FanPost

Recap Game 3: The Unofficial Beginning of Basketball Season

Game 3, @ Los Angeles Clippers: Spurs 97-88 (Record 2-1) RAGE: -1

As most of you know, my day job is covering the San Francisco 49ers for CBSSports.com. During training camp I worked alongside this fellow named Phil Barber, who works at the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, a real nice guy with a great sense of humor who kind of resembles Chuck Palahnuik.

Phil lives all the way in Napa, which you geography buffs or oenophiles out there may know is quite far from Santa Clara, where the 49ers practice everyday. He kind of got thrown into the beat at the last second after their longtime guy Matt Maiocco decided to quit to become a TV star at CSN Bay Area (this just in: newspapers are dying). Because of his insane commute, Phil only covered the team through training camp before they found someone else, but one thing I'll always remember about him is that he had this perpetual smile on his face as he was writing on his computer.

It was just the most bizarre thing I've ever seen. It was like he was having an amusing chat with someone or watching some funny video, except all he was doing was writing a story about Mike Singletary and Alex Smith (who are both hilarious, in a morbid way, but that's beside the point). I never had the guts to ask Phil about it because I didn't want to sound rude or have him be self-conscious, and I honestly don't think he's even aware that he does it. The guy's default facial setting as he types is a smile.

Anyway, after last night I can say it's going to take something pretty severe to wipe the smile off my face for a few weeks.

THE SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS WON THE WORLD SERIES! WOOOO!

It was one of the happiest nights I can ever remember and that I feel like I've just closed a chapter of my life. Never again will I care so much, maybe at all, about who wins a baseball game. Indulge me for a bit as I take you on a trip through my personal baseball hell with this team. Just please do me a favor. I have to get this out of my system and I promise I won't write about baseball ever again on PtR. I don't ask y'all for much, besides money.

Now understand, the Spurs are my favorite franchise in all of sports, partly because of Manu, partly because I just flat out enjoy the game of basketball more than the others because I play it (badly) a little myself and partly because I sincerely appreciate and have always appreciated what the Spurs stand for, on and off the court. I like that they don't showboat or act crazy after a routine dunk in February. I like that they take pride in finding players from all over the world and aren't xenophobic. I like that when they win titles the banners say "NBA Champions" instead of "World Champions" because the team respects international basketball. I like that the players respect each other and the fans. I'm not in the locker room, obviously, but from the outside it seems fairly important to the Spurs to not have any bad guys on the roster and I really like that.

Still, there's nothing like living and dying with a baseball team everyday. For eight months, for better or worse - almost always worse - 25 complete strangers have a major, disproportionate importance influence on your life and your mood. Because there's a game almost every day, and because they're always on TV now, it just becomes a part of your routine, especially during summer when regular TV shows are in hiatus and the other leagues are in their off-seasons.

Baseball's literally the only game in town, and if your team is any good at all, they hook you in.

As you may know, the Giants have had a fairly tragic history, like the Red Sox of the West Coast. They made it to the World Series against the Yankees in '62 (I wasn't quite old enough for that one) and were losing 1-0 in the 9th inning of Game 7 at home with a runner at first and two outs when Willie Mays hit a double to the right center gap that Roger Maris (the same guy who broke Babe Ruth's single-season home run record the season before) cut off brilliantly to hold the lead runner at third. The next batter, Willie McCovey hit a line drive straight to second baseman Bobby Richardson to end the game. If he hits the ball five feet to the right or left or higher, they would've won the Series.

Their next real chance came in 1987, right when I started following baseball casually for the first time (I was 9). The Giants won the NL West and had a 3-2 series lead going back to St. Louis in the NLCS, but a bad misplay by outfielder Candy Maldonado cost them in a 1-0 loss in Game 6, and they got smoked 6-0 in Game 7.

In 1989 they made their first World Series in 27 years, but it just happened to be against the crosstown juggernaut Oakland A's, who were completely pissed about blowing the Series the previous year to a weak Dodgers team (more on them later) and out for blood. Everyone remembers that series for the famous earthquake that interrupted Game 3 and caused it to be postponed for like 12 days or something, but the Giants were clearly the inferior team there and got swept. No muss, no fuss, no hard feelings since most people liked the A's too.

