offseason. When Durant joined the team that was already going to be a major frontrunner for the championship, the odds that San Antonio – a team that struggled mightily on defense against young, athletic squads last year – would be in the mix were long.

So what did the Spurs do to the Warriors on opening night? Walked right into Oracle Arena and kicked off the post-TD era with a 29 point beatdown, completely changing my expectations for the season, for better or worse.

See, going into the season I would have expected some of these dumb losses like Utah and the Rockets at home. I would have expected to lose close games on the road to Chicago. I planned on having thoughts like, “Ah well… new team, transition year, these things are going to happen.”

I wanted to be pleased when the Spurs did well, and I always wanted to be pleased with their development when they lost.

But now? Now I’m livid when they come out flat and throw away games to the Utahs, Chicagos and Orlandos of the world. I want to throw my phone out the window when I check the box score and see San Antonio gave up nearly 40 points in any given quarter.

I’m upset because I don’t feel like the Spurs are a pretty good team that’s risen to the occasion for a few impressive victories. I feel like they’re a great team that’s only playing second fiddle because of their inability to get out of their own way.

It’s a position of luxury to feel that way, but that makes it even more maddening. It might look like San Antonio has an edge on Golden State because of their season opening victory, but you can’t make that statement after just one game. The Spurs and Warriors face off again in San Antonio on March 11 in a game that will be very telling of both teams’ growth.

Will the Spurs evolve into a consistent offensive machine?

Will they find that killer instinct?

Will they start putting together complete games from start to finish?

Or are they going to prove that they are the kind of team that stumbles into wins over bottom-feeders like Dallas, but has the ability to blow out Minnesota?

Setting expectations for San Antonio was incredibly difficult before the season started, but with just over a quarter of the season in the books, it’s somehow even harder to decide what to expect next.

Oh, and I definitely still hate the Rockets.

This Too Shall Pass

Season 50, Game 20
San Antonio 107, Washington 105
16-4, 2nd in the West

There will a come a time, in the not-so-distant future (likely about six or seven months from now), when #20 will no longer be zipping all over the court for the Spurs, pulling plays out of his ass like a magician pulling a rabbit out of his hat. While the loss might not feel quite as profound on the court as that of #21, it might be more devastating emotionally, in that place in our hearts that refuses to listen to reason and empiricism.

If Duncan personifies everything about the Spurs ‘culture’ that we hold as sacrosanct – our superego – then Ginobili is our inner id, the physical embodiment of our fanhood, made flesh and bone and contusion to chase down every loose ball, make every impossible pass, and take charges so devastating (at the age of 38) as to require testicular surgery.

As we all grow older, Manu has less magic to give us on a nightly basis. We don’t fault him for this; we cherish every good game we get. To be honest, he’s running on borrowed time at this point. If you had to bet years ago, you’d probably choose Manu as the first of the Big 3 to age out of the league. (At this point, he might be the last.)

So when we get a Manu performance like we got in the Washington game, we all cheer just a little bit louder. He’ll never put up the gaudy numbers of his prime; but in many ways, what he’s doing now is more remarkable. He’s still hitting impossible buzzer beaters (two in this game); he’s still operating in the pick and roll like a basketball surgeon, passing big men into the easiest layups of their lives (7 assists in the game); he’s still making impossible plays that only the most brilliant of basketball minds (and nimblest of bodies, quickest of reflexes) could make (that save of the half court violation in the second half that I’m still re-watching); he’s still stalking the court like a cat, snatching up any errant pass or loose ball (3 steals). Most importantly, he’s still contributing to winning basketball (a team high +16 in the game).

When we talk about the Spurs’ remarkable bench over this last decade, what we’re really talking about is Ginobili. It’s no accident that the Spurs’ bench always has incredible chemistry, always moves the ball, always plays with energy, and seems to always be a net-positive. This season, the bench is adjusting to more new pieces than the starters, yet it’s the starters who are struggling to figure it out.

Manu let’s Patty be Patty. On any other team, Patty is probably a miscast back-up PG, not quite good enough to run sets, not being able to take advantage of his incredible shooting. Manu is essentially the PG, letting Patty run wild on “O,” but still able to guard opposing PGs on defense.

