After the Spurs dropped their first home game against the Kings, we were all thinking they'd go out for blood in their next one on the road to make up for it. Guess again. Coach Pop sat Tim Duncan and the Spurs lost a close one at Houston tonight, and are now ranked 7th on the Western conference. It was a close game throughout and the Spurs were able to hang around with a Rockets team that came in riding a 5 game winning streak mostly due to the amazing play of Tiago Splitter (25 points, 10 rebounds and 4 assists) and Tony Parker (24 points, 13 assists). Kevin Martin (25 points) and Samuel Dalembert (12 points and 6 blocks) where the standout Rockets. Notorious Spurs killer Goran Dragic made an appearance as well with some 4th quarter heroics.
Before going any further with the recap I should mention that the Spurs where in the dreaded FIGASENI. The game they were supposed to win was against the Kings, not this one. I'm personally not in panic mode right now. In fact since my expectations going in LWM were tempered, I think the team is doing pretty well. I don't think this game is a real sample of what the Spurs can be since the team was missing not only Manu And T.J. Ford, but also Timmy, so I'll focus my attention on exploring the trends I see forming, both good and bad, through the last couple of games instead of the usual game analysis.
- Tiago Splitter is thriving with extended minutes and his offense seems to be coming along. I've seen those ugly jump hooks fall in Europe enough times to know that he had an offensive game, but even I was surprised to see his surge in confidence over the last few games. Before, he would get the ball and attack tentatively which resulted in blocked shots and turnovers; now, if he gets the ball in good position, he is either going to score, get fouled or deliver an assist. A defensive-minded 7-footer who can also score? Yes, please. This is the player we fans thought we were getting and the player PATFO knew they were getting. Splitter's production more than any of the other role player's will determine how far this team can go. He relentlessly attacked Dalembert and the other Rockets bigs and succeeded where DeJuan Blair failed.
- Matt Bonner is starting to find his rhythm from behind the arc. He seemed hesitant at first to pull the trigger, but as the game rode on he decided that hey, maybe he shouldn't be dribbling the ball and attacking the paint when he's a 3-point specialist. Once the confidence returned, his 3-point stroke did as well. He's still a minus on the defensive end, but when his shot falls he helps the team enough to earn minutes.
- After a slow start of the season, Tony Parker keeps showing that he is an elite offensive player. At this point in his career, Parker shouldn't be doubted as much as he is by us fans. The guy can score with the best of them and makes others better by running the pick and roll expertly. Hopefully he doesn't exhaust himself trying to keep the team afloat.
- The Spurs' defensive strategies keep evolving. Gregg Popovich knows that this short-handed Spurs team doesn't have the personnel to be a great defensive team unless they get creative. Pop has shown willingness to go to a zone defense at times, which I think adds a new wrinkle to an already diverse defensive playbook. The "switch everything" small ball lineups have been effective as well. I don't think those strategies should be employed more than as a change of look when things are not going well, but I think it is important to try everything to get the team to improve its defense and I'm glad Pop agrees.
- With Duncan out, DeJuan Blair was the Spurs' defacto main threat in the post. Unfortunately, he struggled against the Rockets bigs, especially Dalembert. In my opinion this serves to illustrate a bigger issue that I think is prevalent when Blair plays in a lineup that doesn't include two future Hall Of Famers (or three): Blair, while a good offensive player, has a really hard time creating offense for himself and especially for others in the post. He does not posses the footwork or the passing ability to be depended upon to set things in motion. The good news? Once Tim and Manu return, he won't be asked to. He'll be able to focus on what he can do: attack off the pick and roll and get offensive boards.
- Kawhi Leonard keeps playing fantastic man defense and rebounding at a near elite level (he had 11 rebounds against the Rockets, 7 offensive) for a small forward . Why is he on this part of the recap? His offense is every bit as limited as advertised. He may hit the occasional jumper or get to the rim from time to time, but on that side of the ball he has a hard time getting anything going. His lack of range really hurts the team's spacing. What worries me the most, though is that I've noticed that he sometimes struggles recovering after getting caught on a screen. Kevin Martin got away from him often by simply running off a pick. When you are guarding elite offensive players such as Martin, those extra 2 seconds are the difference between a contested jumper and an easy basket. I'm confident he will improve to the point where he'll be one of the best defensive wings in the league, but he's not there yet.
- Richard Jefferson is reverting back to his old, passive self right before our eyes. He shows a lot of confidence in his 3-point shot even after he misses, which is good, but he doesn't try to put the ball on the floor even when he is sharing the court with bad offensive players. I distinctly remember a play in the second quarter, when after a high-low pass from DeJuan, he pass it back out instead of going hard for a layup against Chandler Parsons. A guy with the offensive acumen of Jefferson should never hesitate in that situation, but RJ defers more often than not right now and I can't understand why.
- Danny Green is not a reliable offensive player. Mean Joe alternates brilliant offensive games with some horrendous ones. He went 1-5 from the floor in this one after 4-11 (0-4 from 3) against the Kings and 0-6 (0-5 from 3) against the Magic. His all-around game is a welcome addition to the rotation, but he's far from being a reliable third option on a good team. Injuries have forced him to be that, and the results are not pretty. Like Blair, I expect Danny to be more effective once Manu comes back.
- Bad offensive execution to close games. With 1:47 to go and after a good defensive possession by the Spurs, Tony Parker launched an ill-advised 3-pointer with 14 seconds to go on the shot clock that missed. The next defensive possession resulted on a steal by Neal after a deflected pass by Leonard. Both players were running a fast break against a single Rockets defender and couldn't score in transition. Neal did hit a floater after the offense was resat and I would dismiss it as simply a bad play if the Spurs hadn't struggled with closing out the last few games. For a team that is heralded as the smartest in the league, offensive breakdowns down the stretch are unacceptable.
I think that if the Spurs can build off of these good trends and revert the bad ones, they have the potential to be a true contender. If not, the team will depend on the brilliance of their big three and possibly have a short playoff run. I think this year more than any other is all about the complimentary pieces. Developing some chemistry and improving the execution is paramount to the Spurs' success. Tony, Manu and even old man Duncan can still perform at a very high level. It's up to the role players to catapult the team from good-but-not-championship-good to true contender. Let's hope they can deliver.
Next up, the New Orleans Hornets on Monday.