The 1993 Giants famously signed free agent Barry Bonds away from the Pirates and that team also had Will Clark, Matt Williams, Robby Thompson, two 20-win pitchers in John Burkett and Billy Swift, a stud closer in Rod Beck, a couple of 50-stolen base guys in Darren Lewis and Royce Clayton, role players like Willie McGee, Kevin Bass, Todd Benzinger, Mark Carreon, a prime eighth inning guy in Mark Jackson, I mean this team was LOADED. It was like the baseball equivalent of the '95 Spurs.

They had like an 11-game lead over Atlanta in the NL West at one point I think, but they suffered a lot of injuries which slowed them down and led to an eight-game losing streak in late August. The Braves acquired Fred McGriff thanks to a San Diego fire-sale and were unbeatable after the All-Star Break. The Giants eventually righted the ship and the two teams went back and forth in September. They were tied in the standings, with 100 wins apiece, with four games to go. The Giants' last four games were at the hated Dodgers, while the Braves had four with expansion Colorado, whom they had beaten all nine times they played previously that year. The Giants and Braves both won the first three games of their respective series. In the season finale, Atlanta won again to finish the year 13-0 against the Rockies, while the Giants had to start some rookie pitcher and lost 12-1. They went 103-59 and did not make the playoffs (it was the last year before the Wild Card).

After three straight last place seasons, the Giants completely retooled their team with young pitchers and veteran castoffs to win the division in a close race with the Dodgers in 1997. Unfortunately, the way the playoffs were set up that year, instead of a 2-2-1 format they had it 2-3, so the lower-seeded team played the first two at home and the last three on the road. Think how stupid that is. The Florida Marlins had a team of high-priced free agents that year and even though they were the Wild Cards, they were easily the most talented roster in the league. They won a couple of one run games at home and closed the Giants out in San Francisco to sweep.

In 1998 the Giants looked dead and buried entering the final week of the season but they kept winning and the Cubs kept winning so the Wild Card race got really exciting. The Giants could've clinched the Wild Card on the season's final day if they just beat the Rockies and they were leading 7-0 in the game but wound up losing 9-8 on a homer from light-hitting shortstop Neifi Perez. They played a one-game playoff against the Cubs the next day and lost 5-2.

In 2000 they had a great team with Bonds, Jeff Kent, J.T. Snow and Rich Aurilia all in their primes as well as Ellis Burks, Bill Mueller and a good starting rotation with Livan Hernandez, Shawn Estes, Kirk Rueter and Russ Ortiz and a super closer in Robb Nen. They had the best record in the National League and just about everyone picked them to win the Series. In the first round though, they lost Game 2 at home against the Wild Card Mets in extra innings even though Snow hit a memorable 3-run homer with two outs in the 9th with the team trailing 4-1. They then lost a brutal 12-inning game in New York in Game 3 and went down feebly in Game 4 to end the season.

In 2001 Bonds had his historic home run season. The Giants were in the wild card race and in game 160 of the season, home against the Dodgers Bonds hit homers 71 and 72 to break Mark McGwire's record. They still lost the game 11-10 and were eliminated.

In 2002 Bonds and Kent had great seasons again and were complemented by Snow, Aurilia, third baseman David Bell and catcher Benito Santiago to basically become a beer league softball team. Every guy was a threat to jack one and they often did. They were spurred by a trade deadline acquisition of Kenny Lofton to finally give them a leadoff man and got hot and won the wild card. They finally shed their first round playoff ghosts and won two straight elimination games against the Braves, 8-5 at home in Game 4 and 3-1 at Atlanta in a very stressful Game 5. They then blitzed through the favored Cardinals in the NLCS in five games, although both Games 4 and 5 were won on late rallies.

They entered the World Series against Anaheim with clearly the two best hitters in Bonds and Kent and the two best pitchers in Jason Schmidt and Ortiz. They won Game 1 on the road 4-3, with the big blow being a 2-run shot by Snow to put them up 4-1. They were down 5-0 early in Game 2, scored a bunch of runs in the middle innings to take a 9-7 lead and would've really broken it open if Kent didn't ground into a double play. The Angels struck back and made it 11-9 and wound up winning 11-10. They killed the Giants at San Francisco in Game 3 10-4. In Game 4 the Giants were down 3-0 early but played small ball and had a few funky hits and won 4-3. Kent went nuts with two homers and Aurilia had one too in Game 5 and the Giants won a laugher 16-4. They were one win away.