Manu let’s role playing big men have the most productive seasons of their career. I don’t think there is a big man in the league that Manu couldn’t develop incredible pick and roll chemistry with. Players like Dedmon – written off as offensive busts on other teams – come to the Spurs and suddenly have incredible touch and ability to finish around the rim. Manu spoon feeds them.

Manu lets athletic wings excel at what they do best: run and jump and be more athletic than everybody else. Manu always wants to run and push the advantage, and players like Simmons benefit from that energy and tenacity.

This doesn’t even begin to get into everything he does off the court and in the locker room for this team.

When Manu finally retires, his jersey will rise to the rafters as quickly as Duncan’s. 20 next to 21, a fitting sequence for our two favorite players of the last two decades. (Sorry Tony, this is a race you just can’t win.)

Until then, enjoy every drop of Manu.

manu-ginobili-20161202

A few non-Manu thoughts about the Wizards game:

• The Spurs still don’t look great at home, but we’ll take the win. The defense did look a lot better in the second half, and the offense looked pretty great all game. A win is a win, and they all count equally in the standings. As other top teams stumble a bit recently, it’s good to bank these wins.

• The second unit continues to impress (see the ode to Manu above), and is really saving our bacon in some of these games. (Every bench player was a net-positive, every starter a net-negative in +/-.) Lee, Dedmon, and Bertrans have all been early-season revelations. We know that Dedmon is my favorite role player on the team, but I do love what Lee is bringing, too. It’s nice to see a veteran come in, humbled from his last few seasons, and really buy in to the system and his role.

• Mills continues to be a stone-cold killer shooting the ball. Yes, please.

• Loved the last shot from Kawhi, wish it hadn’t left so much time on the clock.

• Still, it’s nice to see a game come down to the wire because of great execution, not lack of it. Both teams played well down the stretch, and the Spurs did just enough to pull out the win against a hungry Wizards team.

• I’m still not sure what to think of Pau Gasol. Just when you think he’s hurting the team, he’ll hit a huge 3. Then he’ll miss 6 free throws. Then he’ll run a gorgeous pick and pop with Parker. Then he’ll blow a huge defensive assignment and give up an offensive rebound.

• Nicolas Laprovittola played well subbing in for Tony Parker. Rookies with years of international experience are often unafraid of the moment, and Nico stays in his lane, with occasional forays into the exceptional. (Which might be exactly what you want from a 3rd string PG.)

After 20 games, the team is 16-4, the second best record in the league. All else aside, that’s impressive. There seems to be a lot more game-to-game consternation amongst us fans this season, probably due to the absence of Duncan and the feeling that all great things in life are impermanent.

But to be this good already with so much room for improvement? That’s a really great position to be in.

The Spurs go on a 3-game road trip (yay road games!) starting tomorrow in Milwaukee.

Go Spurs Go.

Ire

Season 50, Game 14
San Antonio 96, Dallas 91
11-3, 3rd in the West

Coach Pop gets the first word after Monday’s uninspiring win against the Dallas Mavericks:

In all honesty, that should probably be the last word, as well. Watching the game, I didn’t see things quite the same as Pop. Yes, the Spurs didn’t play all that inspired against a very short-handed but scrappy Mavs team.

To be fair, though, the Spurs were without Tony Parker and LaMarcus Aldridge. To compound the loss of those two stalwarts, Pop started two unproven rookies – Dejounte Murray and Davis Bertans – rather than substituting more capable back-ups. It’s good experience for the young players, but it is a bit disingenuous to throw them to the wolves, then complain that the wolves tore them apart.

Games like this are always trap games. It’s hard to bring your best against a team that doesn’t have a best. Sure, Seth Curry did his best impersonation of his brother in the game. And Harrison Barnes and Wesley Matthews played up to their lofty contracts. Rick Carlisle is a wizard. Even with all of that (and the Spurs playing sub-optimally), the Spurs were able to hang around and pull out the win.

