The lockout is over, the preseason has been completed, and finally we have real basketball in front of us. As happy as I am to have it, I can tell the Spurs were even happier. San Antonio started the season off playing the team that knocked them out of the playoffs, but more importantly seemed to present a big match up problem. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph abused every body we threw at them last year. Tonight, things were very different.
The Spurs are back! The Spurs are back!
Manu Ginobili decided from the opening tip (or, given the fact that he does this every game, perhaps he decided at birth) to set the intensity level for the game. He wrestled the tip away from a hapless Grizzlies player and fed Dejuan Blair for an easy layup. Aside from that, though, both teams got off to slow, sloppy starts. Manu followed that brilliance up with two turnovers in the first few minutes- and he wasn't the only one guilty of haphazard play. If I remember correctly, both teams had six turnovers in the first quarter. I hate turnovers, but with short training camps and lack of practicing, we should expect that to be a recurring theme this season.
Something that I hope is not a recurring theme this season is foul trouble. I am not one to complain about officiating, but with Duncan and Blair both getting in foul trouble early, I've got to at least mention that the refs were calling it a little tight. In my epinion, at least one of the fouls on each of them was
debatable highly suspect a travesty. (Tim's 3rd was as bad a call as I've ever seen.) I was afraid it was going to get to the point where we would miss Steve Novak, just for the lack of anyone taller than 6"6' on our bench.
One positive side effect of the foul trouble on our starting bigs was that Tiago Splitter came off the bench early and played more minutes than any other big. Where he really stepped up was on defense. For the game, he had two blocks, two steals, 8 rebounds, and he drew two charges. This is exactly what we expected from him and I am glad he's now getting the time to show what he can do. My guess is that this is a trend that will continue throughout the season.
James Anderson decided to take over in the second quarter. He initiated pick and rolls, hit a corner three, and basically made the game his for the first few minutes of the quarter. You can tell he's still getting used to the NBA game, but there are not many adjustments he has left to make. I am impressed.
Of course, it wouldn't be a Spurs game without a scoring drought, and that hit midway through the second quarter. We could not buy a bucket. Our bench couldn't, our starters couldn't, and I started getting worried. Much like last year, we started to rely on three pointers, and they probably saved us. For the game, we didn't shoot them well, but for the second quarter they were just what we needed.
Duncan and Blair, as previously mentioned, were both in foul trouble. Bonner played almost the entire second quarter, as did Tiago, and we were only down by one at halftime. This could be much, much worse. Also, there was Richard Jefferson, who just about took over the game. For those unfortunate souls who didn't catch the game, Rage is one of the primary reasons we were successful tonight. He played solid defense on Rudy Gay, and in one sequence hit two threes, drew a charge, stole the ball, and blocked a shot...all in the second quarter (if my eyes did not deceive me and my notes are not misleading me). Things got so out of hand in response to Jefferson's incredible play, that I heard that our own JRW coined a new term to describe such an outburst of production: RJamnesty!
One of the main problems with the first half was the poor performance at the charity stripe. I know that it was Blair, Splitter and Leonard at the line (none of whom are ever going to be confused for Calvin Murphy) but 37% fellas? C'mon. It was bad enough for me to close my eyes so I wouldn't have to see AUSAFT (Another Ugly San Antonio Free Throw).
As I was writing "good opening to the half for Blair and RJ" Blair picked up a fourth foul. This is probably the biggest weakness in his game- tonight, he was an adequate defender and didn't force anything on offense, but he also didn't play much because he couldn't stay out of foul trouble. I disagreed with the foul call that started the 2nd half (since his hand hit the ball for the block well before he hit the arm) but he's got to play a little smarter.
A note on the Grizzlies: their most talented players are, in some order, Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, and OJ Mayo. That being said, if Mike Conley does not play at a high level, they are at best a borderline playoff team.
This was Tiago's quarter on the defensive end. He erased multiple mistakes, and had both his blocks in this quarter. It really gives the rest of the team license to play tough D when they know that their big man is backing them up in the lane. If we could take our Brazilian's size and defensive ability and combine it with Blair's instincts on the offensive end and his nose for the ball, we'd have one hell of a player. Let's hope they both rub off a little on each other.
Aside from Tiago holding down the post on defense, Manu and Tony Parker took over on offense. Manu had not one or two, but multiple twisting, turning, behind-the-backing, defender-splitting plays. He is, simply put, poetry in motion. Tony is every bit as brilliant, but not near as highlight-reel worthy. Manu's the herky-jerky whirling dervish, but Tony is just plain smooth -- and determined. There were two different occasions where Conley got right up into Parker's jersey to deny his drive, and the little Freedom point guard just shoved right into him, kept his dribble alive and pushed the him all the way to the bucket. The 2nd of these was particularly impressive. I've got to think that the coaching staff studied some film of the fits Conley Tony in last year's playoffs, and talked with him about how to handle it last night. Whether or not that's the case, he was very effective.
I've only got two notes written for the fourth quarter. One says "Tony for defensive player of the year," which I wrote after he pilfered his fourth steal of the game. Let's get that campaign started right now. The second note said "up by 10, 6:30 to go." Last year, I feel like this game would have gone down to the last possession. Thankfully, tonight's didn't. It took us another minute or two, but we finally shut them down and the last few moments of the game saw Danny Green hit a three.
Honorable Mention: Richard Jefferson. Any other night, his play probably would have been good enough to get more than an honorable mention. I've come to expect good things from him, and you should too. We do tend to use him as a scapegoat because we all expected him to be incredible from the moment he first arrived. He's made monumental changes to his game in order to fit in better with the Spurs. His defense is above average and he's deadly from 3. He needs to be more consistently aggressive. That was definitely the knock on him in last year's series with the Griz, but I'm not going to say he was the reason Memphis bounced us out of the playoffs. Also, I don't think he will be a weakness for us this year. His box score: 14 points, 3 rebounds, 1 steal and 1 block. 3-7 from three point land. Sure, this is the way he started last season, but I think we'll see this kind of play continue. There ARE only 65 games left in the regular season. Scary, huh?
3: Tony Parker. Jump shot wasn't falling, but otherwise great game from Tony. Box score: 15-7-4-4. Not bad for a diminutive north-western European.
2: Tiago Splitter. Only knock on his game tonight was that he lacked any sort of confidence in his offensive game. He had great post position multiple times and instead of taking an short 3-5 foot shot tried to make an extra pass that ended up in a turnover. Box score: 5-8-2-2, but it was his excellent D (both team, and on Randolph) that put him here. Get it, Sparkles.
One last comment: Our defense tonight was good, and the rookie, Kawhi Leonard, was quite impressive with a couple of steals to go with grabbing three or four 50/50 balls. You know, the kind that Memphis owned during last year's playoffs. Anyway, the defense was good enough to me to be exceptionally optimistic about this season, as long as we are healthy. But I'm going to try to reign in my optimism with a dose of reality. Early on in this season, other teams are going to be sloppy. Offenses are going to struggle more than defenses, because you can make up for not knowing a defensive system by hustling and exerting maximum effort- something all of our Spurs are good at. If you don't know the offense and you just run around and hustle all the time, chances are you're going to get in your team's way as much as the opposing defense is. That being said, we've got a really good team with a lot of continuity and that is going to be a major advantage this year.
Next up, Wednesday against the new look LA Clippers.