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Season 50, Game 57
San Antonio 105, Los Angeles Clippers 97
44-13, 2nd in the West

I’m certain the extended All-Star is a good thing. The players and coaches get a real vacation in the middle of the season, a chance to get their minds and bodies right for the stretch run and playoffs. (It also allows the trade deadline season to have its own stage, but that’s another story entirely.) It likely has a very positive impact on the quality of the late-season games.

But man if it isn’t hard to get back into the season after a full week off. (The All-Star game does not count.) It feels like I forget how to watch basketball. There was a moment when I thought Gasol was Splitter, which confused me.

It seems like it’s hard for the players to get back into it, as well. This game was played hard, but it wasn’t necessarily played well. The Clippers are the easiest team in the league to dislike (the Rockets are nipping at their heels in this department), so it’s doubly frustrating that they have the Spurs’ number. In the end, we got the win against a loathsome  rival, so it was a good game.

Kawhi seemed to be having a hard time getting back into the flow. He strikes me as a player that relies heavily on rhythm and repetition (he always seems off in the first game back from missing even a few games), so the week off is probably hard for him. He played with good energy, but his rhythm was way off. He was forcing shots and passes, and just didn’t seem in the flow of the offense.

Also, he almost fouled out, which might have been a good thing. The Spurs played a long time in the second half without their All-Star, and might have been better for it. Patty Mills, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, David Lee, and Pau Gasol carried the team through the 3rd and 4th quarters, not only keeping them afloat, but taking control of the game.

In this particular game, with Leonard out of sorts, it was probably better for the team to not rely on him so much. In the long run, it could also pay dividends to get comfortable playing well without always relying on Leonard. (Kawhi will also likely be better not having to do so much.)

Pau Gasol celebra un triple ante los Clippers / Kelvin Kuo (USA Today Sports)

The other point of interest in this game: the return of Gasol. What made it especially interesting was that he didn’t start the game. This was likely just to ease him back into the system and the flow of the team. But it also presents an interesting question.

Is Gasol better coming off the bench?

Coupled with that question: is Dedmon better in the starting line-up? Dedmon offers a skill set the Spurs haven’t had for years. He’s an athletic big man who is super mobile, protects the rim, and excels rolling in the pick and roll. His skill set is a nice fit with the starters, who could use that jolt of athleticism and superlative defense against other team’s elite big men.

Gasol, on the other hand, is actually a perfect bench player in today’s NBA. His shooting and deft touch are a perfect fit with the bench. His defense won’t get as exploited against second-unit big men. And his post game is more useful against other team’s back-up big men. While he is still a solid starter, he could be a “superstar” bench player, much like Ginobili still is late in his career.

Would Gasol accept this role? Likely not.

Would Pop have the balls to do it? Probably, though he is also smart enough to know if Gasol’s psyche could handle it.

One thing is certain: Dedmon has earned playing time, no matter when and where it comes.

The Spurs finish off the Rodeo Road Trip Sunday afternoon against the Lakers in Los Angeles. Much like the Sunday matinee game in New York, this has “trap game” written all over it. Here’s hoping the Spurs beat it… this time.

Go Spurs Go.

Kawhi To The Rescue

Season 50, Game 55
San Antonio 110, Indiana 106
42-13, 2nd in the West

The Spurs might be relying too much on Kawhi Leonard.

There’s no doubt that Kawhi is the best player on the team; he might be the best player in the league. There comes a certain responsibility with that standing. The fortunes of the team should rest most prominently on his broad shoulders.

But there is a point of diminishing returns, and there is too much for one player to do. (See: Russell Westbrook, OKC.) Right now, Kawhi takes (and makes) more shots that anybody else; he controls the offense more than anybody else; he is one of the lynchpins of the defense; he plays the most minutes; he is responsible for the most important decisions.

It’s crazy to say this about a team that is 42-13, but he needs some help. Aldridge is slumping (though he continues to work hard in other areas of his game), unable to hit his shot reliably. Parker has morphed into a caretaker, only ‘exploding’ for small bursts of points every so often. Mills’ seems to be lagging a bit at this point in the season. Manu is no longer the threat he once was. Dedmon needs others to set him up. Green is best as a spot-up shooter (though the development of other parts of his offensive game have been better than expected). Gasol is out. Anderson is fine, but not good enough at any one thing. Simmons is streaky. Lee has been great this season, but part of that greatness is his very limited, niche role. Asking him to do more would give the team less.

That’s it. That’s the roster (outside of the young, end of bench players). When it all clicks, it’s great. When it doesn’t (as it hasn’t so often lately), it’s Kawhi pulling the team across the finish line.

The offense in particular has been really up and down lately. Mostly down. For the season, the Spurs still rank 5th in offensive efficiency. However, in the last 15 games, the team is ranked 23rd, right next to offensive powerhouses like the Knicks, the Lakers, and the Hornets.