In Game 6 I planned to watch the game at this sports bar that was lucky for us the whole year. It was where we watched them win Games 1 and 5. I had work in the afternoon but I told my mom to get there early because I knew it would fill up and that I would meet her there. My stupid sister distracted her with some shopping bullshit though and they literally showed up there five minutes before the game, or about a minute before me. We couldn't get a seat there and I was majorly pissed. We had to watch at home.

The Giants got a surprise home run from Shawon Dunstun and another from Bonds and were up 5-0 in the 7th inning. Ortiz, the starting pitcher was really laboring though and he had been dancing out of trouble all night. He had a 2-0 count to Garrett Anderson, the first batter, who grounded the next pitch, a fastball down the pipe, right at Kent for the first out and I remember telling mom the team got lucky there. The next two Angels got base hits and Ortiz wouldn't get a chance to work his way out of another jam. Manager Dusty Baker took him out, but not before flipping him the game ball, as a souvenir. The Angels took note of that, for sure.

Reliever Felix Rodriguez was a guy who threw hard, but had only one pitch. He battled Angels DH Scott Spezio for what seemed like 15 pitches, as Spezio kept fouling one off after another. Finally he put one in play. At first I thought it was a simple fly ball to right. It really didn't look like he got good wood on it. But it just kept carrying and carrying and somehow cleared the right field fence.

Still, the Giants were up 5-3 and six outs away from the title.

They never got closer. Darin Erstad hit a leadoff homer in the bottom of the 8th to make it 5-4 and then they had three more straight hits (even though Bonds was too old and muscle-bound to be a good fielder anymore, he refused to DH and insisted on playing in the field, and a speedier outfielder could've gotten to a couple of those balls, I think) to make it 6-5 and they won the game.

I never watched Game 7. I had work anyway, but I knew. We all knew. You don't blow a game like that and live to talk about it. They led 1-0 in the top of the 2nd but lost 4-1.

In 2003 the Giants lost Kent in free agency but again put together a solid team and had a 100 wins, the most in the National League. Again they faced the Wild Card Marlins in the first round. They won Game 1 2-0 with Schmidt dominating but lost Game 2 even though they were up 4-1 in that one. They were up 2-1 in Game 3 in the 9th inning at Florida and the first batter that inning hit a simple fly ball to right that somehow Jose Cruz Jr. dropped. With two outs Ivan Rodriguez singled home the tying and winning runs. In Game 4 the Marlins were up 6-5 in the 9th but the Giants had life. The plodding Snow was at second base with two outs when pinch hitter Jeffrey Hammonds lined a clean single to left. I forget who the left fielder was for the Marlins (Jeff Conine?) but he had a perfect throw to Rodriguez and Snow was nailed at the plate by five feet to end the season.

In 2004 they were in the Wild Card race with Houston and faced the Dodgers in game 161 of the season, with a 3-0 lead in the 9th. LA tied the game at 3-3 and had the bases loaded with two outs when Steve Finley hit a walkoff grand slam to eliminate them.

Then... a lot of crappy Giants baseball. The team didn't even bother trying for the next three seasons. They were just waiting for Bonds to break Hank Aaron's career record of 755 homers before moving on with their franchise. They dumped him almost immediately after he broke it, in 2007. Really both parties used each other. The ownership used Bonds to sell tickets and have an excuse to put an otherwise shoddy product on the field, while Bonds had a forum to perform for adulating sycophantic fans (guilty) where no other team would've even had him on their roster. Quietly in that time, without much notice and fanfare, general manager Brian Sabean started holding onto his first round draft picks, which he hadn't done for the majority of Bonds' run to keep payroll down or to trade for veterans. He drafted pitchers Tim Lincecum (10th overall, 2006 from the University of Washington), Matt Cain (25th overall, 2002 out of high school in Germantown, TN), Jonathan Sanchez (27th-round, 2004 out of Puerto Rico), Madison Bumgarner (10th overall, 2007 out of high school in Hudson, NC) and a catcher named Buster Posey (5th overall, 2008 from Florida State University).

In 2010, it all came together. Lincecum was already a two-time Cy Young winner while Cain was a superb (but mostly unknown) second starter. Sanchez was wild and inconsistent, but he had electric stuff and had thrown a no-hitter last September. Posey and Bumgarner both joined the team from the minors midway through the season.

