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Go Spurs Going Forward

The 2016-17 season was the first in decades that the Spurs had to play without Tim Duncan. The Silver and Black attack exceeded all expectations by putting together perhaps the best rebuilding season by any team in history.

The 2017-18 season will be one of continued rebuilding, laying a foundation for now and the future, one as solid as we spoiled fans of San Antonio can hope for.

The post season had our franchise attached to big names and rumors of this generation’s best point guard wanting to join our squad. Chris Paul was serious about wanting to come to San Antonio, despite the realities of his contract needs and the inability of the Spurs to bring him with the team’s cap restrictions.

What’s important is that he, Derrick Rose, Dwayne Wade, and many others have now been actively and publicly linked to playing in San Antonio. Longtime fans know that San Antonio was not a destination for elite free agent NBA stars in the past. That’s changed. The significance of this cannot be overlooked.

We have many, many, many reasons to be optimistic about this year and beyond. And I believe this may be the deepest roster San Antonio has ever fielded.

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Fab Four

2017 Western Conference Semifinals
San Antonio 110, Houston 107 (OT)
Spurs lead series 3-2

With their lead guard down and their superstar out, the Spurs had an unlikely foursome step up to seize control of the game and the series in Game 5.

After Kawhi hobbled off the court late, the Rockets had a prime opportunity to steal this game on the road and likely close out the series in Game 6. Instead, the Spurs four wing players combined to carry the burden and bring the Spurs across the finish line.

Let’s start with Patty, who got his first start of the postseason and didn’t disappoint. He was hot early, keeping the Spurs even with the Rockets through the frenetic first half. When the game slowed down late, he continued to grind on defense and kept moving on offense to keep things from getting too bogged down. Asked to play more minutes than he is used to, he stepped up in a huge way. (Looking forward, Patty would actually be a great starting PG next to Kawhi, with enough ball handling to keep defenses honest and the shooting to keep them spread out. But that’s a conversation for the summer.)

Next up is Danny Green, old reliable. He played his usual stout defense, but really stepped up on offense when the team needed it most. He was 4-for-8 from 3, and hit two huge ones: the first to end the 3rd quarter and give the Spurs a one-point lead; the second the shot that got the lid off the basket in OT for the Spurs. He followed that shot up with a driving and-1 layup, perhaps his first successful foray to the rim as a professional basketball player. He then hit the final free throw to give the Spurs their 3-point margin of victory. He scored the final 7 points for the Spurs, as unlikely a scoring hero as you’ll find on the roster.

Then we have Simmons, who is proving in this series what we’ve all hoped was true about him. He is designed to play against these Rockets, with his speed and athleticism a necessary counter to Houston. He has just enough ball-handling abilities to serve as a playmaker in the Spurs PG-light rotations, and drives well enough to make up for his outside shooting. His slashes to the basket all game were necessary. Perhaps most impressively, he guarded Harden as well as anybody can, particularly late in the game. Harden turned the ball over 4 times with Simmons as the primary defender in the heart of crunch time. His poise in the biggest of moments has been mightily impressive.

Which brings us, finally, to Manu Ginobili. Manu freaking Ginobili. There’s a reason Spurs fans irrationally love him, and will forgive him all his foibles and bad games. He has risen to clutch situation after clutch situation his whole life, and he does it with flair and grace. He scored. He dunked. He assisted. He ran the team like it was the 2005 Finals.

And to cap it all off, that block. That was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen on a basketball court. Manu’s greatest athletic gift might be his reflexes and complete control of his hands. He just seems to operate a split second ahead of the rest of us. As many have pointed out, he was jumping to block Harden’s shot before Harden was shooting. And he just knew where to put his hands, and when to put them there. There are plenty of ways to win a basketball game, but not too many people will go with “block a potential game-tying 3-pointer from behind”. Only Manu.

These four wings stepped up huge. While the bigs seemed to play poorly throughout the game, let’s not discount their contributions. They battled hard on the boards, and the Spurs ended up with 18 offensive boards (9 by LaMarcus). While they all didn’t contribute to points, they did contribute to slow the game down and gum up Houston’s offense a bit.