I don’t know if there are any good answers. Gasol coming back should help. His shooting and offensive intelligence is really important for the starting unit. Plus, he puts everybody back in their best roles, particularly making the second unit rotations whole. Aldridge will likely find his stroke again. Hopefully Mills will find his legs.

Parker has been fine in his role, but the very nature of that role might be the cap on this team’s possibilities. Parker was always a pretty good playmaker and an incredible scorer. While his playmaking has gotten better (along with his corporate knowledge), his scoring ability has dipped considerably. If he is not elite at any one thing, I don’t know how much he helps the team. The problem is, he really doesn’t hurt the team, either. He just is.

Maybe that’s good enough for now while we wait out the Warriors. Murray is not ready now, and we need good to competent PG play in the meantime.

Maybe there is no good answer. Maybe you just put the players out there, and trust that they will do what they can do. I love Kawhi, and we’ve seen by himself he can make the team pretty special.

I’m just tired of watching him have to carry the team night in and night out.

The Spurs finish the East Coast swing of the RRT against Orlando on Wednesday night.

Go Spurs Go.


Season 50, Game 51
San Antonio 74, Memphis 89
39-12, 2nd in the West

The fact that the Spurs laid such an egg in this game isn’t all that surprising. Down Kawhi against a very good defensive team on the road, a loss was surely a possible outcome. When gaming out the Rodeo Road Trip (RRT) schedule, this was one of the two games I had earmarked as a potential loss.

And stinkers happen. Much like that game against Orlando early in the season, sometimes a team just doesn’t have it and all the breaks go against them.

But the extent to which this game was complete and utter trash is what is shocking. Let’s run it down:

• The Spurs held the Grizzlies to 89 points… and still lost by 15 points. They had a defensive rating of 98.9 (a mark that would be near-record setting over the course of a season), which improved their already league-leading rating… and still got blown out.

• Why? The offense. Their offensive rating (and I do mean offensive) was 77.1, which is “Division-III college vs. competent NBA team” bad.

• The Spurs scored 74 points, their lowest total since 2011.

• They tallied 11 assists total, to 16 turnovers. That is not a good ratio.

• They shot 36% for the game. In the 4th quarter, they shot 13%, and it only got that high because the team had a final basket in garbage time. Before that final basket? 9%. (3-for-24 in the final frame.)

• In that 4th quarter, they scored a mere 9 points.

• They scored 14 points in the 1st quarter.

• LaMarcus – who seemed determined to be ‘the man’ in the absence of Kawhi – shot 4-for-19. He did not have a good game.

• I did mention that the team managed 23 points in one half of basketball, right? (Sure, it wasn’t in a consecutive half, but I’m still counting it.)

It was a really, really, really, really bad game of basketball.

And yet, as crazy as it sounds, I really think it was just a historically cold shooting night. Yes, the Grizzlies have a good defense. But the Spurs got most any shot they wanted. And they just missed, and missed, and missed, and missed some more for good measure.

But they played hard; they played smart. The defense was actually solid. Believe it or not, they were right in it until (almost) the very end. There was a moment, middle 4th quarter, when Parker got a steal, passed it ahead to Anderson, who pushed it up to Aldridge on the fast break heading for an easy layup… and for whatever reason, Aldridge hesitated, gathered, took an unnecessary dribble, then blew the (now) contested layup at the rim. The Grizzlies went the other way and scored 2.

LMA’s basket could have cut it to 4; instead it pushed to 8. In a game that low-scoring, that lead became almost insurmountable.

While the game was putrid, I’m not freaking out about it. It’s much easier to write off a performance like that as a dud and just move on with it.

The Rodeo Road Trip continues Wednesday night in Philadelphia.

Go Spurs Go.

Photo credit: Mike Brown – Mike Brown / EFE

The Oldheads

Season 50, Game 50
San Antonio 121, Denver 97
39-11, 2nd in the West

On a night when Gregg Popovich recorded his 1,128th career regular season win – besting Jerry Sloan for most wins with one franchise – it’s fitting that he was led by his two elder statesmen, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.

Parker has feasted on the Nuggets this season. After shooting 10-for-11 in the previous meeting, he was a scorching 8-for-8 tonight, for 18 points in just 23 minutes. He was steady in the first half, but really came on at the beginning of the second half, effectively putting the game out of reach for the Nuggets. Parker isn’t what he used to be, but if we can still get these concentrated doses of his brilliance, the team is still in good shape.

Not to be bested, Ginobili also scored 18 points, but all in 10 (10!!) first half minutes. Shooting 4-of-5 from deep and 4-of-4 from the line will do that. Much like Parker, Ginobili is still a key cog in the system in limited minutes. Part of the secret of aging gracefully is honestly accepting your limitations and playing within them. Both Parker and Ginobili have done that brilliantly this season.

