After experiencing a minor blip in Portland with Tony Parker and Tim Duncan taking the night off, the San Antonio Spurs immediately returned to their winning ways, turning the tables around as it got its two stars back in action and beat up a similarly depleted Denver Nuggets squad missing several key players. The game quickly got out of hand in the first half, as a rejuvenated DeJuan Blair kept pounding the defenseless Nuggets front line around the rim, while a steady diet of long-range shots from the usual suspects (Richard Jefferson, Matt Bonner, and even Parker got into the act) punctured holes in the defense and put the opposing team into all sorts of trouble.
As the mile-high frost melted from another night of good team basketball, the Spurs were left proudly looking at a record-tying 8-1 performance from its Rodeo Road Trip, an achievement only replicated by a similarly sizzling run back in 2003 where coincidentally, the Silver and Black went all the way to their second title and first in the Duncan-Ginobili-Parker era. Could it be a portent for good things to come, a foreshadowing of what we could end up seeing again after another lockout shortened season? An exciting thought, but nevertheless, only half of the games have been played, and with the rash of injuries besetting this team, it's hard to gauge what the collective whole is capable of -- will the remaining time be enough to create beautiful synergy that will propel it to a championship, or will the potholes of getting constantly sidetracked by damaged body parts prove to be fatal to its title hopes?
The basketball karma gods can play really crazy tricks to fans of any team. The target this time around were the fans of San Antonio, which had to suffer a night watching the unwatchable, an unfamiliar "B" team getting beaten to a pulp, only to be pleasantly surprised with a blowout victory heading into the All-Star break against a team that resembled the Spurs themselves just a couple of nights ago with all its big-time players (Ty Lawson, Nene, Danilo Gallinari) sitting out.
However, as Coach Nate McMillan and his Trailblazers team showed at the Rose Garden, now is not the time to be pitying the other team's misery, and Gregg Popovich picked up that message quickly as he let the resident attack dog on the loose. Blair, his minutes this season fluctuating up and down as inconsistent as weather predictions go, timely found that sacred balance between controlled recklessness and blind aggression, tying his career-high with 28 points on 12-21 shooting, grabbing 12 rebounds, generating 2 steals, handing out 3 assists, and best of all, zero turnovers.
Despite numerous verbal assaults and S-M-H moments this community has given to DeBeast, everyone is hoping that this will serve as a reminder to the young man that he has what it takes to excel at this level of basketball. And while he will constantly face match-up problems especially against teams with bigger, more skilled front lines, his unique combination of girth and nose for the ball remains an advantageous skill set. He's done very well before against the Lakers' massive front line, and once again hope springs eternal that Blair can help hold down the front court while Tiago Splitter recovers. At least for now, we stopped pulling our hairs out for Blair, and the weekend break will give us respite from his maddening inconsistency.
The rest of the game was pretty much an enjoyable beatdown, with the first quarter characterized by the Spurs raining down threes and stifling the Nuggets attack to pull out huge 19-1 and 12-2 runs that immediately put the game out of reach. The overmatched Denver players breathed signs of life by winning the last two quarters on the back of Corey Brewer's and Andre Miller's strong plays, but these were not enough to whittle down the earlier insurmountable lead built by the Spurs.
As the final buzzer sounded, the Spurs looked even more business-like than they usually were. It knew it was just another won battle in a long war, but this time, after enduring the heartbreak of its magical regular season run a year ago end with a thud, it seems more prepared to face the tall odds yet stacked before them. The usual "under the radar" description is again thrown at these resilient Spurs, but more than ever, the team is determined to crush whatever radar those sports experts are looking at.
Non-Recap: Little Secrets of Development
"That’s a question from every year. I really don’t care where the radar is," Tim Duncan said after the game. "I don’t watch radar. We just play games and we’ll figure out where we are at the end of the year."
Radar or not, perhaps no other team in the league is better at introspection, in "figuring itself out" than the San Antonio Spurs. You could just imagine Coach Pop putting up a mirror to each of his players' faces every practice, telling them to look within themselves and dig, dig deep into every bone and sinew of their basketball body and tell him what they are capable of. It seems that almost every time, this exercise results more in a player seeing his weaknesses more than the strengths, eventually leading him to feel down about himself.
But this is also exactly where Pop and his coaching staff are at their best, calculatedly putting you down, helping you to "get over yourself" as the former military man is fond of saying, and then build you back up to become an even better player. The transformation of a caterpillar to a hapless cocoon to a fully-formed butterfly might look like the weakest analogy for Pop's harsh tear down-and-rebuild practice, but it could also be the simplest example, just as how simple Dr. James Naismith envisioned the game of basketball to be -- put ball in peach basket, prevent other team from doing the same.
John Hollinger, in a piece written earlier about the Spurs' annual "flying under everyone's noses" run, got the first half of the #PopSystem down pat, describing how exceptionally good the staff is at developing players -- finding the Bruce Bowens, the Danny Greens of the world and turning them into meaningful contributors. However, Hollinger forgot to mention that physical and skill development is preceded by character refinement, probably the most underrated, unseen and yet very integral component of why the organization is what it is. "Pounding the rock" is not an exercise for one who is bereft of patience, and the Spurs aren't just throwing the Jacob Riis proverb around because it sounds nice and smart. There has always been a method to the madness, a path to success which the team constantly imbibes not only on its players but to the organization as a whole, with the bonus of it trickling down to the team's fan base.
I look at the oft-maligned Richard Jefferson, he of the amnesty jokes, and see a player who seems to have fully subscribed to the plan -- breaking down his game, going back to the fundamentals, and trying to fit into a system probably not best-suited to his skills and previous scoring mindset. Still, I see him this season pouring in big effort out there even in really bad shooting nights, and when he goes off for good scoring nights (17 points, 5-7 threes, 8 rebounds vs. Denver), I feel genuinely happy for him. There's a legitimate possibility he or James Anderson will be without the team next season, but if that happens, they will leave the squad hopefully not only as different players, but as different, better persons.
For now, we -- the team, the organization and its fans -- get to take a break. In the coming days, I expect a lot of chatter as everyone looks into their personal crystal balls and make predictions for the second half of the season. It has been a season of discovery so far, with Pop also seemingly surprised at the players he's unearthed, and players who've satisfyingly come into their own (ahem, Tony Parker). Hopefully, the discovery process will end into digging up and finally lifting that elusive fifth.
Your Three Stars
I thought it was a total team effort tonight, so it's difficult to hand out limited stars. Here's my own, but feel free to give yours as well.
3 -- Danny Green. You gotta love how he's gotten the introspection part down pat. He's open and honest about his bad games on Twitter, and mentions a determination to bounce back the next game. Well this was a pretty good bounce back, to say the least.
2 -- Tony Parker. Here's George Karl: ""The best I’ve ever seen Tony Parker orchestrate a game." 'Nuff said.
1 -- DeJuan Blair. Getting 28 points from your "starting center" is rare and deserving of top honors, methinks.