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The Oldheads

Season 50, Game 50
San Antonio 121, Denver 97
39-11, 2nd in the West

On a night when Gregg Popovich recorded his 1,128th career regular season win – besting Jerry Sloan for most wins with one franchise – it’s fitting that he was led by his two elder statesmen, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.

Parker has feasted on the Nuggets this season. After shooting 10-for-11 in the previous meeting, he was a scorching 8-for-8 tonight, for 18 points in just 23 minutes. He was steady in the first half, but really came on at the beginning of the second half, effectively putting the game out of reach for the Nuggets. Parker isn’t what he used to be, but if we can still get these concentrated doses of his brilliance, the team is still in good shape.

Not to be bested, Ginobili also scored 18 points, but all in 10 (10!!) first half minutes. Shooting 4-of-5 from deep and 4-of-4 from the line will do that. Much like Parker, Ginobili is still a key cog in the system in limited minutes. Part of the secret of aging gracefully is honestly accepting your limitations and playing within them. Both Parker and Ginobili have done that brilliantly this season.

Denver, playing their fourth game in five nights, ran out of gas early in the second half. The Spurs kept putting it on them, and we got to garbage time early. I love garbage time. I love watching Murray, and Bertans, and Simmons out there showing their stuff, pushing their limits, and working on their games. Simmons, in particular, was feisty in garbage time. You can see him developing and adding to his game. He could be a critical factor in the playoffs this season, and I love seeing his confidence grow.

While Pop would shrug it off, it’s nice to see him hit this milestone at home. It speaks to the consistent excellence with which he’s guided this franchise. And he’s got a whole bunch more wins in front of him.

And now the Rodeo Road Trip commences. This year’s schedule isn’t as tough as in years past, with an East Coast swing before the All-Star break, followed by two game in Los Angeles to close it out. 6-2 is realistic, though 5-3 is also likely. Anything worse than .500 would probably be a disappointment, given the schedule and the team’s performance on the road this season.

Up first: the Memphis Grizzlies, probably the second most challenging team on the trip. Oddly, these two Division foes haven’t played yet this season, which means we’ll see a bunch of this squad in the next few months. I’m very interested in this game, as Memphis has been a surprise this season (they do it every season, so I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise anymore), continuing to play their grit-n-grind style of play while also opening up the offense a bit. It will be a good test for the Spurs.

Go Spurs Go.

Building A Mystery

Season 50, Game 49
San Antonio 102, Philadelphia 86
38-11, 2nd in the West

I was excited to see Joel Embiid; I was happy he wasn’t playing.

The Sixers aren’t as bad as you think. Perception often lags behind reality, and the Sixers of the last few years (punching bag of the NBA) don’t exist anymore. Sure, they’re not great, but they win games. They’re competitive. They even have an outside shot at the #8 seed in the East. They’re good. And ‘good’ is a huge step up from where they were.

On this night, however, they were missing Embiid and Nerlens Noel, thus making them closer to what they were than what they are. The Spurs seemed to approach the game as if they were facing last year’s Sixers, and it’s hard to blame them. They didn’t play poorly in the first half, they just weren’t sharp. They missed easy layups, made careless passes, and generally played with the energy and intensity of a team expecting to win.

The second half was a different story. They turned up the juice. The defense was on point, holding the Sixers to just 33 points all half. They made their rotations quicker, they jumped passing lanes and turned the ball over, they forced tough shots. On offense, they just tightened things up.

Jonathon Simmons was particularly good in the second half. It’s amazing the development he’s made this season. He no longer relies solely on his athleticism to be a plus-player (though that athleticism sure is spectacular); he’s become an honest to God basketball player. Pop has given him more and more free reign in the offense, and he’s even put the ball in his hand a bunch to be a primary and secondary ballhandler and playmaker, a la Manu Ginobili.

Thursday’s game really marked the first time I’ve noticed him not only comfortable in this role, but excelling. He made several forays to the basket that ended with clever layups and sweeping hooks. He also drew contact and got to the free throw line, always a good thing for personal stats and team success.

