The Spurs now have their first losing streak of the season, dropping tonight's game against the Celtics 103-105 one night after dropping a game to the New York Suns, um, Knicks.
These last two games probably remind us of the previous trip to the East coast where the Spurs had a stinker of a game against the Orlando Magic, but this trip was more worrisome than the Orlando game. It was pretty obvious what was wrong against Orlando - listless lazy play and a total lack of effort on defense. There was nothing that a polite conversation between Pop and the players couldn't fix. This time was a little more complicated though, as the team often looked confused and out of sorts both on defense and on offense.
Let's step back a bit. This was probably the game to use a measuring stick for the new look Spurs. Not just because the Celtics are good, but because of how they are built.
The Celtics, to me, are the NBA team most like the Spurs, despite all the talk about the Blazers and now the Thunder being the new Spurs. Sure, they manifest it differently, Garnett screams while Timmy quietly leads by example, but Boston and Spurs are very similar teams. Mix of veteran leadership and young stars. Check. Championship aspirations every year? Check. Deep bench that does not complain about minutes? Check. A core that has won it all before? Check. Redundancy at every role? Check. Disciplined play? Check. A multifaceted attack such that you cannot focus on any one player? Check. A no bullshit coach that defends his players, promotes team chemistry, and values team defense above great individual highlights? Check, Check, and Check.
But their similarities in playing style are what made this game a must watch, despite the lack of television love. Both teams play excellent team defense and are patient on offense. The idea is to wait for the opposing team to make a mistake and capitalize on it. Sure, Garnett and Perkins are both out, but the Celtics have built up depth in the front court precisely because that was a risk.
Anyway, back to the actual recap. You are not going to get a complete play by play, you can get that from yahoo or espn. However, there are a lot of plays that interested me, and by "interested me" I usually mean "annoyed the crap out of me". The rants about those plays ended up being much longer than I expected, and rather than do the right thing and edit things tightly I decided to split this recap into two parts. The first part gives my overall impressions and comments and is the recap. The second part describes some of the plays and can be skipped. Of course non of this is required reading and it can all be skipped, but you know what I mean.
Recap in quick note format:
The Celtics, for the most part, played solid smart basketball. They played great team defense, and on offense they simply waited for the Spurs to make mistakes and took advantage of them. Sound familiar?
Ray Allen got his groove going early and shot incredibly well the whole game. I would say "as always", but I am still bitter about his choke job in the Finals against the Lakers. You have to stop a shooter like Ray early in the game and stop him from getting his mojo going - the Spurs were unable to do that, letting him get some early shots, and he pretty much stayed on fire after that, scoring a game high 31 points. The Celtics use his talents pretty wisely, having this funky "run around in circles using multiple picks" system that works perfectly for a great catch and shoot player. Give him a split second look off the first, second or third pick, and swish!
Rondo was also amazing. I really respect the little guy - he always plays hard and is constantly trying to improve. The Celtics are Rondo's team, however much everyone talks about Pierce. His assist rate continues to be otherworldly and this game showed why - great decisions and good vision. Rondo notched another triple double with 10 rebounds, 12 points, and an unreal 22 assists. Wow! Just Wow! But beyond the stats were some key decisions and clutch play that won the game for them.
Big Baby Davis
Of all people, Glen (Big Baby) Davis got his shooting groove early. Having him in jumpshot mode is often a good thing as you prefer him shooting it instead of passing back to Rondo or RayRay, but not tonight. He got a few wide open jumpshots early because of some very bad defense (Blair and Bonner), and even with some early misses those open shots got him into a nice rhythm. Once he got his groove going he kept hitting some smooth jumpers, torching us for 23 points.
Aristotle Shamrock did not have a great game looking at the box score, but he fulfilled the role that the Celtics envisioned. He was a solid presence in the middle in the absence of Garnett and Perkins and stopped us from simply taking it inside with ease. Incidentally, I also feel he serves a more valuable purpose on that team. Not sure if you noticed, but Garnett and Rondo are pretty intense players, whether in a game, in practice, or even casual conversation. I can see them yelling at the rest of the team to get more serious, while Shaq provides a touch of humor to soften up the team a little and break the tension. At his age he does not demand to be a leader, so it is a perfect role for him.
Pierce also had a good game, but honestly I don't care for him so I'll just ignore that. They keep calling him the franchise player, but remember that they were losers before Garnett became the leader there, and the leadership torch is passing from Garnett to Rondo, not Pierce. But the man can play, I have to give him that.
The Spurs were very inconsistent on both offense on defense. They had flashes of great offense, and a few stretches of good defense.