The team had great pitching, but none of them were having a great year and a lineup of unknowns were struggling terribly. A June slump had the team at 41-40 and in 4th place in the division, and their best hitters from last year, Pablo Sandoval, Aaron Rowand and Bengie Molina were all having terrible seasons before Posey took over the catching duties full-time and immediately going on a 21-game hitting streak. They acquired outfielder Pat Burrell for nothing after he bombed as a DH in Tampa Bay and expected him to be an occasional pinch hitter. Instead he took over left field full time and hit 18 homers in the second half of the season. Andres Torres, a 32-year old journeyman minor leaguer, got hot and replaced Rowand in center and became the most dynamic leadoff hitter in the league, leading the team in doubles. Freddy Sanchez missed the first month with a shoulder injury, but he started heating up in August and wound up leading the team in hitting, while playing a fabulous second base. Juan Uribe didn't hit for average at short, but kept hitting clutch homers. They picked up outfielder Cody Ross from the waiver wire from the Marlins, mainly to block him from joining the division-leading Padres. They also acquired a lefty reliever at the trading deadline, Javier Lopez, who was on a last place club in Pittsburgh.

The Giants offense got red hot in July, leading the league in runs and homers that month and the team won like 20 games that month. After a middling August, they took off again in September, with the pitching taking over this time. They had a stretch of 19 games allowing three runs or less and each of their starters were pitching lights out. The Padres helped out by losing 10 straight and the Giants clinched the division on the last day of the season by winning 51 of their last 81 games.

They opened the playoffs against the Wild Card Braves, a team that was missing their second and third best hitters and third best starting pitcher, because of injuries. In Game 1 Lincecum out-dueled Kevin Lowe and threw a 1-0 shutout, with 14 strikeouts, including 31 swings and misses by the Braves batters, the most of any team all year. Ross had the RBI single. Their Game 2 ghosts got them again the next night and they wasted a 3-run bomb by Burrell and blew a 4-1 lead for Cain. They lost in extra innings 5-4. Game 3 in Atlanta could've been a disaster. Jonathan Sanchez had a brilliant start with 11 strike outs wasted when reliever Sergio Romo allowed a 2-run homer in the 8th. The Giants were down to their last strike in the 9th when Huff tied the game with a base hit and they took the lead on Braves fill in second baseman Brooks Conrad's third error of the game to win 3-2. In Game 4 they were trailing 1-0 in the sixth when Ross broke up Lowe's no-hitter with a game-tying homer. In the 7th, after Atlanta had retaken the lead, Ross tied it up again with a single and Uribe drove in the winning run on a fielders choice grounder. The Giants won 3-2 again, to take the series 3-1.

In the NLCS against the heavily-favored Phillies, the Giants won Game 1 on the road 4-3. It was supposed to be a match-up of ace pitchers who dominated in their first postseason starts (Lincecum against Atlanta and Philadelphia's Roy Halladay, who threw a no-hitter against Cincinnati), but neither guy was overwhelmingly good. Ross hit two homers off Halladay, who also gave up run scoring singles to Huff and Uribe as well. Lincecum allowed two bombs himself, but the bullpen, led by Lopez and Brian Wilson, who led the league with 48 saves during the regular season, held on. In Game 2 the Phillies took advantage of Jonathan Sanchez who wasn't sharp early and won easily 6-1. Cain returned the favor at home in Game 3 and shut them down to win 3-0. Game 4 effectively won them the series. They were up 2-0 early, but five straight Phillies hits against Bumgarner put them in a 4-2 hole. They retook the lead 5-4 on Sandoval's two-run double (his one good game of the postseason) and won it when Uribe's sacrifice fly scored Huff in the bottom of the 9th. They lost the chance to clinch the series at home in Game 5. Both Lincecum and Halladay were better than in Game 1, but the Giants had two errors in the third that allowed the Phillies to score three runs and they stranded a bunch of runners in the middle innings and wound up losing 4-2. They would have to win this thing on the road. In Game 6 Sanchez again was wild and the Phils scored two quick runs and he had to be taken out after only two innings. Reliever Jeremy Affeldt saved them with two spotless innings, as did Bumgarner. The Giants tied the game up on a Huff single and an error in the third inning, and for the next four frames both teams wasted terrific scoring opportunities. Finally in the 8th Uribe hit an opposite field homer and Wilson got the last five outs, in fairly dramatic, white-knuckle fashion, to send the team to the World Series. Ross was named NLCS MVP.

