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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.

De-Rooked

2017 Western Conference Playoffs, First Round
San Antonio 94, Memphis 105
Spurs lead series 2-1

The Grizzlies did what we thought they would do, what they had to do.

The lower-seeded team winning Game 3 at home after going down 0-2 to start the series is one of the safest bets in sports, particularly when the disparity between the two teams isn’t enormous (sorry, Pacers). The energy of the home crowd mixed with the desperation of going down 0-3 (and essentially ending your season) is a potent cocktail.

And let’s face it: the Spurs, perhaps despite their reputation, aren’t the kind of team to put the clamps down in a Game 3 scenario like this. If you’re not predicting a sweep, then you’re predicting the Grizzlies will win at least one game: Game 3 was the most likely candidate.

That said, we can’t just dismiss the Spurs’ performance. They played well in the first half, fighting off the first rush of energy from the Grizzlies and keeping the game close, only down 4 at intermission.

The second half was a different story. Pop did a wholesale line change only a few minutes in, hopefully sending a message to the starters. You might argue that subbing the bench in so quickly might have cost the Spurs a chance in this game. You might also argue it could be what wins them the series. (We’ll see in Game 4.)

The biggest disappointment in the 2nd half was Kawhi. After another monstrous first half, he was unusually quiet in the second half. He had one big dunk and that’s about it. This isn’t the 2014 Spurs; they aren’t good enough to survive down performances from their star. As Kawhi goes, so do the Spurs. They might not always win when he plays well, but they will surely lose when he doesn’t.

There’s plenty more blame to go around. After a good opening to the series, Parker was terrible in Game 3. Zero points, zero assists, zero steals, 19 minutes. It’s like he was a ghost out there. When Conley is the counterpart, that won’t play well.

While Patty had a bit of a bounce back game (though we’ll need at least one hot shooting game from him this series), Manu and Lee continue to really struggle. Manu has yet to score in this series, and it looks like his age caught up to him right around April 14th. We can handle low-scoring performances from Manu, but he’s really not doing anything else, either.

After a great regular season, Lee is struggling to find his playoff mode. His defense was surprisingly good in the regular season, and it’s been surprisingly (or perhaps not) bad in the post-season. This might be a bit of an exaggeration, but at one point in the 3rd quarter he gave up 7 straight and-1 baskets. On offense, it looks like he hasn’t caught up to the speed of the playoffs, with his cutting and passing just a bit off rhythm.

With such little production from the bench and some glaring holes in the starting line-up, the Spurs are ripe for a loss or two. Let’s hope it’s not more than that.

On the plus side, Kyle is playing very well in his role and minutes. He’s not a series-swinger, but he can be a difference-maker and X-factor. His length is important on defense, and his patience and slithery-ness on offense work in the postseason.

Gasol is also playing well in his minutes and his role. Again, a series can’t hinge on his play, but it can be lost on it.

Simmons showed good energy and reliability off the bench. While he can’t cannibalize Anderson’s minutes, perhaps he might be inserted in instead of Manu or even Parker at times.

Aldridge also had a solid game on both ends. Still, as the clear #2 player on the team, we need more from him.

Game 4 now becomes the swing game of the series. A Memphis win and we’re in for a long one. A Spurs win and it will just about seal it. Memphis has clearly found some things they like, and if they continue to get 2011 Z-Bo, they will be a tough out. If 2017 Z-Bo returns, the Spurs should win Game 4.

I’m excited to see how the team responds after the Game 3 shellacking. Despite it looking like the Spurs we’ve known for so many years, we actually don’t know a whole lot about this squad and how they’ll respond to their first playoff adversity. Game 4 will tell us a lot about the character of this team, win or lose.

Game 4 is Saturday night.

Go Spurs Go.

Photo credit: Eric Gay, Associated Press

Don’t Panic

2017 Western Conference Playoffs, First Round
San Antonio 96, Memphis 82
Spurs lead series 2-0

I suppose we should start with what happened after the game.

That was one helluva rant by Coach Fizdale. As an impartial observer, I loved it. Impassioned, well-reasoned (as far as rants go), and highly quotable. Grizzlies fans should love it; it’s a coach absolutely going to the mat for his team.

As a Spurs fan, I’m indifferent to it. I understand the gamesmanship of it. The Spurs are absolutely taking it to the Grizzlies and getting the calls. I do wonder, though, if he went a bit too far. Calling referees “unprofessional” probably isn’t the best way to get a friendlier whistle.

So we’ll see what happens in Game 3. You can expect an amped crowd and a ton of scrutiny on the fouls. If there’s a team that can fight through it, it’s the Spurs. Avoid the silly fouls early in the game, and everything should be leveled by the fourth quarter.

But enough about that; let’s talk about the game.

The Grizzlies are good, and they get the most out of their resources. But it really does feel like they are just outmatched at this point. I’m not sure there are adjustments they can make, or players they can magically make appear that can guard Kawhi Leonard. Conley or Gasol or ZBo can go off for a quarter or two, and it might be enough to steal a game; but it sure does seem like they just don’t have enough firepower to outscore the Spurs nor enough defensive stamina to slow them down for an entire game.