The Big Fundamental
Timmy was great. Not dominating or consistently great throughout the game like the Timmy of old, but good enough to remind us he is still the leader of this team. He also showed a couple of things we don't usually see, like a decent drive into the paint with a teardrop, then a nice long jumper. 18 points and a stabilizing force.
Manu was pretty meh for most of the game, then turned it on at crunch time to make up for it. A team high 24 points, a good chunk of those in the fourth.
Tony had up and down play throughout the game, mixing up a few nice shots with some ugly forced plays. After a stretch on the bench to clear his head he played very well in the fourth as well.
I continue to be impressed by Gary Neal. He could grow into our version of Ray Allen - quick catch and shoot off a pick or otherwise. On team defense he was ok, not great, but he is still a rookie in our system so that will improve. We should steal some of the plays that Boston runs for Ray to make Neal even more effective.
Everyone's favorite redhead celebrated homecoming with a nice dunk on a missed shot. Like much of the team he was pretty up and down the rest of the time. Some nice plays, but also looked lost and confused at times.
That brings us to Blair. He was our most consistent player, but in a bad way, especially on defense. The rest of the team played bad defense because they were sometimes lost and confused, but he was plain nonchalant, even after being benched and yelled at for much of the first half. He often wandered away from Glen Davis or came back on all alone instead of looking for a man to D up. Add some truly awful decisions on offense, mostly related to his continued insistence of forcing bad shots against taller and bigger guys even when outnumbered, and his playing time was seriously curtailed today. Every possession counts in the big games and he sometimes does not appreciate that. But we still love you Blair.
Blair steps away for a better view of Glen's shot.
I don't really know what to make of this game. The Celtics played great defense that totally confused the Spurs and took the players out of their groove. They played great team offense that waited patiently for breakdowns and exploited them. It felt like they totally outplayed us, and yet, we were right there at the end with a chance to win. What does that say? What does that mean? I have no idea at this point.
One point to think about is that their system is similar to the Spurs in that it makes the defense look much worse than it really is. Smart movement without the ball leads to open guys even when the defenders are paying attention. There were some points where I was screaming nasty things about our defense when watching the game live. E.g. one sequence where Bonner left Davis wide open. However, I watched some of those again and it wasn't poor defense by the Spurs as much as excellent execution by the Celtics. E.g. Rondo got a great pick by Pierce and Bonner was forced to come over to defend, Bonner's man (Davis) wisely went the opposite direction so he was open. Hill probably could have switched over better, but that is much easier to say watching it in slow motion than watching it real time. Excellent team play by the Celtics.
So our defense was not always as atrocious as it looked in real time, it just wasn't the magic we expect from the Spurs. Don't get me wrong, there were many times when individual defenders screwed up, but it really was not as bad as the Celtics made it look.
We have not played a squad so far this year that plays intelligent team ball the way the Celtics do, so it was a great game to look at and show players what they need to work on. Pop was already preaching it, but it is easier to see after a loss. We are also not used to playing teams that goes for steals as effectively as the Celtics do and have developed some sloppy habits with passing and general ball handling. Again, this game exposed that and gives them something to work on.
Spurs were also not as patient on offense, often forcing things instead of waiting for the right opening. Sometimes it worked, often it did not. This has been a bit of a worrisome trend over the season and it has worked often enough that it may have become a habit. Spurs are talented enough on offense to beat most teams that way, but "most teams" is not what we are aiming for once the practice season is over, so hopefully they will fix that.
The Three Stars:
Timmy was the easy pick, but the other two were tough to decide. A good argument could be made for Neal, RJ, or even Bonner, but Tony and Manu got the nod for almost pulling out the clutch win. Yes, they made mistakes, but they also had some great plays to make up for those booboos. Also, Manu gets extra points just for being Manu; especially in the fourth.
Can we meet expections?
Bill Simmons originally had us slated for 49 wins. After our fast and furious start, he magnanimously revised his prediction drastically upwards to 50 wins. Despite this two game setback, I remain cautiously hopeful that we can go better than 21-26 the rest of the way and somehow exceed expectations.
Again, this game gave us a lot of film to study and improve, and it is still very early in the season. After a couple of losses like this a team can go a few different directions. They could lose faith in themselves and get into a losing mentality. They could start bickering and finger-pointing and Timmy or Manu could make proclamations about how they are going to crack the whip on other players in practice. Or, maybe they take a long hard look at their mistakes and work hard in practice to fix them.
Guess which approach I would bet on?
Some play by play action, rants included at no extra charge.
You can leave now if you wish, or you can read my personal take of some of the plays in the game. Warning, this ended up much longer than originally planned. Apologies for the lack of photos - I had planned to use some from the AP pool so did not get captures, but now cannot figure out how to embed the AP photos. Next time.
Jimmy Valvano used to say that the first few minutes and last few minutes of each half are the most important times. I am not going to do a play by play for the whole game, but let's look at the first few minutes of the game.