And while neither LaMarcus nor Gasol shot very well (often being guarded against much smaller players), there is still benefit to hammering it down in the post. For one, it slows the game down, as mentioned. For another, even if they’re not scoring, pounding into Harden in the post possession after possession is tiresome. As much as the pace of the game, the pounding Harden took in that first half guarding the post must have worn him down.

A few more things stand out about this game. A lot is being made that D’Antoni only played a 7-man rotation. This has been his modus operandi for years. He plays who he can trust. I don’t know if playing only those seven players tired them out late in the game, but it was obvious they were struggling.

The Spurs played 9 players, basically a 7-man rotation with Lee getting 11 minutes and Anderson getting 7. You can argue that neither should be playing in this series as they can’t match up well with Houston, and I’d see your point. But I’d argue that each had their moments, and that those 20 minutes are critically important. The Spurs might not win the minutes those two are on the floor, but the rest they provide for other players might be the difference to the Spurs winning the last 5 minutes. In other words, perhaps Ginobili and Simmons and Mills and Green and Aldridge were just a little sprier in those last few minutes than their Rockets counterparts precisely because Lee and Anderson ate up those 20 minutes earlier in the game.

Finally, we all know the Rockets want to play fast. The narrative is that the Spurs need to slow them down to win the game. And this is true. But something occurred to me watching this game: maybe the best way to slow the Rockets down is to just wear them out running over 3 quarters and then muck it up in the 4th. Of course, in order to do this, you have to keep pace for three quarters. But if you can do that, you have a chance to win (especially if you are a deeper team).

I’m not saying this was Pop’s strategy. But for 3 quarters, the Spurs took every blow from the Rockets’ offense and responded in kind. After three, the score was 86-85, on pace for a game right around 115 points for each team. Instead, regulation ended knotted up at 101, as each team only managed 15 and 16 points in the final quarter.

OT was even sloggier, as neither team scored for about 2 1/2 minutes, and the Rockets only points came off of two 3-pointers.

Both teams were noticeably gassed in the final 17 minutes. Offenses slowed to a grind, and there just wasn’t any movement, particularly from the Rockets. It took 3 quarters of playing the Rockets way, but the game finally turned the Spurs way. And it did so precisely because it had been played at the Rockets’ pace for 36 minutes.

Wait long enough and the worm will turn; pound enough, and that rock will break. Have a Manu Ginobili, and you’ll likely win Game 5.

Now the Spurs head back to Houston with a chance to close out in Game 6. We don’t know how badly Kawhi is hurt. He says he’ll play, but I imagine it won’t be his final decision. Should Pop sit him out in Game 6 (knowing the team isn’t favored any way) and give him four full days of rest before a potential Game 7 on Sunday? Or should he play him (assuming he’s healthy enough), knowing that he risks further injury and potential catastrophe?

My thought is you play him if he’s healthy enough to go, even if not 100%. You can’t give away chances to close out a series. The Spurs have shown they can close these things out on the road, and I’d rather take two cracks at it than one.

Either way, I hope Kawhi isn’t seriously hurt. He didn’t look good for most of the game, though he did play valiantly after returning from the injury. I think to win this series, the Spurs need one more ultra-Kawhi game.

Game 6 is Thursday night.

Go Spurs Go.

Bear Down

2017 Western Conference Playoffs, First Round
San Antonio 103, Memphis 96
Spurs win series 4-2

It only took 10 games for one of these teams to find an edge over the other on the road.

All credit to Memphis: they are a bear to play. What they lack in quality they make up for with determination and execution. They never let the other team get too much separation, and they continually find answers in clutch situations. In reality, this was a 5-game series in which the Spurs came out on the wrong end of a few too many 50-50 situations. But that’s what Memphis does: they consistently win the moments that have no reason to them.

The Spurs showed their own grit and grind in Game 6, though. There were a few key stretches to the game. After playing relatively even in the first half, Memphis opened up a 10-point lead in the 3rd quarter. The Grizzlies could have pulled away here, but the Spurs clawed their way back into it.

The key stats of the quarter: 8 offensive rebounds, 9 second chance points, 10 free throws. Effort and physicality.

Again in the 4th, Memphis opened up a bit of a lead, pulling out to an 88-81 score with just about six minutes left. To close the game, though, San Antonio showed their championship pedigree, closing on an extended 15-8 run, clamping down on defense and executing just enough against the bruising Memphis defense to gut out the road win.

