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Which Mediocre Team Will the Spurs Struggle Against Next?

It’s over! I’m calling it now – the New Orleans Pelicans are no longer the thorn in the Spurs’ side that they’ve been in the past. After costing the Spurs the #2 seed in the 2015 playoffs and robbing Manu Ginobili of a testicle this February, San Antonio has finally exorcised their demons from the Big Easy.

Truth be told, I probably could have made this proclamation after the Spurs went 3-1 against New Orleans last season, but that team was so busted up the Austin Spurs probably could’ve given them a run for their money. Making the announcement after the Pelicans were trounced on Tim Duncan night just feels better.

But what’s a good San Antonio team without a penchant for losing to a loser? We’ve seen them struggle against the Grizzlies in the early 10’s. Portland always seems to be a problem. Hell, even Houston beat the Spurs in all four regular season games during the 2013-14 championship season.

So which other mediocre team seems to rise to the occasion every time they draw a matchup against the Spurs? Which team, guaranteed to lose their first round playoff series – probably in a sweep – is going to give San Antonio fits for the foreseeable future?

Which team is going to cause you to gulp and heavily sigh when you notice the Spurs play them on the second night of a back-to-back?

Off the top of my head, I came up with five options.

  1. Houston
  2. Chicago
  3. Utah
  4. Portland
  5. Washington

Unfortunately, this list can only contain bad teams, which automatically eliminates Houston and Utah.

Then I looked up the Spurs head-to-head record vs. Washington and learned that the Wizards have only beaten San Antonio twice in the last 11 seasons so… that’s got to be a no.

How about Portland, then?

The Spurs hold an 80-79 advantage in all-time head-to-head regular season match-ups against the Blazers, and a 6-5 advantage since the start of the 2013 season. Obviously, the Blazers haven’t been bad that entire stretch. They won 51 games in 2014-15 and 54 games in 2013-14.

But now? Portland isn’t so great, and although they haven’t played San Antonio yet this year, it’s hard to see them beating the Spurs playing their brand of matador defense.

That leaves us with Chicago.

The Spurs have split the season series with Chicago the last three seasons, despite San Antonio being the superior team on paper each time.

Chicago also finds itself in the enviable position of playing the Spurs on Christmas Day this year, a game that San Antonio historically loses.

Chicago has also seemingly figured out how to render Kawhi Leonard useless on defense – a big problem, considering that Danny Green is the only starter who plays lockdown defense. So Green will draw Wade and that’s fine, it shouldn’t be a problem for him. I’m not even that worried about Tony Parker on Rajon Rondo.

But Taj Gibson, Nikola Mirotic, and Robin Lopez against LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, and Dewayne Dedmon? That’s what keeps me up at night. The Spurs’ bigs have played some inspired (or better than average) defense lately, they’ve only had to go against one truly special big man – Anthony Davis – during their 4-game winning streak.

This holiday season, feel free to join me in what’s sure to be a wonderful new Christmas tradition – screaming profanities at the likes of Doug McDermott while the Spurs throw away a totally winable home game on national TV. Hey, at least we don’t play the Bulls four times a year!

The Spurs Have A Clipper Problem

Season 50, Game 29
San Antonio 101, Los Angeles Clippers 106
23-6, 2nd in the West

Remember when the Spurs owned the Clippers? Remember when the Spurs swept the Clippers out of the 2012 Playoffs, and in Game 3 the Clippers had like a 20-point lead in the 2nd quarter, and coming out of halftime, the cameras showed Pop and Duncan on the bench laughing, like they knew there was no way they were losing to this team? And then they came back and won that game (and the next in L.A., for good measure)?

Those were fun times.

Now it feels like the Clippers are the one team the Spurs just can’t crack (outside of the Warriors, who only LeBron can crack, and only after Draymond punches him in the nuts and gets suspended for a game). Their offense has given the Spurs fits for years. The CP-Jordan pick and roll probably causes Pop nightmares, as the Spurs have struggled to guard it for years. Somehow find a way to stop that, and Griffin wreaks havoc on the back side. Or they run the high double screen with DeAndre and Blake, and Paul just goes wherever he wants and makes every midrange jumper because of course. Oh, and Redick basically never misses a 3-point shot against us.

But at least our bench can outplay their laughable bench and keep us in games, right? Wrong. For whatever reason, the Clippers bench plays like (if we’re being perfectly honest here) our bench against us, and our bench morphs into what most people think their bench is.

To wit: in Thursday’s game, the Clippers’ bench combined for 58 points, 25 rebounds, and 10 assists. The Spurs’ bench? 41 points, 25 rebounds, and 7 assists.

Chris Paul went down with a pulled hamstring with about 4 minutes left to play in the 3rd quarter. Here was our chance: the Clippers were down their two best players, and the Spurs had 16 minutes to gut out the win. (One could argue, that once Paul went down, the Spurs should have been favored to win, even with a 9-point deficit.)

