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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.

3 in the Key: Spurs v Kings

In the third installment of 3 in the Key™, Trace Ronning and Andrew Flores discuss the 12th game of the season, the Spurs 110-105 win on the road against the Sacramento Kings.

Let’s start with Trace’s three key takeaways…

Have you ever heard anyone say, “It’s not how you start. It’s how you finish”?

Nobody has ever said that to this collection of San Antonio Spurs.

The Spurs led by 18 with 5:56 to go. And they led by 18 with 2:49 to go. And yet, San Antonio ended up winning by just 5 points.

“A win is a win is a win,” head Coach Gregg Popovich would say if you asked him about his team just eeking out a victory. But behind closed doors, I’m going to guess several third stringers got roasted.

You know who won’t get roasted? The starting five, which leads me into my three takeaways from last night.

#1: The starters are figuring out how to play together

San Antonio was without Danny Green for the first couple weeks of the season. They were also (and are still) without Tim Duncan. They added Pau Gasol. So until last week, the Spurs’ starting five had played 0 games together, and it showed in home losses against the Rockets and Clippers.

Last night, the Spurs’ starting five outscored the Kings starting five 80-48 – the monstrosity known as DeMarcus Cousins had 26 of those 48 – and all but Green scored double digits. Danny finished with 9 pts and played excellent wing defense, per usual. I believe this is a good sign for the future of the Spurs, and not just the Kings being awful – which they are, most certainly.

#2: The bench has figured out how not to play together

So, hopefully that means they’ll stop doing it. Nobody on the Spurs’ bench finished with a positive +/- other than Davis Bertans, who played some nice defense besides some silly fouls on Cousins. Bertans also made some nice threes, but has plenty of room for improvement. I still really like the effort shown by David Lee and Patty Mills, who were -9 and -12, respectively, but this was an unimpressive night by the San Antonio bench.

Of course, +/- isn’t a comprehensive look at the way players perform (both Lee and Mills being prime examples). And maybe it’s unfair to compare this bench to the championship-winning 2013-14 team or the two seasons that followed, but without a reliable bench, it’s going to be hard to make a deep playoff run.

#3: When Kawhi makes his threes, he’s unstoppable

I honestly don’t think that’s hyperbole. What are defenders supposed to do when Kawhi Leonard is on target from behind the arc? Grow an extra pair of arms and legs? You have to respect everything Leonard does on the court, because he can do everything on the court, which hardly ever puts you in the best position to take away any one of the things Leonard can do to score.

I envy nobody who lines up against him at any point of the game.

If he could only figure out how to get to the free throw line half as often as James Harden… can you even imagine?

And now let’s welcome Andrew Flores back to the Spurs Dynasty fold…

#1: Pau Gasol is a Bad Mamma Jamma

As a long time fan of the Timmy “sneaky-sneaky” style of collecting 3000+ blocks, I was delighted to see #16, Pau Gasol, own the league’s most talented center, DeMarcus Cousins. Pau is a baller, folks. His offense is reliable and his defense is cunning.

However, what most impresses me about the Spurs steal of the off-season is his toughness. You’ve seen it – that scowl on his face is like a man who is headed into the Running of the Bulls. His determined leadership is contagious. After a three-game losing streak, I saw a different style of play on both ends of the floor that I contribute to the current winning streak. Knowing that Pau is just being Pau, don’t be fooled into making comparisons to Duncan, no matter how seamlessly his game is working out within the system in the first 10 games.

#2: Pop is always in Mad Scientist mode

Sure, Pop… let’s make the game stretch past even longer into my bedtime with your 3rd string v 1st string 3-minute drill. Watching this squad is as awkward as watching a “good game’ moment between Durant and Westbrook. Bertans playing ‘center’ is the kind of crazy that makes me wonder what goes on inside of Coach Pop’s head. I understand giving the D-League players a chance to understand the pace and competition of a starting 5. Watching them play reminds me how important team chemistry is in the NBA. Still, tip of the hat to you, Mr. Popovich, for doing what no other coach in the League would ever attempt. Who says the Spurs are a boring team?

#3: Manu is on a personal streak for “Amazing Shot” per game

I was at first skeptical anbout the Spurs paying $14 million for Manu Ginobili’s single season contract. It’s easier to justify when Manu is the recipient, especially in the wake of the retirement of the GOAT. I told myself that for years the Spurs had Manu in the payroll at a deal and this was a gesture of payback. However, look at his stats and he’s putting up some very efficient numbers. He’s been giving us flashes of the old X-factor that we normally rely on The Juice to provide off the bench, sick moves that I have to rewind and watch again, to make sure my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me. If the team can get this kind of effort on a night-to-night basis out of #20, the Spurs are going to be a tough team to beat.

Scale The Wall

Season 50, Game 09
San Antonio 96, Detroit 86

Coming into the game, the Pistons were 4-0 at home, winning by an average double-digit margin, and 0-4 on the road, losing by an average of about double digits. Despite the Spurs slow start on their home court, this was a game that was there for the taking.

While we all breathe a sigh of relief that the Spurs won this game going away, it’s mostly because we avoid the awkward conversation we’d have to have if they had lost a fourth home game this early in the season. They sky might actually fall in San Antonio had that happened.

