The NBA's North-by-Northwest team blazed into San Antonio Monday night, overcoming the noble efforts of a patchwork Spurs team to win 100-92 and bring the league's best record one game closer to Earth. "The only winning move is not to play", Pop told starters Manu Ginobili (who was truly unable to go), Tony Parker (who probably could have gone) and Antonio McDyess (who could use the rest but that's about it). Despite the pre-game white flag that represented, the replacements who did suit up almost pulled a Cinderella on the bigger, more talented Blazers before late-game errors led to another painful collapse. For those of us obsessively counting that's four fourth-quarter disappointments in a row since Tim Duncan was put on the inactive list.
Popovich does. Unlike Nate McMillian, who gave 24 minutes to a 'questionable' Brandon Roy and 32 minutes to a 'game-time decision' Nicolas Batum, Pop saw tonight's mutual back-to-back as an opportunity to burn a win from our lead in exchange for a night's rest for the core and late-season seasoning for the fringe Spurs. Even attributing a motive for Popovich's actions is probably a mistake, since it's impossible to understand why Pop does anything. Even Richard Jefferson played just 25 minutes after getting 36 in Memphis in a game that called for his athleticism and (relative) defensive ability.
Whether it was by choice or necessity, or just to show off his Texas-sized cojones, resting the regular rotation made for some interesting match-ups. Andre Miller versus Chris Quinn. Brandon Roy against Danny Green. Gerald Wallace and LaMarcus Aldridge were 'guarded' by Matt Bonner, Steve Novak and a host of shorter, less athletic players. And yet, somehow this motley crew was able to get the Big Three's hopes up and off the bench, especially in a mad third quarter that saw the suit-wearing starters cheering on the reserves as they rallied to a five point lead.
Before the second half comeback there wasn't much expectation that the Spurs would be able to stun a Portland team that had picked up where they left off last game, muscling the Silver and Black off of rebounds and drawing wince-worthy fouls on our heroes to erase buckets and establish a free throw advantage. Apparently Tim Duncan has the basketball IQ of five men, as the Spurs have been inconsistent on offense and brain-flatulent on defense in Big Fun's absence.
After the villains shot 57% in the first quarter and 62% in the second it felt like the Spurs were hanging on thanks to the travel-heavy Trail-Blazer legs, some timely shooting, and the inability of their front-court to capitalize on our lack of interior defense. The Spurs got eight points out of George Hill and two-of-two shooting from James Anderson and Steve Novak in the first Q. In the second quarter Chris Quinn (!!!) went off for eight on four of five to complement Hill. Frankly it felt pretty fluky and like we were fortunate to only slip another point to a 58-51 deficit.
There's a list worth of heart-breaking mistakes and bad calls by both Spurs and officials in this one, but enumerating them is more pointless than the in-game interviews that coaches are forced to give on national broadcasts. The Spurs played well against tough competition again, except this time the deck was stacked for the visiting team, and the mistakes were made by role players forced to play out of role and developing talent forced to pretend they were ready while the core contributors watched. Matt Bonner and Jefferson whiffed on a golden opportunity to escape their slumps, but George Hill took up the slack again and scored with abandon. Tiago Splitter had another excellent performance in Duncan's absence.
For about twelve glorious minutes spanning the third and early fourth quarters, a March Madness vibe took over the game and the plucky underdogs made their move. It started when Andre Miller missed an ugly-looking runner, signaling a stretch where the Blazers forgot how to run plays on offense while Tiago Splitter became the go-to option to (somehow) devastating effect. It wasn't until a Danny Green three-pointer and steal-to-fastbreak-dunk that we put them on upset alert. By the time Portland woke up and ran some offense the Spurs were playing an active, scrambling defense to deny the Blazers their favorite sets. Through it all the one constant was George Hill, who made two baskets and shot 50% in every quarter without a single turnover.
After allowing just nine points in the third quarter and four offensive rebounds all game, the Spurs let the Blazers find their identity while our offense stalled. The Spurs shot 3-9 on free throws in the second half and 10-20 overall, something you usually only see in the college game. The offense couldn't close the deal; a seven point lead turned back into a six-point pumpkin after Cinderella went six minutes with just two points. Bonner and Neal both missed the only open field goals and offensive errors were compounded by fouls and second chances on the other end. The Spurs may not be out of the tournament, but fans are understandably frustrated at a standings lead that was iron-clad just a week ago and now stands at three.
It stings to give another one away to a Western playoff team, but this isn't the game to incite panic. Excitement is more appropriate when Splitter turns minutes into gold for the fourth time in five games and George Hill is showing the consistency that makes him the secret Big Fourth. Right now it feels like San Antonio is getting a season's worth of set-backs and bad breaks all at once, but in perspective this game should be about pride in the handicapped home-team that almost overcame the tanking. And for anybody who wants to know what makes Gregg Popovich a unique NBA coach, tonight's game is a fascinating case of long-term strategy getting the nod over regular season imperatives instead of the usual lip-service.
George Hill: 11-20 FG, 6 assists, 0 turnovers, De facto team leader
Tiago Splitter: 6-11 FG, 9 rebounds (3 offensive), 2 fouls in 28 minutes of good defense
Danny Green: Danny freaking Green!
Next opponent: Boston at home, Thursday March 31