Brandon Dill/Associated Press

As with most games, we should start with Kawhi. While he didn’t shoot as well as he had in previous games (only 8-for-19), and while he was met with resistance at every turn and every drive, he found a way to get it done. It wasn’t fluid, and it wasn’t always pretty, but Kawhi leveraged most every situation to the Spurs advantage. In the second and third quarters, it was drawing fouls and keeping the team afloat at the line. In the fourth, when the attention turned squarely to him, he continued to show his playmaking touch for two huge assists late (and another two passes that led to wide open shots or easy baskets without the assist credit). He was easily the best player in this series. (Coach Pop thinks Kawhi Leonard is the “best player in the league right now.”)

The Spurs second best player in the Grizzlies season? Tony Parker. It wasn’t there every game, but it was there enough in the wins, and it was all there in Game 6. This was vintage Parker, nailing that midrange jumper, driving to the basket, and just running the team with a steady hand in a pressure situation. He finished 11-for-14 from the floor for 27 points, 4 assists, and only 1 turnover. More importantly, he got the team going in the first quarter when the energy of the Memphis crowd could have easily overwhelmed the team, and he hit three huge baskets late when the series was on the line. Can he bring it every night? No. Can he bring it enough to win a series? For now, yes.

The rest of the game was an aggregation of tiny contributions adding up to just enough. David Lee worked his ass off under the rim to win those cheap points that add up in games like this. LaMarcus Aldridge struggled to put the ball in the basket from close range, but battled to a team-high 12 rebounds. Aldridge is easily criticized when he struggles on offense, but rarely gets enough credit for his defense. It’s just assumed that he stinks at defense, and people don’t want to change their minds.

Manu Ginobili hit a huge and-1 3 pointer; Patty Mills had 10 off the bench; Danny Green played his usual great defense and hit a couple of clutch 3s; Dewayne Dedmon had 3 of the highest energy minutes in a closeout game you could hope for. Together, they pieced together the necessary contributions behind Leonard and Parker.

I can’t decide if Memphis was an unusually tough match-up for a 7-seed with their experience and toughness, or if the Spurs played a bit below their regular season level. Houston (who we’ll meet next round) dispatched a seemingly better team in Oklahoma City in the first round in 5, while San Antonio went to 6 against a lower seed. But Memphis might be a better constructed playoff team, while OKC is more easily exposed in the playoffs for the one-man army they are.

All to say, many people are going to be predicting Houston to beat the Spurs in the next round based on the first round results. While the Rockets certainly have a chance, I don’t think it’s that cut and dry. It’s not apples to apples.

We’ll get into that in our series preview, but suffice it to say, San Antonio is relieved to be getting out of the mud with a physically brutal team and Houston will have to figure out how to guard more than one player.

The second round series kicks off Monday night in San Antonio.

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.

Did We Learn Anything Watching Golden State vs San Antonio?

(Photo: Getty Images)

I’m going to level with you all before I get deep into this one.

I have no clue what to expect in a potential Golden State Warriors vs. San Antonio Spurs playoff series. The season series was just about as nonsensical as it gets. Teams this talented and well-coached shouldn’t play three blowouts against one another. Never mind that two of the blowout wins were by the team on the road.

Still, we must have learned something from these games, as non sequitur as they seemed… right?

If nothing else, we’re going to try to learn, so buckle up!

Season Opener
Spurs at Warriors, October 25, 2016
Spurs win 129-100

It’s hard to remember this game, it was so long ago. So much has changed in the world since this glorious night. Back then, the USA hadn’t even elected a reality TV star as president yet! What a world… what a world!

Anyway, believe it or not, in the first game of the post-Tim Duncan Spurs era (coincidentally, the first game of the evil villain Kevin Durant Warriors era), three of the oldest guys left playing basketball strolled into Oakland and “Get off my lawn’d” the Warriors into a pile of rubble. It was beautiful. It made me believe that all our dreams could come true if we simply believed in the powers of light and darkness and manifested those powers directly onto the things we care about. Whether San Antonio wins the Finals this year or not, this game proved to me that as long as your team is the real-life depiction of a Disney villain, you are screwed in the long run.

What went right for the Spurs in this game?