In the World Series, Game 1 was supposed to be a mere formality for the Texas Rangers, even on the road against Lincecum. They had Cliff Lee starting, and he was 7-0 lifetime in the postseason with an 0.75 ERA and several shutdowns of the mighty Yankees. Lee had nothing though and the Giants shelled him for six runs in four innings. Freddy Sanchez had three doubles and Uribe greeted the Rangers' reliever with a 3-run bomb to make it 8-2. The Giants won 11-7, though again Lincecum was just okay, allowing four runs in 5 2/3s. The Giants won just their second Game 2 in 11 tries behind another awesome start from Cain and an unlikely homer from Edgar Renteria, the veteran shortstop who was only in the game because Sandoval had been such a disaster defensively at third base and he can't hit lefties like Lee. Renteria is so old that he had the game-winning hit the last time the Giants lost a Game 1, as a Marlin in 1997 (he'd go on to have the World Series-winning hit in the bottom of the 11th inning of Game 7 later that month). The Giants would go on to go nuts against the Rangers' awful relievers late in the game and a 2-0 lead turned into a 9-0 laugher.

Jonathan Sanchez led the majors in lowest batting average allowed to lefty batters in the season, but he allowed two homers to Rangers southpaws in Game 3. The Giants hit two of their own (Ross and Torres) but that was it and they lost 4-2. In the pivotal Game 4, Bumgarner, the 21-year old rook, was superb and assisted by a 2-run shot by Huff and another from Posey they won 4-0.

So that was it, a 3-1 lead and one game to go to make all the bad memories go away. All the analysts and pundits and East Coast bias dipshits just assumed with Lee going for Texas, that the series was definitely headed back to San Francisco for Game 6. There's no way Lee would get lit up again, they said, as if that was the only part of the equation. Bobby Valentine, an ex-manager mind you, actually said on air that "the Giants didn't see the real Cliff Lee in Game 1 but Texas saw the real Tim Lincecum," which was just a staggering level of disrespect for a two-time Cy Young Winner who'd already won three games this playoffs and pitched well enough to win a fourth.

Lee was indeed better, but Lincecum matched him inning for inning and the game was 0-0 in the 7th. With two outs and two on Renteria, the guy who had a championship winning hit 13 years ago, did it again, smashing a Lee cutter over the left field wall to make it 3-0. Lincecum would allow a solo shot in the bottom of the 7th but that was all and he finished eight innings with that one run, two walks, three hits and 10 strike outs, many of them on pitches the Rangers couldn't have touched with a tennis racquet. Wilson pitched a 1-2-3 drama-free ninth and that was it, we were Champions.

I mean it made no sense, and it made sense all at once. This was - by far - the WORST offensive team the Giants ever sent into the playoffs. Radio play-by-play man Duane Kuiper coined the catchphrase "Giants baseball: Torture" after an early season game against San Diego when the team lost 1-0 despite allowing only one hit to the Padres. It was one of two such losses on the season. I don't think I've ever been to a game the Giants got shut out in prior to this season, as my luck would have it, I went to three such games this year, giving up in frustration after the last one and vowing never to come back until they got some freakin' hitters.

But like those '88 Dodgers who toppled first the mighty Mets (who'd gone 9-3 against them in the regular season) and then the A's in the playoffs behind Orel Hershiser, a couple of other gutty pitchers and one of the most patchwork lineups ever assembled, these Giants also did it with pitching, pitching and more pitching, scoring just enough when they had to and often finding a new hero every game.

Renteria, who was playing with a torn biceps and spent three separate trips on the disable list, had only three homers in 243 at bats during the season before hitting two in the World Series. Ross had three homers and seven RBI over 33 games since joining the Giants. In the playoffs he had five homers and 10 RBI in 15 games. Mays and McCovey, Clark and Williams, Bonds and Kent; they all had their share of playoff moments, but none of them ever came up as big as Ross and Renteria, simply because they never got to play with a pitching staff like this.

It boggles the mind.

In many respects the Giants were fortunate to scrape past Atlanta and Philadelphia, not really outplaying either but just catching a few breaks here and there. Against Texas though they flat out dominated, outscoring them 29-12 over the five games. Consider that while the Giants had 29 runs, the Rangers had 29 hits, total. Pitching, pitching, pitching.

