"'O God!' I screamed, and 'O God!' again and again; for there before my eyes--pale and shaken, and half fainting, and groping before him with his hands, like a man restored from death--there stood Henry Jekyll!"
San Antonio's up-and-down season has created a guessing game for those trying to find a constant in the analysis of this team's performance. And yet, after another convincing home victory against another quality team in the Atlanta Hawks, one could argue there is a consistent variable in the equation: home court. In the story of the Jekyll-and-Hyde Spurs, it's evident that the potion necessary to maintain the identity of the good doctor (the victorious Spurs) lies within the confines of the AT&T Center.
But they can't rely only on this for too much longer.The silver and black easily disposed of the previously 13-5 Hawks on the strength of a second half that saw San Antonio outscore Atlanta 57-39, opening up what was only a two-point advantage early in the third quarter to win 105-83 and send its record to 10-1 at home and 12-7 overall. And - outside of DeJaun Blair's 17 points - Wednesday's game once again featured big performances from the Spurs' bench players.
Matt Bonner matched Blair for a team-high 17 points, including five 3-pointers, Tiago Splitter dropped 16 and eight rebounds in yet another strong performance, and Danny Green contributed 10 points as San Antonio's reserves outscored those of the Hawks 51-27. For a team that thrives through floor spacing, this game was once again proof that when one of the Spurs gets hot from behind the arc, the Spurs are difficult to beat. Leading just 50-48 early in the third, Bonner's nine points demoralized Atlanta as he continued to find open space along the perimeter. And for a guy who was connecting on less than 36 percent of his shots from beyond the arc - he's a career 41-percent shooter from deep - this could go a long way in establishing the consistency to which the Spurs are so accustomed.
"My teammates did a good job finding me when I was open, we moved the ball ... got open shots," Bonner said after the game. "That's what we focus on, on offense: don't hold the ball. Either attack or move it, get the defense on their heels and get great shots."
Over the years this is what the Spurs have done so well, and against the Hawks they recorded 29 assists on great ball movement. When you see high assist totals you know it generally means players are being set up for good shots, and that was the case in this game as San Antonio shot better than 51 percent to the Hawks' 43 percent. But as we well know, the story of this season hasn't been the Spurs' offense (this was the first game any team shot better than 50 percent against Atlanta this season); it's been the inconsistency of the defense. On this night, however, the Hawks were held to nearly 10 fewer points than their road average. And after shooting nearly 48 percent in the first half, Atlanta managed only 39 points on 39-percent shooting after the break.
With Al Horford sitting for the long term due to a torn pectoral muscle, the Hawks have to go through Joe Johnson even more than ever. And once again it was Kawhi Leonard drawing the assignment of guarding the tough swingman. But as he's done for the majority of the season (especially at home), the rookie met the challenge.
Johnson's size and shooting ability make him a very difficult cover all over the floor, from the block to the 3-point line. He's is the kind of guy who can torch single coverage for 20 a night, but Leonard never let him find his rhythm. The All-Star guard scored only 10 points while recording zero rebounds as Kawhi's length seemed to take away his spots on the court. Johnson primarily wants to work from the perimeter, and whether he was spotting up, moving off the dribble or working with ball screens, Leonard found the right angles to invade his space. And for a guy who can be very effective in the post, Johnson wasn't able to gain position inside against the Spurs' big, physical rookie. On top of that, the Hawks' lone max-contract player did not get to the line one time. (He doesn't average many attempts per game - just 3.2 shots from the free-throw line for his career - but it's still impressive for a 20-year old to keep a veteran gunner like Johnson off-balance, without sending him to the line once).
In light of recent news, I feel inclined to bring up the Bruce Bowen comparison. Look, I've been the first to be wary of likening Leonard to arguably the greatest on-ball perimeter defender in franchise history. Fans and media types are inclined to hyperbolize and create excitement (Which is what is supposed to be the case among fans, after all. That's why we love sports. You don't use a word like fanatic about people who keep a level head about things.) so I've remained a bit skeptical. And maybe skeptical isn't the right word, but Leonard has a LONG way to go to get there. He's a great defender given his age, but that's Bruce freaking Bowen we're talking about.