Kawhi Leonard assumed his throne and dropped 35 points and 5 steals on the defending NBA chokeians (that’s a new word I made up for teams that blew a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals, btw), LaMarcus Aldridge dropped another cool 26, and Jonathon Simmons – bless his heart – made us all think this was going to be the year he became a legit bench threat with a 20 point effort and an epic chasedown block on Steph Curry.

The Warriors starters were great, as expected, but their bench was HORRENDOUS. Ian Clark led the bench with 5 points. Nobody on the team had a positive +/-. Zaza Pachulia (who I hate) had more turnovers than shot attempts.

It wasn’t meant to be for Golden State on that fine October night, and while one could argue that it was their first meaningful game with Durant and they still had to learn how to play together, well… actually no you can’t make that argument because that starting unit combined for 84 points while the bench scored 16 points.

And if you really wanted to make that argument, I think San Antonio’s case for potentially laying an egg is even stronger. The Spurs were without Duncan for the first time in 19 years. They replaced him with Pau Gasol, who isn’t nearly as young nor athletically gifted as Kevin Durant, and San Antonio steamrolled the Warriors.

If we learned anything that night, it’s this: The Warriors need SOMETHING from their 5-12 guys – Zaza is included here because, honestly, he is not good enough to start for this team, c’mon – or they aren’t making a third straight trip to the Finals. Strength in Numbers? Not this season.

Warriors at Spurs, March 11, 2017
Spurs win 107-85

Danny Green was the only starter for either team that played in this game. Again, Zaza doesn’t count. Anyway, that tells you almost everything you need to know about this game. Oh, get this! JaVale McGee only played five minutes in this one! In a game where literally only ten people on his team were dressed he only got five minutes.

What did we learn?

Uh… that if somehow every starter from both teams dies before they play next, that lack of bench depth we already knew about is going to be bad news for Golden State. Also, it’s going to be a really shitty and somber playoff series. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen. It was also a good reminder that San Antonio has a good bench. One of the best benches.

Warriors at Spurs, March 29, 2017
Warriors win 110-98

This started as the kind of game where I thought I’d be excited to see Davis Bertans and Kyle Anderson getting fourth quarter minutes against a quality opponent. But by the time the fourth quarter came around and I noticed that Anderson and Bertans were on the court, all I could do was scream and writhe in pain until my girlfriend dragged me out of the bar and into a cab.

This one hurt. Not only would a Spurs win have put the 1-seed firmly within grasp, but San Antonio raced out to a 15-0 lead and ended up losing by 12 to a team that was missing Durant. Ouch. And the Spurs weren’t missing anyone besides Dejounte Murray who wouldn’t have seen anything but garbage time if he were healthy.

The contest was pretty much our collective worst nightmare, and a microcosm of the season. The Spurs have looked like the hottest team on Earth several times this year, including versus Cleveland and opening night vs. these same Warriors (well, minus Durant).

At other times, the Spurs have looked like Brooklyn would give them a run for their money. Sometime we get both versions of San Antonio, and the shitty version sticks around for a lot longer than we’d hope for.

What did we learn?

JaVale McGee still has an atrocious rattail. But in actual basketball…

When the Spurs are operating at optimum efficiency, they can hang with and beat anyone. They led 33-17 at the end of the first quarter, and it wasn’t because they were relying on Leonard to do everything. Yes, the Spurs’ star had 8 points in the first quarter, putting him on pace for another 30 pt game, but contributions from Aldridge and Green helped them get out to their strong start.

As the game wore on, the Warriors figured out to mostly remove Kawhi from the equation, and Kawhi was eventually forced to try and take things on himself despite constant double-teams. It, obviously, didn’t work out.

Tony Parker (who went scoreless) and Manu Ginobili (who missed a lot) both looked very much their age against the younger, quicker Warriors, and neither Patty Mills nor Anderson instilled much confidence with their games either.

Remember that time I talked up San Antonio’s bench to be the best thing since the invention of the 3 point line? Bleh.

That’s all just a really long way to say that if the Spurs match up with Golden State in the playoffs, Kawhi is either going to have to become basketball Jesus, or the rest of the team is going to have to hold up their end of the bargain.

Oh, and playing some defense would be nice too. Sheesh.

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