It's that time of the year again. No, I'm not talking about the playoffs, not just yet. It's that in-between period of meaningless games leading up to the big three-month dance, where some serious stat padding is going on among players and teams wanting to finish the season on a high note (Stephen Curry of last season comes to mind), add in some exciting games here and there with teams jockeying for ideal playoff position, and then top it off with stars taking entire nights off to rest beaten bodies. I think at this point you have to take almost everything with a grain of salt -- sure, everybody wants and is addicted to winning as much as Charlie Sheen, but homestretch agendas usually take a slightly different turn from themes witnessed during much of the regular season.
The San Antonio Spurs, all tidy and set as the West's number one seed, have expressed that finishing with the best record overall in the entire league is something that's a "nice to have" rather than a "must have" at this point. Against an upset-happy Utah Jazz team, however, you would've thought the Spurs were going full speed to secure that distinction. The men in silver-and-black treated attendees of the last home game of the season, "Fan Appreciation Night" as this is usually called, to huge doses of the staple hot, long-range shooting and a rare plate of crowd-pleasing dunks. Led by Richard Jefferson's 20 points and 4 threes, the Spurs submitted 7 players in double figure scores as they whittled down an injury-depleted Jazz lineup for their fourth straight win. The Spurs also closed out a season of home dominance with a 36-5 record at the AT&T Center.
My mind is in playoff mode right now (my recaps, unfortunately, aren't), and I've never had a better feeling about our chances since, you know, when the Spurs were still locking people up in a cage and setting the perimeter of said cage on fire until their opponents cried "no mas!", choking from the smoke and eyes all welled up from staring at the flames. So before I continue, here's a magnificent Marvin Gaye song because it just fits the moment and we need playoff swagger and because we just beat the Jazz so good music is in order. All of those, and maybe more.
For the first time in a long while, we have a legitimate chance at a fifth trophy, guys. I know with Tim Duncan, he's always put this team in a position to contend every single year he's been in this league. But the last few years, it's been different and he's not as dominating as he used to and wins became harder and harder to come by. Now, in the twilight of the GoatPuff's career the Spurs are about to match their best record ever, and after a really memorable season of basketball, it just feels right that Duncan should get another ring before he hangs it all up, right?
The road looks the toughest it has been since Shaq tangoed with Kobe, and the Spurs, even with best record in tow, have all these kinds of weaknesses rivaling that of an old codger feeling pain in multiple areas of his body he never once thought contributed to a fully functioning frame. But still, it has been a season of overcoming odds -- the team bouncing back in a big way after barely making the playoffs last year, Gary Neal's remarkable phoenix-like rise from a tarnished path and perceived basketball irrelevance, the tectonic shift in offensive production, responsibility and even sensibilities, and the longest Duncan-era losing streak that threatened to destroy everything pure and true in SpursLand. The words "when you want something, you have to work for it" have never sounded truer than it has for me now, when the term "pounding the rock" has been thrown around every hour even when the team was putting together multiple double-digit win streaks and furiously rewriting team records.
So yes, in short, it's been like a dream so far. I'm almost afraid to ask, how will it end? (oops, I just did) Hopefully, not in flaming chickens, else I'll have to lock myself up in a room for a week watching reruns of Friends and consuming pints of ice cream like I just had a messy break up with my future next girlfriend. Heaven help us in the playoffs.
Tony auditioning for Black Swan 2: Pau Gasol is a Soft Hairy Marshmallow.
Not much to break down quarter-by-quarter, but it was a very entertaining game to say the least. The Spurs really gave the fans a lot to cheer about for the last regular season home game, so kudos to the team. They could've put Blake Griffin in there to jump over the hood of a CAT truck and he still wouldn't have topped Richard Jefferson's throwback alley-oop in transition off a pass from Gary "Are you J-Kidd-ing me?" Neal. The first half had its share of good moments, highlighted by that sterling three-minute finish that saw the Spurs close strongly with a 9-0 run thanks to RJ going Rage 2.0 with a three and the aforementioned dunk, plus a George Hill slamma alba jamma sandwiched in between. That late surge allowed the good guys to end the half with a comfortable 11-point lead, 57-46 at the break.
I know for the past two seasons ridiculing RJ during every loss or losing streak has become a traditional pastime of PtR or Spurs nation, but I genuinely want the guy to succeed with the Spurs. I was happy for him to have hit the 20-point plateau after about six months, even if most of the points still came on threes and not enough drives to the rim. It's so easy to call him dumb, slow, clumsy, a runaway groom and bereft of the requisite BBIQ to function in San Antonio's complicated system, but through it all, the dude has been really professional about everything -- not whining about the lack of touches or plays ran for him, not once demanding a trade, and never crying in the locker room after a big loss. Okay, that last one's just a wild guess, for all we know Pop made him cry almost everyday during the summer. He's been a true professional his entire stay so far, and as someone who appreciates the kind of big sacrifices that a player makes for the sake of the team, RJ's transformation (or regression, but of the good kind if there ever was one) has been one of the better yet underrated stories of the season.