Still, Kawhi Five-O is definitely good, and maybe Leonard will earn the right to join that discussion one day. It took Bowen more than a little time to perfect his craft, after all. But when you hear Tony Parker make the comparison you know it's probably legitimate, and not just some sports writer scribing an opinion.
"(Joe) Johnson is a tough cover. (Leonard) played great defense ... he's been doing that all season long," the Spurs' Gallic point guard said. "He's got long arms, and he can definitely be a Bruce Bowen type of player. He's working toward that and he's doing great."
While Leonard was big on the defensive side of the ball against the Hawks' best scorer, this really was a team effort. Atlanta is balanced and has plenty of guys who can put it in the basket, so it was going to have to take an all-around performance to win in the fashion the Spurs did. Tim Duncan, while not very effective on the offensive end just two nights after his 28-point outburst, was a significant presence on defense and boards. Without Horford in the rotation and Josh Smith not necessarily being a post player in any of the usual senses of the term, Zaza Pachulia was clearly outmatched by the Big Fundamental. Duncan grabbed nine of his 11 rebounds in the first half and played only seven minutes after the break, sitting for the entirety of the fourth quarter (which is always a good thing when the rest comes during a win). Duncan's performance, along with the continued development of Splitter, has been crucial to the back end of the Spurs' defense. (By the way, how about Splitter? His confidence has never been higher and it's really showing. He's actually calling for the ball in the post.)
Just as the Spurs concludes another one-game homestand (if you can even call it a homestand), they prepare for more of life on the road. And with the realization the RRT is rapidly approaching, the Spurs know they have to figure out the cure for their home/road split personality. They are holding opponents to less than 90 points per game at home, but once they hit the road, things change drastically. Opponents score better than 104 points per contest when the Spurs leave the comfort of San Antonio, and that's obviously something of which the players are already fully aware.
We've seen what San Antonio is capable of doing defensively (at least at home). And for such an overall young team missing its best player, it is paramount to keep the opposition's offense down. But therein lies the problem. What's the right mixture, the right potion to keep Mr. Hyde at bay? How can the Spurs manage to keep their dark side from once again surfacing on Friday in Minnesota? Somehow they must bottle up the level of play they've exhibited in the Alamo City.
"I bring the life of that unhappy Henry Jekyll to an end."
At the conclusion of the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (spoiler alert: I'm about to somewhat reveal the end of the story. But really, if you haven't read or heard the story, you probably should have by now.), Jekyll comes to grips with the fact he can no longer contain the Hyde persona as the doctor's life effectively comes to an end. Now, clearly it's not quite that serious. It is just basketball, after all. But if the Spurs don't find their defense away from home, the life of the season will be in jeopardy come late April. The RRT will be difficult enough without Manu, but without a defensive identity it could be deadly.
Still, even after a recent string of close games in which San Antonio's defense has been tested by not-so-great offenses, we are reminded of the positives on a night like last. When the Spurs can limit their opponents' scoring, they look pretty good indeed.
3. DeJuan Blair — 17 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, 6 TOs...
There's an argument he could be higher, but a lot of Blair's activity came late and the six turnovers sure are an eyesore. Still, his energy was there when it was needed.
2. Tony Parker — 15 points, 7 assists, 2 rebounds, 1 steal...
This guy's consistency has made it easy to overlook him when he has a game like this in just 29 minutes. It was a far cry from Monday's 20-point, 17-assist performance, but it was exactly what the Spurs needed from their All-Star ... again.
1. Matt Bonner — 17 points, 5 three-pointers, 3 rebounds, 1 assist...
When Bonner hits his threes the Spurs are scary. Leads can open up quickly when he's in the game and hitting his shots, and he did just that on Wednesday. He was a major part of a third-quarter run that busted the game open, and his threes seemed to break the spirit of the Hawks at times.
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