Simmons will need to be great for the Spurs to make noise in the playoffs. Remember, last season he basically got relegated to the bench once the big boy games came along (rightly or wrongly). To be great in the playoffs, top end talent needs to show up. Depth and breadth can carry you far in the regular season (why the Spurs have maintained such success over the years), but the top of your roster needs to show up in the post-season.

That’s what makes this post-season so intriguing. The best players on the roster (Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge) have never really had spectacular playoffs as the lead players (Leonard obviously has had great success as secondary talent). Several of our key bench players have never really had playoff success, period. Our most battle-tested veterans are clearly no longer what they once were and should ease into secondary and tertiary roles.

The team is a great regular season team. But in many ways they are a neophyte playoff team. With the Warriors where they are, that isn’t necessarily bad. Taking the long view, these next few seasons could be about getting seasoning for the “new” roster, perhaps getting ready for a push in a few years.

And if we arrive ahead of schedule? I’d be happy to go toe-to-toe with the Warriors.

The Spurs face the Nuggets at home on Saturday night.

Go Spurs Go.

DNP-Nets

Season 50, Game 44
San Antonio 112, Brooklyn 86
35-9, 2nd in the West

With about three minutes remaining in the first half, the Spurs were winning 39-38, and it looked like all the hallmarks of a letdown game after the big win Saturday night. With Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker, Pau Gasol, and Manu Ginobili all out, the margin of error was even narrower than normal. The last thing we wanted was a close game against (arguably) the worst team in the league.

All the hand-wringing was for naught: over the next 27 minutes, the Spurs outscored the Nets 73-48, cruising to another easy road win.

A few quick thoughts from Monday night’s win:

• It was nice to see playing time for everybody on the roster. This game was a perfect opportunity to get good minutes for players that don’t normally get them. Bryn Forbes, Kyle Anderson, and Davis Bertans, in particular, got a lot of playing time.

Forbes looked lost on both ends of the floor, which is to be expected from the last man on the bench. There should be no expectations from him or for him this season. He is a project, and will spend plenty of time in Austin. If he ever finds confidence in his stroke at this level, he could be a nice bench player.

Anderson, on the other hand, looked great yet again. He got time at the 3, the 4, and even the 1 for a small stretch. He is such a heady player with hands as quick as his feet are slow. His lack of speed will likely always limit him in the NBA, but on a well-orchestrated, intelligent team like the Spurs, he can definitely be a solid player. I particularly like him looking more confident in his offensive game.

• Games like this are also good opportunities for players to test out “skills” they are still working on. This is how we get to see Dewayne Dedmon run a fast-break (fail), take midrange jump shots (success), and even make a slick back-door pass to a rim-running Bertans (whoa!).

We take for granted that players continue to develop skills, even at the highest of levels. If you see a player develop a new skill in a game, you can be certain he has been working on it for hundreds of hours in practice and on his own.

• Another developing skill that I am surprised and happy about: Danny Green actually being able to dribble and make plays off the dribble. His vision used to be effectively zero, so to see it start to grow is exciting. Like Dedmon, he also made a slick back-door pass to a cutting Bertans. (Other lesson: Bertans is a really good cutter.)

• LaMarcus Aldridge was once again impressive in his all-around game. With Leonard, Gasol, and Parker out, it’d be easy for him to take on the scoring burden and focus less on other duties. To the contrary, he only scored 16 points, but chipped in 9 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 blocks, and 2 steals. His overall activity and energy have been great this month, and he is a deadly player when he is more mentally and emotionally engaged.

• Dejounte Murray struggled a bit in the game. This is normal. He is a (barely) 20-year old rookie. For every stand out game, he’ll have at least one or two duds. After a rough start, he didn’t let it affect him mentally, and he ended up playing better in the second half. That’s encouraging. With Parker down for an indeterminate amount of time, there will be plenty of time for Murray to play through success and failures alike.

• The Spurs signed Joel Anthony to a 10-day contract. He was the last cut out of training camp, so the staff clearly likes him. He provides a nice veteran stopgap in the extended absence of Pau Gasol, and another big man to have on the roster. He likely won’t get much playing time, and who knows if he’ll stick once Pau comes back. As far as emergency big men go, though, he is a great fit.