The Spurs are showing me everything I wanted to see in these playoffs so far. (Yes, it’s only two home games, but I’m taking it!) Kawhi is on another level right now, and is the best player in the series by a significant margin. His best individual playoff performance in Game 1 was short lived, as he followed it up in Game 2 by besting it. Nobody on the Spurs had half as many points as him; nobody on the Spurs had half as many rebounds as him. That’s crazy.

While a quieter performance, LaMarcus is also impressing me. This is the ideal version of Aldridge as a #2 on a high-level playoff team. He can carry the offensive load when Kawhi sits. He is a beast in the paint on both ends, giving sneaky good rim protection. He is playing with the energy and ferocity of a role player, not a star. He might be losing some of the limelight, but he is earning his playoff bona fides.

Danny Green, Pau Gasol, and Tony Parker also played great. But you know who hasn’t been all that awesome? Manu, Patty, and David Lee. Imagine what might happen if the bench unit matches what the starters are doing? Now that would be a blow out.

More likely than not, though, Patty, Manu, and Lee will need to step up during a game when Tony, Danny, or Pau just don’t have it going. And what a luxury to be two deep at every significant role player position. And this doesn’t even begin to mention Anderson, Simmons, or Bertans, all who could come in and alter the course of a game in one 5-minute stint.

Which brings us back to the original point: the Grizzlies just don’t have the resources to hang with the Spurs. They can (and will) grit and grind all they want, but there’s just not enough of either to beat the Spurs 4 out of the next 5 games.

Game 3 is Thursday night in Memphis. Let’s see if the Spurs have it in them to really put this series out of reach.

Go Spurs Go.

Opening Statements

2017 Western Conference Playoffs, First Round
San Antonio 111, Memphis 82
Spurs lead series 1-0

That was a bad start to the game but a wonderful start to the series.

After that first quarter in which Memphis barely missed a shot and San Antonio looked like they were warming up for a rec league game, the Spurs took complete control of the game. The Grizzlies had played well enough in the opening frame to make the game seem closer than it was for much longer, but make no mistake: this was an epic blowout.

To wit: After scoring 30 points in the first quarter, Memphis scored 52 points the rest of the game, or about 17 per quarter. And this number was helped by a 12-point “flurry” in the extreme depths of garbage time as the game neared completion. They had 70 points with about 4 minutes left.

On the other side of the ledger, the Spurs took a 13-point deficit and turned it into a 36-point lead at one point. That’s almost a 50-point swing in about 30 minutes of game time. For the first time facing these Grizzlies this season, the Spurs offense looked unstuck.

The defense was more impressive, though. After that first quarter, they just put the clamps on. Gasol scored a bunch and had a great game, but it wasn’t easy scoring. Gasol’s nature is to be a playmaker first, so it’s not in his nature to be such a dominant scorer. The Spurs seem content to guard him one-on-one, make life difficult, but let him get what he wants and shut everything else down.

Conley is the other primary threat, and the Spurs were amazing corralling and pestering him all night. Parker did great work, but it was really Green and Leonard who frustrated him the most (particularly Green, who continues to be a defensive star). Conley finished with only 13 points on 14 shots. He did notch 7 assists, but for the Grizzlies to have a chance in this series, Conley needs to be an aggressive scorer.

The rest of the Memphis roster (outside of Z-Bo, perhaps) really depends on the play of Conley and Gasol to make everything else hum. By boxing in and isolating their two stars, the Spurs challenged the rest of the Grizzlies roster to beat them. They were not up to the task.

Looking at their roster, it has a bunch of good players, but nobody who you’d expect to go off and have a stellar individual playoff performance. They also have a lot of young players and players new to the playoffs who didn’t seem quite ready for what was going to happen in this game.

The other great revelation from this game was Kawhi Leonard. If this is the playoff Kawhi we can expect, the Spurs will be just fine in this series. He was aggressive on both ends of the court, finishing with a career post-season high of 32 points (on 14 shots). More impressively, though, he had 5 assists, and looked very comfortable taking on the double team and finding the open man. This was a big key coming into these playoffs, and it looks like Kawhi’s playmaking development is ahead of schedule. Adding “playmaking” to Kawhi’s arsenal (on this team, no less) seems almost unfair. I’ll take it.

Game 2 should be a real indicator of where this series is headed. Memphis will surely play better and with less nervousness. Will the Spurs be content getting the one game and let their edge down? Or will they come out even stronger and put the Grizzlies back on their heels, taking full command of the series?

We’ll find out Monday night.

Go Spurs Go.

It’s going to be a wild ride

Season 50, Game 81
San Antonio 98, Portland 99
61-20, 2nd in the West

Last night’s penultimate game of the regular season is recapped by Stephen Hale and Andrew Flores.

