Stop me if you have heard this story before. The San Antonio Spurs, the team with the best record in the league, plays a team with a sorry record that is missing one or more of its starters. Everyone expects a nice easy blowout, but the game ends up being pretty close with the underdog opponent holding a decent lead at times. Late in the game the Spurs turn up the intensity and get the win.
Never heard that one before? Oh good. Keep reading.
As we all know, the Spurs have been hot all this season, coming into this game with a sizzling 35-6 record. Despite the red hot record the Spurs have rarely looked like a dominating team so far, with many of the games still in doubt near the end of the fourth quarter. This is the NBA though, and it is incredibly difficult to win 35 out of 41 games so there is no doubt in my mind they are the best team in the league at this point. They don’t necessarily have the most talented starting five in the league but the combination of coaching, attitude, depth, talent and chemistry is unmatched at this point.
Yet, the team often plays down to the level of the opposition when playing weaker teams. They usually get it together enough to pull out the win in some cardiac-arrest inducing manner, but it would be nice to put away games by the third quarter instead of relying on Manu to work magic in the closing seconds.
This seemed like the perfect game to put away early. Toronto came into this game with a 13-28 record and a favorable matchup in the front court. The unaware would sit back, relax, and look forward to seeing Tiago in the fourth quarter, but we all know better. This year’s Spurs are determined to give spectators their money’s worth and squeeze out every bit of entertainment and anxiousness. And this game was no exception.
The Spurs came out red hot and sizzled to a 10-0 start at the 9:28 mark, but then played pretty "meh" and ended the first half down 42-53. Thankfully they got serious earlier than usual and got the lead back by the end of the third quarter then held on to it for the entire fourth quarter. Unfortunately the game was not truly put away until the end so the deep end of the bench did not get much time yet again.
Overall impressions of the game
I did not get a strong impression of this game one way or another as there was not a consistent feel to it. It really seemed like bits and pieces of different games stitched together.
The first half was obviously pretty bad, but it was not like earlier in the season where some guys were simply lost or walking away from the guy they were supposed to be guarding. The turnovers were bad, but other than that the players were simply missing their shots or were missing intensity. So despite the first half struggles I still feel like the team is improving, especially on defense.
In the second half Spurs played much better, especially on offense. Better movement without the ball instead of one guy dribbling and four guys standing around, and more passing. They also had stretches of great defense, but not consistently throughout the second half. And the shots started falling instead of rimming out.
Our bigs were pretty consistent, especially Blair. The guards took turns being great but had some so-so stretches as well. RJ was mostly invisible – not terrible, but not really noticeable either.
I have not seen the Raptors play much this season, and to be honest I was not impressed despite the close game tonight. The reputation is that they do not have any talent, but Bargnani, DeMar Rozen, Calderon can be a pretty good core, and other players like Ed Davis and Bayless are promising. The problem is that they are just a random collection of players, not a team of complementary parts like the Spurs, Celtics, Lakers, and other top teams. They play with great energy and hustle on the offensive end, but often play individual ball with limited ball movement. Perhaps the biggest problem is that they lack a strong post presence as Bargnani, despite his height, is not a post player at this point.
Andrea Bargnani is a seven footer that wanted no part of rebounding, posting up, or coming anywhere near any big guys on the Spurs. The mere threat of Tim Duncan in the middle caused him to stop and take jump shots instead of dribbling in and taking a shot or passing out to open teammates. He shot 6-20, and only got to the free throw line once – because of lack of aggressiveness, not lack of calls. If you are seven feet tall and can dribble like a guard you have no excuse for going 6-20. None.
Andrea gets a lot of grief, but it is also an organizational problem – he has the raw talent but needs a strong coaching staff to nurture and teach him.
The other players were pretty good individually with great energy and hustle, mostly on offense.DeMar had some nice plays, Ed Davis showed a lot of promise for a rookie, and many players had quick hands that caused some of our turnovers. However, there was just not enough disciplined team play from the raptors. Limited movement without the ball on offense. Lots of energy, just not harnessed correctly. I thought the Raptors looked gassed at times in the second half, but realized that they only looked tired on defense, but seemed to have energy on offense. Not sure what that means, other than they are not going to win any championships that way.
I am not sure if they just need a stronger coaching staff along with more role players, or if this group really does not fit together properly. Also, their coach looks more like an investment banker than a basketball coach. Not that there is anything wrong with that.
Toronto coach Henry Paulson (via cbsnews.com)
Oops sorry, wrong guy. This is their coach.
Toronto coach Jay Triano (via sfu.ca)
A special mention for Sundiata Gaines with 10 points. The Spurs usually pick a random role player to turn into a superstar for the night. Looks like Gaines was it, but he only got 10 points so am not sure if that counts. I fully expected Wright to fill that role, but it wouldn't be truly random if we could predict the player.
Random comment (just one this time)
Did you know Naismith (the inventor of basketball) was Canadian? He created the game at his job in the US, so it is still considered an American born game, but just saying.
The Spurs played pretty crappy most of the first half. Mediocre defense, limited ball movement, turnovers, and poor shooting. Part of that was the Toronto defense that gave us open jumpers so we were taking and missing those instead of penetrating. But even the layups were not dropping. You know the basket has a lid on it when Neil is missing all his shots and McDyess messes up a dunk.
The bright spot was Blair! He was in full on beast mode tonight, making some great plays both on offense and defense.