We get the ball first, Parker gets to his favorite spot following a screen by Timmy, but throws up an airball over 7 footer Shaq instead of passing to a wide open Manu at the three point line just a few feet from Tony. Looks like we get bad Tony tonight. Damn.
Next, Blair decides he would stand and watch Pierce (who already had two defenders on him), rather than even glance at his man, leading to a quick foul on Timmy as he was forced to come over and bother Big Baby's shot. Blair then misses his ill-advised shot on the other end. Hint to the beast - if there are three large white jerseys in front of you then it may be better to pass it out to an open teammate, for example a certain RJ standing all by his lonesome at the three point line. Celtics rebound Blair's miss and lob forward to Ray Allen for a quick two. Pop is hopping mad at Blair and Bonner gets ready to come in.
The Spurs then run an offensive play the way Pop likes. Pass, quick pass, quick pass to Tim open for the two, score. Blair with the assist, nice job there. Savor the moment as there are not many of those this game.
Celtics come back and get a Ray Allen shot on a pick by Shaq that holds back both Timmy and Manu. Shaq is one big dude. On offense, Manu tries to force a pass to Timmy despite a flood of white jerseys collapsing in the paint. Turnover.
Bonner checks in so that Pop can yell at Blair for a while. Honestly, Blair had made a couple of quick mistakes to start, but was probably going to settle down, but Pop needed to yell at someone and was already mad at Blair. All this and it is not even the two minute mark yet.
This next play was fun:
Back on D, Tony pokes the ball away leading to a Celtics turnover and a fast break with good passing back and forth between RJ and Tony. Tony misses the shot, but Matt Bonner was right there for the cleanup dunk. Yes, you read that correctly, stop rubbing your eyes. And as has been mentioned, it was snowing in Arizona last week.
The rest of the first quarter, and pretty much most of the game, was a blur. Fast, not just in pace but in substitutions. Both on offense and on defense the Spurs continued to mix up some decent plays with some sloppy mistakes. It was just as much the Celtics playing great disciplined team ball thus taking us out of our rhythm and getting us to force things as anything else. Ironic, as it is usually the Spurs doing that to other teams. In other years, I mean. Sigh.
Blair came back in for a few possessions, and totally sucked on defense. He would wander back without picking up a player, or lost his man once he had one, so Pop had to take him out again.
Manu did not play well. The Celtics may have just made him look slow on defense, but he also did not get his hands up when people were shooting, and then tried to force things on offense instead of working within the system.
Pop kept taking out starters a bit at a time until we were left with Jefferson and bench players. He left Manu in a bit longer than I expected, probably as he is used to Manu being up and down, and also as Manu is usually in with the bench guys to be the creator. Pop looks smart, as the bench take the score from 12-18 to 25-27, and that only because Jermaine hit a shot at the buzzer. However, the Celtics had also substituted quite a bit so keep in that bench players are in for both sides.
Little Nate Robinson starts getting hot and hits a couple of shots to take the Celtics lead to 32-25, but Pop puts Tony back in. I feel like Nate cannot stop Tony but we somehow do not take advantage of that until later, but then Rondo comes in for Nate soon after.
Much better play by the good guys this quarter. Some missed shots especially from Bonner, a few bad passes, but nothing out of the ordinary bad. Some of the improvement came from the particular combinations we played - a lot of Timmy, McDyess, Hill, RJ, Tony, Hill, Manu, along with a some Bonner and Neal. We get frustrated that our team does not gel together perfectly, but we have to remember that we are trying out a ridiculous number of new combinations and it is still early in the season.
The score reflects the improved play by the Spurs, and we take a two point lead into halftime: 51-49. If BonBon had hit some shots that he normally makes we would have a nice lead and some momentum, but then Pop would have less to complain about and this recap would be a quarter the length.
Blair starts the second half, looks like Pop has faith again. We really need him, so hopefully he plays better this half, and he does get a basket to start the half.
Timmy decides to show off some new moves. First he plays guard - pumpfakes a shot then blows by Shaq for a little teardrop. Of course it may be the slowest "blows by" ever, but that is what happened. Next he takes and makes a couple of nice long jumpers. Hey, if Bonner is throwing down dunks then Duncan can take long twos. I like this start. Unfortunately Ray Allen is hitting on the other end as well. A couple of Paul Pierce free throws and it is a tie ball game at 57-57.