The Spurs didn’t play especially great, but they didn’t play poorly, either. They were fine. After giving up 51 points in the first half, they held the Pistons to just 34 points in the second half, continuing the trend of strong second half defensive performances. I can’t for the life of me figure out what’s different, other than maybe a few words of ‘encouragement’ from Pop at the intermission.

I was most impressed by the team defensive rebounding. Drummond is a rebounding machine, particularly on the offensive glass. It’s too much to ask one individual player to slow him down. Rather, it falls to the team to all fight and scrap and help each other out. Drummond got 6 offensive rebounds, but the Pistons only got 9 as a team (compared to 10 for the Spurs). All in all, that’s good work on the boards.

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of this game was the play of Pau Gasol. This was the first game he looked truly comfortable playing in the Spurs’ scheme. He came out on fire, scoring 13 points in the first quarter. This could be a good role for Gasol: first quarter scorer. It reminds me of how the team used Parker way back when. Get him going early to kickstart the offense.

He also had a team-high 6 assists, and looked really sharp working out of the high post with the ball in his hands. He has a nice touch and good vision, and made several nifty passes over the top of the defense to another big at the rim or to a small cutting to the rim from the side.

This is the Gasol that we were hoping to get, the one that would be an offensive upgrade over Duncan.

Not all games are created equal, and the most important thing about this game was not winning, it was ‘not losing’. The Spurs took care of business at home. They still look a bit disorganized, but each game is a step forward.

The Spurs face the Rockets in Houston on Saturday night.

Go Spurs Go.

Father Knows Best

Season 50, Game 08
San Antonio 99, Houston 101

In his between quarter interview, Pop did a much better (and more succinct) job explaining this loss than I can, so I’ll paraphrase him: poor transition defense and a lack of organization on offense.

That about sums it up. You want more? OK, I suppose I can expound.

The Spurs’ defense has been all over the place this season. Despite what the eyes tell us, they’re actually ranked in the Top 10 in the league defensively. The real issue is consistency. Wednesday’s loss to Houston is a perfect example: they gave up 63 points in the first half (bad), but a mere 38 points (very good) in the second half, including a 16 point 4th quarter. Allowing 101 points to an offensively-gifted Houston Rockets team is not bad at all, but it’s difficult to consistently have to dig out of first quarter and first half deficits.

More lack of consistency: the Rockets scored 25 or so points in transition, meaning a quarter of their total points came in fast break. Taking the optimist’s view, that means they only scored about 75 points in the half court, which is actually very good. But to see a Spurs team get so shredded in transition defense (perhaps one of Pop’s three biggest basketball tenets) is shocking to watch.

Maybe what makes this early season so confounding is the overall lack of consistency. The bones of a great team are there, but we’re not seeing it night-to-night, quarter-to-quarter. We’re so accustomed to the Spurs always playing within 10-15% of their ceiling, that an up-and-down team probably scares us more than it should. There’s a lot to figure out, and still a long time to do it.

Which brings us to Pop’s second point: lack of organization on offense. This is a perfect way to describe what we’re seeing. It’s not that the offense is bad (and Kawhi’s personal offense is incredible), it’s just that it generally lacks for flow and excitement. When we talk about the ‘beautiful game’ from seasons past, what we’re really talking about is every player knowing exactly what to do and where to go at all times. In less flowery terms: organization.

It makes sense that the Spurs would be deficient in offensive organization. They’re integrating seven new players and pretty much everybody is trying to figure out new roles on the team, regardless of tenure. For the first time since peak Duncan, the Spurs have an isolation scorer who should be relied upon. But that makes everybody else’s role new in the system.

The Rockets scored 16 points in the 4th quarter, and only 5 in the last 5 minutes or so. The Spurs had every chance to steal this game. The defense was working at the end; the offense came up short.

Overall, I thought the team played pretty well. They were really good at times, and just fine other times. Now we know what they need to work on: consistency and organization. How boring. How Spurs.

A few more thoughts from Wednesday’s loss:

• Danny Green played his first game back. I know he’s a popular whipping post for Spurs fans, but I love Green and his game. His defense was missed, and he had some really nice defensive sequences in the game. He shot 2-of-8 from 3, which was not nice. His 3-point shooting is the most important thing to monitor as he eases into the season.

• I’m worried about our starting front court, both individually and as a unit. Gasol is having a harder time adjusting than I thought he would, and Aldridge is off to a slow shooting start and seems to have reverted back to the beginning of last season, when he looked lost and seemed to drift a bit. He’s best when he’s aggressive, but maybe he feels he doesn’t have an aggressive role in the team. His level of engagement is something to monitor.

With both players struggling, their play together has been disjointed and largely responsible for the slow starts for the Spurs in many games.

Lee, Dedmon, and Bertrans are all playing well in back-up roles. But none of those players is the answer in the starting line-up. The Spurs are in a tough spot with their bigs. Every player is cast in the role best suited for them; they just need to perform.

• Simmons has been inconsistent (there’s that word again) to start the season, but when he’s playing well, his spark off the bench is refreshing. I think we’ll see more good juice than bad juice this season, and I think his role will grow more important as the season progresses. His athleticism on the wings (on both ends) is refreshing and unique for the Spurs. It’d take the right opponent, but I’d love to see Simmons, Leonard, and Green all on the floor together. That’d be a dynamic defensive trio.

• Mike D’Antoni without a mustache is… weird.

The Spurs face the Pistons at home on Friday, before returning to the comforts of the road and a rematch in Houston on Saturday.

Go Spurs Go.

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