The second half was much better. The defense was still not championship quality, but the offense was completely different. Gone were the one pass and shoot possessions, replaced by ball movement that is ugly to the casual observer but much more beautiful to the Spurs fan. Players moving even without the ball, crisp passing, good flow.Perhaps not coincidentally, the shots started falling. There were still some flaws, we still did not find enough ways to capitalize on the mismatches in the middle, but it was a huge improvement over the first half.
The Spurs did not let up, the shots continued to fall and the defense and effort level stayed mostly up. Toronto also hustled, but the Spurs were just better. When watching the game I thought that we also looked fresher and attributed this to the deeper bench, but looking at the boxscore we played the same number of players as Toronto did. So basically, yes, the Spurs were just better.
My three stars
2) Tie: Tony and Duncan.
These were incredibly difficult to pick this game, and it was especially difficult to leave out Manu and his late clutchness.
Star 1: DeJuan Blair
My eye is always drawn to Blair when he plays, for two reasons. The first is the pure joy he has in playing, and I suspect in life itself. He just cannot help but smile and laugh out there and you can just see the enjoyment of the game bubbling out. The second reason is his game itself of course. He often plays purely instinctively, and I suspect he has no idea how or why he does what he does. I missed Manu's earlier days in the league, but I suspect Ginobili was the same way. Sometimes that is great, as he will pull off some ridiculous move against a pack of defenders crowded around the basket, and sometimes it makes me yell at him as he gets stuffed by those same defenders. With players like that you have to take the bad with the good, because it is worth it. The energy, the instinct is worth the occasional wtf moment. Many coaches will try and purge the randomness and risky plays out of those players, but the danger there is that you also lose the energy and the instinctive great plays, so it is a tricky balancing act coaching such players.
This was one of his best games, getting 22 points and 11 rebounds, but like Manu, it was more the style of the points than the number of points. He is magically in the right place at the right time to put back a Manu miss, or does a beautiful move to the basket threading between defenders like a guard. Every time I see him he has something new and exciting. It may not always work, such as his tragic attempt to play point guard for a few seconds this evening, but it is always fun.
Star 2: Tony Parker
As always, Tony was a great steady point guard and sliced through their D for some key layups. He almost lost the star because he also sliced through for a couple of dumb shots, but overall he had a great game. 17 points, 5 assists. Some of his early passes were clanked by the recipients otherwise he would have a better assist count.
Side note: Much as I love George Hill's play and constant improvement, he is not a point guard. When Tony is out Hill will either give it to Manu or drive in and shoot, unless someone is really wide open and easy to pass to. I would dearly love Quinn to get more playing time so we have a true backup point guard, otherwise we always need Manu there when TP is on the bench.
Star 2: Tim Duncan
Timmy only had 10 points, but he also had 12 rebounds and 3 blocks. More important than the stats though was the presence in the middle that forced Toronto to change their shots, especially Bargnani. I felt like he could have easily gotten many more points if we could have gotten the ball to him. They had nobody that could stop him.
My favorite few minutes from Timmy came in the third quarter at about the 8 min mark: He gets a basket and a foul shot, and is part of good defense contesting a shot on the other end that misses. Coming back on offense he is passed the ball and recognizes that Blair can cut to the basket and passes him the ball for an easy bucket. Back on defense, he gets a defensive rebound, then runs the fast break ending with a beautiful bounce pass to Blair for another bucket. Seriously. Second time in recent games, so not a one time thing.
Yes, that really is Tim Duncan leading the fast break!
Honorable mention: Manu
Because he is Manu Ginobili.
Note that most of the good stuff is for the second half, as pretty much everyone could not buy a bucket in the first half.
McDyess was great, including two dunks that looked like he was ten years younger. Hopefully he sticks around for another year. Hill was great as usual with some nice drives to the basket. RJ was mostly invisible today. Come back 2.0 – we miss you!
Neil went through a cold spell early, but hit some key shots late including a three to make the lead comfortable, and also had some nice passes and hustle plays. He always impresses me, mostly as I expect him to be purely a shooter but he also adds great court awareness, especially for a first year Spurs player.
I really liked a play involving him early in the fourth quarter: Manu passed to Neil for a three after Neil did a great job losing his man by running around Dyess and Bargnani, getting open just long enough for a catch and shoot. It was probably a set play as George Hill cut inside as a decoy, but it could have been just great recognition by Neil. Either way, lovely play that looked smooth and effortless in a way that only comes from rigorous practice – not bad for a rookie. By the way, I think that was the first successful three of the night for the Spurs and it came in the fourth quarter. Weird.
The Brazilian delight got a block. One minute of playing time. Sigh…
Ugly fast half, great second half, with some random great plays here and there throughout especially by Blair. Entertaining as always, frustrating that we could not close out earlier and have more Tiago time, but a win is a win and we shall take it. Good team offense in the second half, but defense is still improving. Pretty impressive that we are 36-6 and we are still working on improving our defense.
Repeat Question: Can we meet expections?
As I stated last time, Bill Simmons revised his prediction drastically upwards to 50 wins after our fast start. If we can somehow do better than 14-26 the rest of the way we can exceed expectations. I remain cautiously optimistic.
I assume Pop will preach continued improvement on defense and more consistent effort throughout the game. Blair and Neal keep drastically improving, as did Bonner before his injury. This has the potential to be a very scary team and I am excited!