The Spurs play in Toronto on a back-to-back Tuesday night. Going from Cleveland to Brooklyn to Toronto is an… interesting… change in talent of opponent. Toronto will be without DeMar DeRozan. I expect Kawhi will be back, but Manu will still likely be out. It should be a competitive game. The Raptors always give us trouble in Toronto.

Go Spurs Go.

Lather Rinse Repeat

Season 50, Game 42
San Antonio 118, Denver 104
33-9, 2nd in the West

Stop me if this sounds familiar: the Spurs play a high scoring first half lacking in defense, only to come out strong in the second half and put the game away with increased defensive effort.

Denver scored 58 points in the first half, 46 in the second. The Spurs, meanwhile, scored exactly 59 in both halves. It really does seem like it’s a simple flip of the defensive switch. So far, 24 strong defensive minutes has been enough most nights. (It certainly won’t continue to be.)

The real story of the night was who wasn’t there: Pop got tossed near the end of the first half, Tony Parker was out with a sore foot, and Pau Gasol was a late scratch with a freak accident in warm-ups that led to him breaking a bone in his left hand. (More on that later.)

In their places, Dejounte Murray and David Lee got the starts, and they did not disappoint. Murray continues to impress as he gets more and more trust from the coaching staff leading to more minutes on the court. The kid is lightning quick, all gangly limbs and acceleration. He can get to the rim in a heartbeat. He clearly has a scorer’s drive and mentality, finishing with a career-high 24 points. He can score attacking, but his jump shot (particularly from deep) is looking better each outing.

The real mark of his growth will be in playmaking and defense. He has all the skills to be elite in both areas, and you can already see him learning when to get his own and when to be the point guard. He’s a lot like Parker at this age, in that he has all the natural ability to be an efficient volume scorer, and it’ll be up to him to want and to learn to be a more complete player.

The Spurs obviously have a track record in this regard, and Parker seems to be mentoring the young man. If the Spurs found themselves a PG to eventually replace Parker (who might actually turn out to be better than Parker), it’ll be another feather in the cap of RC Buford and the front office.

Having never really watched David Lee play in his career, and only knowing him by his reputation, he has been a complete surprise this season. His defense isn’t outstanding, but he’s a smart player who competes and knows where to be in the system, and that’s about 70% of the battle right there. And he rebounds like crazy, which is a critical function in defense.

On offense, he is a seamless fit with the bench unit. His natural inclination is to pass, cut, and keep things moving. Next to Manu Ginobili, Patty Mills, and Jonathon Simmons he is an ideal big man. Plus, his touch around the rim is remarkable. I’m shocked when the ball doesn’t go in when he puts it up close to the rim.

He finished the night with a tidy 10 points and 16 rebounds and a team-high +30.

With Pau likely going down for 4-6 weeks, the play of the back-up big men becomes even more important. It’ll be interesting to see how Pop jiggers the rotations and lineups. My hunch is Lee will likely continue to be the starter in Pau’s absence, but Dewayne Dedmon might get the occasional start depending on match-ups. Lee and Dedmon have such great chemistry on the second unit, I’m sure Pop will find a way to work the rotation to get them plenty of minutes together.

But it will also be a chance to see how LaMarcus Aldridge fits next to each of them, and to get Davis Bertans a lot more minutes. I hate to see it happen because of a Gasol injury, but I am excited to see how the three “other” bigs fare in this extended stretch.

It will also be a chance to play with smaller lineups featuring just one big (probably Aldridge or Dedmon) and Kawhi Leonard at the 4. This lineup could be critical in matchups against the Warriors, Rockets, Clippers, and Cavs, so it’d be good to get some looks at it now.

The loss of Pau stinks, but I don’t think it will have too much effect on the fate of the team. There is plenty to replace his production, and plenty of new and different looks to trot out there that can be just as effective. The real shame is that it felt like Pau was really starting to click with the team, and now that development is delayed, though hopefully not stunted.

I imagine when he is ready to play again, he’ll return to the starting lineup. Hopefully, though, we’ll have a lot more looks and weapons at our disposal moving forward through the end of the regular season and into the postseason.

The Spurs travel to Cleveland to face the Cavs on Saturday night. This should be a fun one.

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

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