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The Entertainers

By Jeff Koch on January 23, 2017.

Season 50, Game 43
San Antonio 118, Cleveland 115 (OT)
34-9, 2nd in the West

What a game.

The Spurs ended the game shooting exactly 50% from the field; the Cavs finished at 49.5%. The Spurs shot 38.5% from 3, while the Cavs shot 38.2% from 3. Both teams made 12 free throws (though the Cavs ended up shooting 8 more). The Cavs out-rebounded the Spurs by 1, 47-46. The Spurs had 32 assists to 25 for the Cavs.

It was about as close and well-played of a basketball game as you could hope for. Both teams played to their abilities and seemed to bring out the best in the other team. It was a back and forth affair, with neither team able to get more comfortable than an 11-point lead. Fittingly, it ended in OT on an open shot that could have tied it yet again.

Sometimes a game is just so good and so competitive that you should just appreciate it for the display of physical talent and beauty that it is. At its best, basketball can be art, and Saturday’s game was just that.

But you don’t read this to hear me gush on too much about that sort of mumbo jumbo. Here are some of my broader take aways from this game:

• This might be the game that we look back at as the inflection point for Kawhi Leonard truly becoming a superstar and big game player. Undoubtedly, he has been tremendous for a while now. But there’s always been that lingering doubt that he didn’t have another level, that he couldn’t lead the team in big games and playoff series.

On this night, he went toe-to-toe with the King and the NBA champs and came out victorious. His game was nothing short of masterful, even as his shooting touch was a little off (he shot 50% from the floor, which qualifies for ‘off’ for Leonard in this recent stretch). He was able to not only control the team on both ends, but control the game. Perhaps that’s the difference between a regular season superstar and a postseason superstar.

If last season was his regular season breakout, this season needs to be his postseason breakout. We won’t have that answer until the actual postseason, obviously; but games like this serves as preparation and reps for that stage. Kawhi is passing.

• Looking at the box score, you might think LaMarcus had a quiet game, only scoring 16 points (on 14 shots). Watching the game, though, I thought he was outstanding. I think the key to the Spurs’ success long-term is the evolution of Aldridge from a scoring star to an all-around complete player that scores less and is no longer the #1 option offensively. There’s concern that he won’t accept this shift. If he does (as he did on Saturday), the Spurs will be great.

Aldridge as a #2 option who scores less but rebounds, defends, passes, and makes huge hustle plays is a destructive player. He made several huge hustle plays down the stretch of this game (and even a critical basket or two), and his ability to be the lone big in small line-ups and hold his own will be important in the playoffs.

He finished with 12 rebounds, 6 assists, and 2 blocks. Those numbers are more important.

• Pop played a lot of small ball in this game with just one traditional big. It had some mixed results, but it’s good to see Pop experiment with it. To beat the Rockets and the Warriors, these lineups will need to be effective. What I liked most about it is that the Spurs have the ability to go small and stay ‘big’, with Kawhi, Anderson, Simmons, and Green all able to switch between the 2, 3, and 4 spots.

The traditional thinking in a small configuration would be Kawhi at the 4. But who plays the 3? Simmons, likely. But Pop threw out another idea tonight that I loved…

• Kyle Anderson as a small-ball 4. Kyle saw his most meaningful playing time in weeks in the biggest game of the season thus far, and he played great. He was active defensively, getting a bunch of deflections, strips, steals, and even a block. And on offense, he was able to make plays in the flow of the offense and maximize his talents (while minimizing his weaknesses).

Putting Kyle at the 4 and Kawhi at the 3 in small lineups could be brilliant. And it could be the role that finally finds Kyle his spot on this team (and in the league in general). He’s a bit too slow to play the 3 against top NBA talent. At the 4, though, his lack of speed is less debilitating, and his ability to make plays, handle the ball, and his quick hands become huge advantages against other PFs who aren’t used to guarding and playing against that type of player.

I hope we get to see more of this.

• Finally, we need to talk about Murray. Kid is just exploding with talent and already showing refinement of that raw skill. He already has a sick floater, a shot that usually takes years to master. His speed is off the charts. What’s less talked about: his size and length are huge for a PG, making him a solid defender already (without really understanding NBA defense yet) and a match-up nightmare for most opposing PGs.

With Parker out with a sore foot, we’ll see plenty of Murray in the near-future. But when Parker comes back, we’re going to have a legitimate logjam at PG. Mills needs to play. Parker will play, regardless of how you feel about him. But Murray has earned minutes, too. What’s the answer?

I’d like to see Pop try Murray at the 2 in 2-point guard lineups. (With Manu’s back injured in the final moments of this game, there might be minutes available there.) He has the size and speed to stick with most 2-Guards in the league, and a 2-PG lineup (with Kawhi, Simmons, or Anderson on the floor) would give the team three primary ball handlers who can effectively run an offense on the floor at one time. This could lead to some really good offensive units, without sacrificing too much on defense (as most 2-PG lineups tend to do).

Right now this team just has a wealth of available talent. Pop has his work cut out for him, but in the best way possible.

The Spurs continue the 4-game road trip Monday night against the Nets in Brooklyn. After Saturday’s game, I’d expect some rest for key players and big minutes for some of our favorite bench players, especially since the team plays in Toronto on Tuesday.

Go Spurs Go.

Photo credit: NBA