Now Blair makes some more poor decisions. First he tries a Tony Parkeresque spin move into the lane. It actually looks pretty nice, but he misses. Stupid attempt and a wasted possession. Next, he is totally nonchalant on defense again and wanders from his man Davis, who takes advantage and makes a layup. I love Blair, but am shouting out gentle refrains about his lack of focus at this point. After 3 second violation on Shaq we are back on offense, and Blair decides to take it right to Shaq. Come On Dude. I know heart overcomes a lot, but the guy is 7 ft. 1 inch tall and about 6 feet wide. In case you were wondering, yes Shaq blocked the shot. Three lousy decisions in a row by Blair including a horrendous defensive lapse. Bonner comes in for Blair soon after. I have no idea what Pop said to him, but Blair's ears will probably be scorched for the rest of the season.
Problem is that Bonner is not doing that well either. He cannot defend Davis and does not seem to be hitting his shots. This particular stretch was especially bad. The redhead looked totally confused coming in and quickly lost Davis by watching the ball instead of his man, gifting Davis a nice wide open layup. Um, Bonner, if that is what we wanted we could have just left Blair in the game. On the offensive end Red looked just as confused and was milling around inside instead of taking his spot at the three. Somewhere out there Fred is giving us a satisfied smirk. Timmy made a shot anyway, but what the heck is going on over there. Are they smoking something on the bench? I was getting in a foul mood about it, I cannot even imagine what Pop was thinking.
So out goes Bonner, and in comes Gary Neal. Yes, seriously. It is Timmy, RJ, and three guards now. Small ball. On the other side, the Celtics take out 7 ft. 1 inches of Shaquille and replace him with 5 ft. 9 inches worth of Nate Robinson. And we thought Pop was crazy! Told you these teams are similar.
That leaves Timmy on Big Baby. Oddly enough Davis gets a couple of smooth jumpers over Timmy. See what getting into a nice rhythm does for you? But order is quickly restored - Timmy schools Davis with a fundamental Timmy shot on one end, and blocks him on the other end. We have possession again and an obvious mismatch, so all our wise and experienced point guard has to do is wait for Timmy, pass him the ball, repeat, lather, rinse. Wait. Crap. What is he doing? You guessed it, Tony decides to take a tough shot in traffic instead, missing and leading to a Pierce fast break three pointer.
Out goes Tony, in comes Manu. Up goes the temperature inside Pop's head.
Lots of negativity from me, but honestly we are not doing that bad. The game is tied at 70.
Manu doesn't fare much better than Tony at this point. His mistakes are not as bad, but his offense is not that great either. Meanwhile the Celtics are feeling the momentum and build the lead out to five points at 72-77 to close out the quarter.
Blair is back in, and I remain underwhelmed by his presence. Believe me, it hurts to say that as he is normally such a great player to watch and I have a soft spot for guys that love what they do so much that they cannot stop smiling about it. But he is still not playing well. However, we get enough hustle from everyone (including Blair) to make up for it. We cannot make our shots, but neither can they. Finally Manu kicks into fourth quarter mode. One minute we are down 72-79, but then Manu gets a tip in, gets a steal, makes a wise decision to pass to Neal and get an assist instead of taking a tough shot and boom. Suddenly a two point game at 77-79. Shortly afterwards, Manu gets two free throws and a nice three pointer in classic Spurs style - Tony pass to Hill pass to Manu in the corner, swish. Seconds later, Gino steals the ball, passes to Tony, Tony wisely gives it right back, swish, another three. 85-86, we are within three. Manu is just amazing at clutch time. He has been playing so-so all game long, nothing terrible but nothing of note either, then suddenly switches to God Mode to get the Spurs back into the game. He continues to play well for much of the rest of the game, but to no avail.
Tony also played well in the fourth, switching back to "Good Tony" after his time on the bench. He had a couple of nice shots but did not force things and also made some nice passes. Sadly a couple of those nice wise passes were wasted as Hill and Bonner missed the shots, but at least Manu took advantage of having Good Tony around.
With a minute to go, Ray stole the ball from Hill and scored to make it 96-105, seemingly putting the game out of reach. But Manu and Tony kept the excitement going - Manu hits a clutch three to make it a six point game, then Tony with a steal and layup to make it a four point game with 42 seconds remaining. Manu tips a Celtics pass to RJ who is fouled and makes both free throws. Two point game!!!! I do a quick bing search on how to deal with heart attacks.
Good defense, Pierce misses his shot! But Davis tips the ball out to Nate for the rebound and we are forced to foul Ray Allen. Determined to keep my heart going until the last second, Ray misses one of his free throws, making it a two point game with seven seconds to go. Manu gets the rebound. Timeout.
This is the moment. What play should we run? Obviously, Manu gets the ball, but what magic will he work? Sadly, he has to put up a contested three and we lose the game. I would have preferred to get the ball to Timmy or Dice inside for the two over Davis or a kick out for a shot, but Celtics defense was too good. Very disappointing loss. But the Spurs will use this to learn and improve.