We know why Pop said what he said, though. He likes to rip into his team early in the season. He’s just looking for a game that gives him any excuse to question their toughness, their fiber. He wants to stay on them, to head off complacency at the pass.

This season it’s even more critical to keep on the team. They’ve lost Tim Duncan, their compass. They have more questions up and down the roster than any other season in the last 19. And the two teams ahead of them in the West are clearly better. If they want to make any noise in the playoffs, they need to come together and play to the absolute best of their abilities and chemistry.

In that prism, it’s easy to see why Pop was so agitated after the game. Sure, it was enough to beat the Mavs. It was also enough to get run off the floor by the Clippers and shot out of the gym by the Warriors. That is the night-to-night and season-long standard by which Pop is measuring all else. The rest is just noise and process.

Thankfully, it’s Thanksgiving, not Easter, and the team has a lot of time to figure it out and calm Pop down. (Just kidding: Pop has no coaching chill.)

The Spurs travel to Charlotte to play the Hornets tonight. They always seem to play poorly there. Here’s hoping that changes this season.

Go Spurs Go.

Teeter Totter

Season 50, Game 13
San Antonio 116, Los Angeles Lakers 107
10-3, 3rd in the West

In a game defined by runs, the Spurs had the last tiniest gasp to edge out the Lakers. Leading by as many as 18 at the start of the 4th quarter (that number should sound familiar, as it was the same margin against Sacramento two nights earlier), the Lakers came up a few shot shorts in their comeback attempt.

It’s hard to get a feel for this Spurs team. With Parker and Green returning, suddenly the starters look really good together. Meanwhile, the bench has faltered of late, whereas they carried the team to several early victories.

While +/- can be a noisy stat for any single game, this is the second game in a row where all of the starters were in the black (most by double digits), and most of the bench was in the red (save for Manu Ginobili).

The Lakers bench has been really good this season, so there is that. But the Spurs bench weren’t doing themselves any favors in this game. While the ball has been moving better of late (evidenced by the team-wide 30 assists in the game), the second unit seems to get a bit too clever with the ball sometimes. Against this young and swarming Lakers’ defense, it led to way too many turnovers and run outs for easy fast break points. (9 TOs in the first half, leading to 12 Lakers points.)

The Spurs schizophrenic play was well illustrated on the scorecard. In the 1st and 3rd quarters, the Spurs outscored the Lakers 65-40. +25. In the 2nd and 4th? The Lakers won those 24 minutes 67-51. -16. The Spurs have been very good at building big leads this season, and even better at relinquishing them.

For now, it hasn’t really come back to bite the team. But it will eventually. We should also remember that Pop is tinkering, figuring out what he has. He is playing player combinations that have never shared any meaningful minutes together and leaving them out there to figure it out. He is sitting players for two or three games, then giving them 25 minutes the next. It’s far more important to know what he has in April, even if it means losing a game or two in November and December.

A few more thoughts from the game:

• Kawhi had his best passing night of the season, matching his career high with 7 assists. He already seems to be adjusting to the extra attention defenses are giving him, allowing his gravity to suck in defenders and then finding the wide open man for the uncontested shot. Most of these passes are fairly simple, they just require an extra level of attention and court awareness. Was there any question he would find it?

• Parker continues to be great since returning from injury. He is scoring in double figures, dishing out assists, and organizing the offense. Most importantly, the team is winning. My biggest fear with Parker was not his diminishment, but his denial of his own diminishment. If these recent games are any indication, Parker has the ability to age gracefully, just as Duncan and Ginobili did before him.

It seems he is good for one little scoring outburst every game, and steady PG play the rest. Pop isn’t pushing his minutes, and with Mills behind him, we have solid guard play for 48 minutes.

• Aldridge did a great job of not settling for his jumper tonight. He took the ball into the post and attacked the Lakers’ smaller defenders. He was critical scoring the basket in the 4th quarter, keeping the Lakers at bay. Here’s hoping LaMarcus is finding his role in the offense and getting his shot back on track.

The Spurs have the weekend off before facing the struggling Mavericks at home Monday night.

Go Spurs Go.

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