For you Spurs fans out there (no I haven't forgotten the Spurs, I'm about to get to them) who have been caught up with the Big Three and the newer offensive weapons in RJ, Hill, Blair, Anderson and Neal, I think there's a lesson here. Like Pop says, it's about the defense. No matter how many shooters we have and how great our offense can look on paper, if we don't learn to stop people consistently, we'll never win another title.

It's about defense.

Anyway, like I said above, a chapter of my life is now over. Simmons talks about five year grace periods, but I truly think with the Giants it will be a lifetime grace period. From now on I'll just be a casual fan where if they win that's fine and if they lose, that's okay too. I won't live and die with that day's scoreline. I'll be like the rest of these bandwagon, front-running California dumbasses who cheered like idiots at every routine ground ball in the playoffs, assuming it was going to be a hit, and screaming at every fly ball off the bat thinking it was going to be a homer.

Well, I won't be like them exactly, but my life will go on fine either way win or lose. I might get agitated if I ever hear anyone say anything disparaging Lincecum, because to my mind, not only is he a hero but he proved he's the best pitcher in baseball, period. Still, there is a line with him I will not cross and I will not be Fan Boy. He is younger than me, by a quite a bit, and those are the rules.

I blamed myself after 2002. I really did. I was a bad person back then. I lied constantly, stole habitually (like literally hundreds of dollars worth of groceries at a time), had a dead end job and just invited all the bad karma of the world into my life. I even prayed to God after that awful Game 6 loss that if they just somehow won Game 7 I would turn my life around and be good. Obviously it was too little too late.

I wrote this short story about it called, "My Conversation With God," where God comes down from the heavens and told me that he specifically had the team lose the way it did, in that painful fashion, to teach me a lesson and that He wouldn't care who I told afterward because no one would believe me anyway. For what it's worth, my teachers and classmates in this writing class I was in at community college really liked it.

After the team lost the World Series I was angry and sulked, but I never stole again. No more free groceries and no more sneaking into movies (I don't think I paid for a movie between the ages of 12 and 24). After a couple more crap jobs, I eventually got serious about going back to college to get my degree and I took the proper steps to get re-enrolled at SDSU.

I don't think it was a coincidence that Game 7 of the '02 World Series was October 27, 2002, I wrote my story on the 28th and October 29th one Emanuel David Ginobili entered my life by making his made his NBA debut on the road against the three-time defending champion Lakers.

Well maybe it is, I don't know.

What I do know is nothing will ever be the same and it's going to take a while to get me to stop smiling.

____________________________________________________________________________

Okay, if you read all that, I sincerely thank you, from the bottom of my heart. I really appreciate it. I promise no more of that.

The basketball season is here.

From my bleary-eyed perspective, it sure looked like most of the Spurs starters were caught fairly off guard to be playing against the decrepit Clips in a half-empty gym on a Monday night on the first day of November. It's not that they didn't have energy or motivation per se, but their concentration and energy only came through in fits and starts and Duncan in particular looked like he'd rather be anywhere else for most of the game.

To say that the play was ragged would be an understatement. For the second time in three games, we allowed the opponent to dictate pace and style, which isn't necessarily bad since we won both such occasions. The Clippers played an aggressive, chippy, gambling style of defense where they were determined to force turnovers and not give our stars time and space. We followed suit, especially with our guards, as Manu, Tony and George all overplayed the dribble and got their hands on a lot of balls (har har) creating deflections and turnovers.

The game really had no style or flow but through the first 20 minutes the Clippers proved two things: 1) They were far superior dunkers than we are, and 2) they have NOTHING on the bench.

Pop played a stretch overlapping the first and second quarters with NONE of the Big Three. Hell, he didn't even have RJ or Blair out there. It was a pure second unit lineup of Dice-Simmons-Anderson-Neal-Hill. Not only did that quintet survive, they thrived, going plus-4 through four minutes or so. It wasn't surprising that McDyess and Neal had the two highest plus/minuses on the team.

You know what my favorite play of the game was, though? I bet most of you are guessing it was Gino's quick pass to Splitter on the pick-and-roll for a dunk, and yes, that was sweet. But no, my favorite play was when Bobby Simmons popped Clippers' prized rookie Blake Griffin in the mug "going for a steal." That play won me over on Simmons and I guarantee you his teammates and Pop noticed too.