But even minus their two best players (really, their only two star players, as DeAndre is mostly made great by the compatibility of his skill set with Paul), the Spurs couldn’t put away the Clippers. Quite the opposite, actually: with just under a minute to play, the Clippers had stretched the lead to 14, meaning the ragtag Clippers were a +5 over 15 minutes against the Spurs. Only by the dint of that crazy 6-point play where Anderson stole the ball twice on an inbounds did the Spurs make the final score respectable.

Perhaps the lone bright spot was the play of Kawhi. He was magnificent in the game, and finally looked comfortable against this team. Remember, he had a disappointing series against them 2 years ago in that seven game classic that was decided by the thinnest of margins. For the Spurs to have any chance against this team, Kawhi needs to dominate his position, as the Clippers seemingly have the edge at every other spot, at least in the starting line-up.

The Spurs have a Clipper problem, and I’m not sure how to solve it. This is why seeding becomes so important in the playoffs, as match-ups can be the difference between a first round exit (*cough**cough*2015 playoffs*cough**cough*) and a trip to the Conference Finals.

The Spurs fell from the 2-seed to the 6-seed on the last day of the 2015 season, setting up that series with the Clippers. Despite Thursday’s hiccup, the Spurs are in control of the 2-seed this year. But the margin between the 3-, 4-, and 5-seed is slim, and the matter of a few bounces of the ball could dictate if the Spurs potentially face the Rockets, Clippers, or the Jazz in the second round.

I know who I’d like to avoid.

The Spurs finish up the road trip against the Blazers in Portland on Friday night.

Go Spurs Go.

22 For 21

Season 50, Game 27
Spurs 113, Pelicans 100
22-5, 2nd in the West

On the night of Tim Duncan’s jersey retirement, the Spurs honored TD in the most fitting way possible: winning.

We could fill pages and pages with words describing the importance and greatness of Duncan and tell only a fraction of the story. But his most lasting legacy on the court is that the team still wins… and wins and wins and wins. How many superstars stay with one team, are great the entire time, and when they retire, leave the franchise set up to prosper in his absence?

One. #21.

For the superstar (plus-plus-plus, as Tony Parker noted in the after game ceremony) who only ever wanted his team and teammates to be great, it must bring Duncan such joy to know that the winning doesn’t stop with him. For a player who takes such satisfaction in the accomplishments of others, it must thrill Duncan that the team is still so successful, barely missing a beat with his absence.

It’s still a shock not to see Duncan on the floor or even the bench. We hear stories about him at practices, perhaps even seeing some shaky cell-phone video taken from 60 yards away of him working out with the team at a practice. But even as his physical absence is felt, his presence still looms over everything this team does.

And so it is that LaMarcus Aldridge has his most dominant game of the season (clearly responding to my calling him out after the last game), rarely settling for the jumper, instead taking it hard into the post and right at Anthony Davis. I’ve never seen him play more aggressively (or more like TD), and he set the tone for the game and the win early, with 16 points, 3 rebounds, and 3 assists in the first half. If we get this LMA for the rest of the season, we’re in great shape.

And so it is that Pau Gasol, after a few days of battling Duncan in practice, comes out and racks up double-doubles, making his presence felt on both ends of the court. He had 12 rebounds in the first half, as the Spurs went on to out-rebound the Pelicans 49-37.

And so it is that Kawhi Leonard continues to Kawhi, growing into one of the best players in the entire NBA.

And so it is that Danny Green is rediscovering his shooting stroke, perhaps remembering Duncan imploring him to “rip it!” so often in those runs to the NBA Finals, the confidence-booster that turned Green from an end-of-the-bench NBA washout to a starter on a championship team.

And so it is that Parker and Manu Ginobili came out and played like they were six years younger, making every shot they threw up. You knew these two were going to bring a little extra juice on this night.

And so it is that Jonathon Simmons beasted in the 4th quarter, making sure the game didn’t slip away from the Spurs in garbage time. And Patty Mills continues to evolve from a shooter to a fully formed NBA PG. And David Lee and Dewayne Dedmon and Davis Bertans and every other new Spur who never even got a chance to play with Duncan find a supportive and welcoming home in the culture that he built. There’s a reason the Spurs always get the best out of every role player, and Duncan still factors into that.

The Spurs are winners because Duncan is a winner. Even with Duncan gone, the team still embraces everything he is, and the team lives on in his image. Humble, selfless, and great.

The jersey may be retired, but the spirit remains.

As for the ceremony, it was everything you could hope for. It was understated, funny, authentic, and heartfelt. What you’d expect from the Spurs. There were plenty of laughs, and just enough tears. Even for the most die-hard of fans, it was a rare glimpse into the humanity of an organization that mostly hides that part of itself  away.

If you didn’t get a chance to watch it, do. It’s rare to get to say good-bye to the greatest player in franchise history when he is still so fresh in our minds and our hearts.

The Spurs play in Houston tonight, the first night of a tough 3-game road trip before the Christmas Day game back home against the Bulls. Rockets, Clippers, Blazers. 3 games in 4 nights. This will be quite the test for this team.

Go Spurs Go.

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.

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