Stephen Hale weighs in first:

The fourth quarter doesn’t count. Actually this game really doesn’t count. It’s a glorified tune-up game, specifically played for the purpose of getting reps and finalizing that shortened playoff rotation. The Blazers sat basically everyone but the mascot and the Spurs started their main crew. So the takeaway has to be personal and I think it’s time we call a spade a spade.

Tony Parker is a hot mess.

He looks lost, uninterested and really, really old. Even in the third quarter when he made a few shots against the Trailblazers B Team in the 81st game of the season, I found myself rolling my eyes at his 18 foot jumper over Shabazz Napier. Like, now you want to hit that shot?

Everything you need to know about Tony Parker’s season can be summarized with those missed layups in the second quarter. A sudden burst of speed that surprises even Tony, in which he finds himself with a point blank shot at the basket, only to have a layup that hangs on the rim and trickles out. Parker’s body language sums it up: his shoulders flop down and he drops his head, then literally stops running to dwell on the deeper issues of life, while his teammates try and run back into a 5-on-4 break.

This is 2017 Tony Parker. I find myself longing for Dejounte Murray’s return.

It’s unlikely the Spurs win a championship this year. It’s even more unlikely they win with Patty Mills running the show. And that’s not a knock on Patty. He’s fabulous and really fun to watch, but he’s kind of a one-trick pony.

As surprising as the big men have been all year, the guard play is incredibly suspect. Here’s a list of the other point guards on playoff teams in the Western Conference. Stop me when you feel like Tony Parker can draw even with one of them.

Steph Curry

James Harden

George Hill

Chris Paul

Russell Westbrook

Mike Conley

Damian Lillard

In a guard-rich Western Conference, I wonder who the Spurs will lean on down the stretch. It seems like an impossible feat to get two guards to play well on any given night, let alone three. Fortunately, Danny Green seems to be looking… better… as of late. Also fortunately, when Green hasn’t had his shot, he’s always had his defense.

Parker has always had… France?

Last night Parker should have channeled his inner Manu. Manu got spot minutes and made them count. “The ageless wonder,” said Bill Land at the end of the third quarter. No one says that about Tony. Manu makes the right play and extends Manu-Magic in minimal doses. Tony needs to age with grace or else it will be a swift exit.

Alas, there is one possible saving grace: Kawhi Leonard. Is he really this good? Why are we still impressed by him so much?

My only reservation is, can he drag a team through the playoffs with limited help from a rag-tag big man crew and little to no help from his backcourt? Probably not. But also, maybe so.

I’m kind of done doubting him. He’s amazing and there’s nothing he can’t do on the court. He has zero holes in his game. He’s the complete player: the epitome of work ethic, humility and physical ability. He’s a dream.

It’s going to be a wild ride. There’s no reason the Spurs shouldn’t be in the Western Conference Finals and, at minimum, push it six games. They may very well lose, but they are fully capable of winning the series and returning to the Finals. Hopefully we get a whole lot more of Kawhi: God Mode and a whole lot less of Tony Parker in general.

PS: RIP Meyers Leonard

Now let’s hear from Andrew Flores:

1st Quarter: Although a ‘thank you’ was in order for the second unit – they played such beautiful offense – their defensive continuity was almost non-existent. I was amazed by the 7-of-10 3-pointers made by the home team, but not as impressed by the end of quarter diving reverse layup by Mills. I wonder why Pau turned on that jet-pack after pulling off that sweet pump-fake at the three line with a spinning, breakaway move to the rim for the layup?
I prayed that Ginobili stays with the Spurs for one more season. His passing has been sublime.

2nd Quarter: That jet-pack is starting to get passed around (Pau and Tony combined for four missed lay-ups which overshot the roll) as well as the lethargy – 20 consecutive misses.  Also, what’s up with the mistimed passes? Aren’t we supposed to be over that by now? I appreciate that this is a game for “trying things,” but it doesn’t make it any less uncomfortable to watch some of these plays ending the quarter.

3rd Quarter: There was more of a Spurs pace to this one. Not much offense from the opponent, while our offense had multiple contributors. First Tony get rolling, then Kawhi, then a triple threat of Pau, Manu and Patty from behind the arc. Unfortunately, the Spurs couldn’t stop a guy named Turner (who had 13 in the quarter). However, we had Manu and the quarter ends with a 9 point swing for the Spurs. First lead of the game.

4th Quarter: I imagine that before the start of this quarter, Pop looked over at Stotts and gave him a nod, making a silent gentlemen’s bet along the lines of, “I can win with my bottom bench, even though they only have a 5-point lead”. I’m sure the fans thought that this was going to be a blow out. They didn’t know about Davis Bertans. Now they know. Dunks – yup.  Blocks – yup. As impressive as he played, he paled in comparison to the Dunk of the Year Candidate, Jonathon Simmons. If you haven’t seen that “stomach pumping” jam in the grill of Portland’s “other Leonard,” well, I want it as my next Spurs Cave poster. Unfortunately our young bucks fumbled in the last seconds, a hilarious lesson to be learned.
 

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