Believe me, when I tell you this, Simmons knew EXACTLY what he was doing on that play, and it was intentional. A few minutes earlier Clippers bench thug Craig Smith clotheslined Hill trying to stop a breakaway layup, and it was so blatantly dirty that he got ejected. Hill couldn't even shoot his free throws and left the game with neck spasms.

Simmons retaliating not against any random Clipper but their franchise player sent a message: You take out one of our guys, we'll take out one of yours. We're not pushovers.

Duncan was more into the game in the second half, and Tony and Manu were content to mainly be facilitators once they saw that other guys had their shooting strokes in the game and it was a fairly clean final three quarters, free of lead changes.

The story, besides the continued rejuvenation of Richard Jefferson (who has been our best player through three games), was obviously the new Spurs.

Obviously it's incredibly early and we shouldn't get ahead of ourselves, especially considering that we haven't played anyone remotely good, but I like that both of these guys aren't shy about hoisting up open shots from 25-feet away when they have clean looks. And with the form they have on their jumpers, they shouldn't be. Neither guy is afraid, and that's the most important thing after ability. The ability part is a given. If you didn't have the skill you wouldn't be on the team.

Not only can Neal and Anderson both shoot the ball from range, but they both look more comfortable than I anticipated dribbling it, passing it, and taking pull up jumpers.

Neal reminds me a bulldog with his thick chest and short arms. He doesn't look at all like he should be an NBA guard - he's like a mini-me version of the aforementioned villain Smith - but he's quicker than he appears on both ends of the floor and he digs in on defense.

Anderson has a more conventional frame, but he wasn't billed as a fabulous NBA-level athlete either. Yet he's been quick and explosive enough for two emphatic blocked shots in three games, has finished off a couple of layups on the break and has made the right pass time and again. He's not as physical as Neal on defense, but he looks willing to learn, which is important.

Of course the game also marked the debut of Tiago Splitter. While he looked to me like he nervous and unsure what his body could give him Monday night, the concept of team defense didn't look foreign to him at all and he already looks very adapt at hedging on the pick-and-roll and rotating on defense. It's way too soon to tell what we can expect from him on offense, but I know he'll have to rebound more aggressively if he wants to play big minutes (well either that or learn how to shoot threes and write a sandwich blog). He's definitely an athlete though and I liked how he puts his arms straight up in the air to bother shooters the way Duncan and Pau Gasol do.

Watching these three guys play it looked fairly obvious to me that they all would benefit greatly from playing with Manu, to be their shot creator and stabilizing focus. The key to the championship teams in '03, '05 and '07 was that they didn't need Manu to be their best playmaker AND their best three point shooter. Manu's good from long range, but streaky. He's better off driving and kicking to open specialists. I would put McDyess and Hill (provided he's healthy) back into the starting lineup and have Manu on the bench along with Blair and three new guys.

Three Stars:

3) Antonio McDyess - His jumper still isn't quite there but he's rebounding extremely well (10 in 23 minutes) and is playing the best defense of any our bigs so far, which isn't exactly a high bar to clear.

2) Richard Jefferson - He looks very confident shooting it from wherever he is on the floor, and if a defender is close to him on the catch he simply pump fakes and goes past him to the hoop. If this is the RJ we get all year, we'll be a contender, bottom line.

1) Gary Neal - His shooting touch kept the Spurs in the game early and as the game went along he showed all facets of his game. Very impressed at how easily he's caught on to what we're doing at both ends of the floor and he doesn't look intimidated or confused at all.

Next Up: Wednesday, at Phoenix, whose opening sked has been considerably tougher than ours, with road games at Portland and Utah and a home opener against the defending champion Lakers. As expected the Suns are among the league leaders in scoring and near the bottom in rebounding and Steve Nash has already expressed doubts about the lack of bigs on the roster. It's going to take some getting used to not having to face Amare, but Turkoglu will present his own problems for our defense and unlike the first three teams we've faced, the Suns have a serious second unit with Frye- Warrick-Dudley-Childress-Dragic. As was the case in the playoffs last year, they'll try to stay even with their starters and make hay with the bench, so it would really behoove Pop to play Manu with the subs again, or the first six minutes of the second and fourth quarters could get ugly. Because of our unfamiliarity with their remade roster, our injuries to Bonner and Hill, Splitter not being in game shape and just the fact that it's a road game against a likely 2011 playoff team, I have this as an "L." Therefore, it's the fellas first chance to pleasantly surprise me and get the RAGE back to even.

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