Denver, playing their fourth game in five nights, ran out of gas early in the second half. The Spurs kept putting it on them, and we got to garbage time early. I love garbage time. I love watching Murray, and Bertans, and Simmons out there showing their stuff, pushing their limits, and working on their games. Simmons, in particular, was feisty in garbage time. You can see him developing and adding to his game. He could be a critical factor in the playoffs this season, and I love seeing his confidence grow.

While Pop would shrug it off, it’s nice to see him hit this milestone at home. It speaks to the consistent excellence with which he’s guided this franchise. And he’s got a whole bunch more wins in front of him.

And now the Rodeo Road Trip commences. This year’s schedule isn’t as tough as in years past, with an East Coast swing before the All-Star break, followed by two game in Los Angeles to close it out. 6-2 is realistic, though 5-3 is also likely. Anything worse than .500 would probably be a disappointment, given the schedule and the team’s performance on the road this season.

Up first: the Memphis Grizzlies, probably the second most challenging team on the trip. Oddly, these two Division foes haven’t played yet this season, which means we’ll see a bunch of this squad in the next few months. I’m very interested in this game, as Memphis has been a surprise this season (they do it every season, so I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise anymore), continuing to play their grit-n-grind style of play while also opening up the offense a bit. It will be a good test for the Spurs.

Go Spurs Go.

What Would Happen To You With Two Days Off in New Orleans?

Season 50, Game 46
San Antonio 103, New Orleans 119
36-10, 2nd in the West

For whatever reason (yes, like you, I can think of a few pretty obvious ones), the Spurs always seem to struggle in New Orleans. Always. Yes, they win some games there; but, relative to comparative talent between the two teams, it’s always closer than it should be.

One need only look back to the end of the 2014-15 season, the last night of the regular season, when a win in New Orleans (against a team already locked into their seed) would have secured the #2 seed while a loss meant the #6 seed. A game I’m sure we can all agree mattered. And yet, much like Friday night, the Spurs just laid an egg.

Friday night the team seemed to run out of gas (which seems odd considering they had two full days off before the game). The Spurs shot a meager 39% to the Pelicans blistering 52%. The Pelicans made 15 more baskets than the Spurs. With about 6 minutes gone in the 3rd quarter, the Spurs opened up an 11 points lead, 66-55. Over the remaining 18 minutes, the Pelicans shellacked the Spurs 64-37. Hard to win games giving up 64 points in 1 1/2 quarters.

The team just looked sluggish and a bit out of sorts. Parker and Leonard, in particular, seemed to be struggling after each had a week or so off. In a game so dependent on routine and rhythm, it’s natural that a week off would throw that out of whack. Parker was moving well (a more important indicator, considering his nagging sore left foot), but seemed a bit out of sync with the rest of the team.

Leonard showed flashes of his usual brilliant self, but in general, also seemed out of sync. He was also visually more frustrated than normal, which perhaps speaks to how discombobulated he felt on the court. Remember, though, after Leonard missed two games earlier this season with the stomach flu, his first game back was also pretty mediocre. Immediately after, though, he kicked off what might be the best streak of his career. We can afford to give him a game to regain his bearings.

In general, the loss isn’t that troubling. If you’d told me the Spurs would play the Raptors and the Cavs on the same 4-game road trip, and would finish the trip with a 3-1 record, I’d be very happy. There was a loss somewhere in this road trip, it just didn’t happen on the night we thought it would. Oh well. The Pelicans played very well and got big games from several role players. The Spurs do that to opposing teams all the time.

What’s a bit more troubling is the recent defense of the Spurs. Over the last 9 games (starting with the loss to Milwaukee, the first game where the defense seemed suboptimal), the Spurs have a defensive rating of 106.4 (15th in the league in that span). For comparison, the Spurs’ rating for the entire season is 102.1, 3rd in the league. The Warriors are 1st at 101.0. Over the course of a season, that 106.4 rating would rank 21st in the league.

In other words, not good. Digging deeper, the Spurs starters over those 9 games still rank 6th in defensive efficiency, while the bench is 24th. (To be fair, the bench’s net rating is 7.0 to the starter’s 8.7, so both units are performing very well.)

The only significant change over that time is the loss of Gasol. Perhaps the starters are benefitting from losing their worst defensive player, while the bench is suffering from losing their normal rotations and comfort as a unit, with deep bench players (not comfortable with the defensive principles) being pushed into more minutes.

Whatever the cause, the offense has been covering up a lot of ills of the defense recently. For the Spurs to be real contenders, the defense will need to get better. Thankfully, we have 37 games of data that show us it can be done.

The Spurs start a 4-game homestand Sunday against Dallas. Let’s hope the team gets back on track.

Go Spurs Go.

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