Halftime Musings: All-NBA Team Selections
I've been reading a few articles about writers' All-NBA teams, and I think it's safe to say that despite three All-NBA teams, there's a huge possibility that the Spurs will not have a player in any of them. Is this a travesty that the best team in the regular season will not have a representative? After all, aren't these awards -- ROY, MVP, 6th Man, MIP, COY, etc. -- all based on regular season success?
Awards are such a crazy, if not sometimes irrational, phenomenon of wanting to be objective but always turns out to be more hype and prone to subjectivity. Regardless, this just proves that this Spurs season is a very rare one, not just in San Antonio lore, but in NBA history. How many times has it happened in the past when the number one team doesn't even get to have an All-NBAer? I'd like to look at it not as an injustice but rather basketball reaching its peak, its purest form where everybody works as one cohesive unit and nobody cares who's the leading scorer or rebounder or shot blocker, a true team greater than the sum of its parts. Maybe somewhere, someplace, Dr. James Naismith is smiling while swishing a piece of fruit through a peach basket.
Uwe had at least better shot mechanics than Tiago. Okay, less ugly mechanics.
Before Tiago, There Was Uwe and his Uwe-someness
The second half was more like the Spurs in cruise control for the most part, with Tony, Rage and Tim all taking turns destroying the porous Jazz interior, exterior and posterior. The lead ballooned to as high as 17 points after a Frenchie McWonderbutt layup, and from then on it was the Tiago Splitter Showcase, complete with the grunting and free throw-brickfest worthy of mouths agape since a chap named Uwe Blab had fans buzzing just because his name was Uwe Blab and he wore a Spurs jersey. (wait until Bismack Biyombo gets to the NBA!)
At this point, supplanting DeJuan Blair's rotation spot is probably next to impossible for Splitter unless he really plays out of his mind in the playoffs. Still, Tiago gets everyone excited whenever he comes in, and it's not just because he sparkles or makes everyone watch in anticipation as to when he'll bust out the T-Rex hook shot, put his dazzling footwork to good use, set pinpoint screens and roll to the basket like a boss, or dunk the ball and land hard on his ass. No, it's the workman-like play that has us all feeling hopeful and positive about the now and the future. Splitter's no franchise player, but every fan can easily appreciate the hustle and tenacity that he brings, even if it means having to go through the torture of watching him clank his free throws.
Tiago went toe-to-toe with established post up machine Al Jefferson in the fourth quarter, with Jefferson continuously burning Splitter at the low block with an array of jump hooks left and right, plus the occasional mid range jumper to keep the Brazilian's defense honest. But instead of wilting in the heat of someone scoring in your face over and over again, Tiago kept his composure and earned his pay on the offensive end, nearly nabbing every offensive rebound in sight and quickly scoring off of putbacks like his butt was on fire and it was the last game Pop will ever let him play. At the end of the day, he'll make you ask, "Why on earth is this guy not playing more minutes?" but of course, Pop is CIA and we can never talk too much about this lest we disappear off the grid and magically reappear with an eye patch on our left eye. I told you to not go chasing waterfalls!
Despite the win, should we be concerned that we let the Jazz shoot 54% and the Spurs lucky to shoot 58%, saved by the eight three pointers? As I said at the beginning, it's hard to really put a lot of stock into these remaining games as a future predictor of what's going to happen in the playoffs. I thought the Jazz played decent defense, but the team's passing was just spot on and crisp for most of the game. The ball movement was a joy to watch and the 29 assists on 41 made field goals (70%) is proof of that. Slowly but surely, even if most of the four-game winning streak has been built demolishing scrub teams, the Spurs' explosive offense is returning to form and it should do wonders for the team's confidence heading into the money season.
Two games left, and we end the season in style with David Stern and his minions setting up the Spurs on a back-to-back. The first one against the Lakers in Los Angeles, with LA seemingly content to relax and lose games and watch Ron Artest kiss his biceps. I'd love to get a 3-1 season series win over them, but for sure Phil's got some mind games shit out of his sleeve and Kobe is Kobe, who always refuses to lose. Then it's on to the depleted Phoenix Suns in Arizona, where we hope to finish the game with everyone in one piece, healthy and pumped for the playoffs. See you kiddos in the next few days.
Your Three Stars
3 -- Gary Neal
2 -- Tiago Splitter
1 -- Richard Jefferson
Parting shot: Free Darko Goes Dark
This is a nice interview with Beth Shoals and Jacob Weinstein as they prepare to finally shut down a blog which has played a crucial part in influencing basketball bloggers (such as I) in the past decade or so. Check it out.