This was the kind of level of play you can expect form a lockout-shortened season's FOGAFINI. The Spurs were playing at home against one of the worst teams in the league and, after beating the Rockets the night before, couldn't help but play to the level of their opponents. It wasn't pretty but it wasn't really the kind of game that this team was going to lose at home, either. Tim Duncan and Tony Parker led the way for the Spurs to prevail and move to 15-9 and the third place in the Western Conference.
It was clear from the start that the Spurs were not going to get the blowout win most of us were expecting. Some unusually hot shooting from the Hornets and an apathetic defensive effort form the Spurs (stop me if you've heard that before) contributed to create a close game for almost three quarters. The Spurs managed to show the difference in talent in the 4th with Tony Parker and Tim Duncan doing most of the damage and Tiago Splitter joining in on the fun.
I should start by saying that the Hornets are clearly trying to maximize their chances of getting a good draft pick. That much should be evident by their decision to shelve Chris Kaman, but With Eric Gordon and Jarret Jack out with injuries, New Orleans still has the kind of streaky players that can make things hard for most teams if they get hot early. And they did get hot early, alright. Greivis Vazquez and Carl Landry were hitting all kinds of crazy shots and Marco Bellineli put on his Ray Allen cape for a few possessions. Unfortunately for the Nooch, those guys are not stars for a reason and they came back to earth quickly in the second half. Those long shots from Vazques and Bellineli stopped falling and the Spurs adjusted to Landry's explosive forays to the rim by making it hard on him to get position early and having the guards reach in to make it harder for the Hornets power forward to get a shot up.
The fact that the Spurs have kept their opponents to under 85 points in their last 3 games should be enough evidence that the team seems to be turning a corner in terms of defensive production. But while I would love to find a simple explanation for it, the reality is that the Spurs have not relied on any particular lineup or even rotation during the 3 game stretch against division rivals, which leaves me with no other option but to resort to the
lazy sportswriters explanation that the Spurs are simply trying harder on that end.
On offense, the long ball wasn't falling (4-19) so the Spurs had no choice but to answer our prayers and go to the post to Duncan and Splitter. Both Tiago and Tim had their way with the soft Hornets inside defense, while Tony Parker also found his way to the basket on a few occasions. Tony's and Tiago's consistency is great but it was especially good to see Tim Duncan's production on a SEGABABA, considering most of us thought he was going to get a DNP for this game. The old man simply refuses to conform to our lowered expectations for him.
The other huge difference between the two teams was in free throws. The Spurs won the free throw battle 27 to 16 in a big part because of Tim Duncan. Timmy has shot 17 FTs in the last two games, which shows that at least for the time being, he has forsaken his jump-shooting ways for aggressive attacks to the basket. He also went 7-7 from the line on this one, which is a sign that the Mayans might be right and these are our last days on Earth. Danny Green was also great at getting to the line where he scored 6-7. For a team that can go through scoring droughts when the 3 ball is not falling, having guys that can get to the line is huge. Manu's return should only help on that front.
I should spend at lest a few lines discussing Gregg Popovich's ability to adapt. After Kawhi Leonard had a pretty bad night against Kevin Martin and the Rockets, Pop realized that there was a big possibility that this was not a game in which Kawhi would be really useful, considering the Hornets don't have the kind of player that is dangerous off the dribble, so he went with Gary Neal on the starting lineup. While Gary didn't wow anyone (he really seems to still be trying to find his game legs), I think Pop's reluctance to adhere to any sort of dogmatic principle when it comes to lineups could be a plus when Manu returns and he needs to start over, trying to find the ideal players to start and, more importantly, finish games.
While I love that Tiago is a bigger part of the offense now, I think the team still has ways to go before they feel comfortable with the Brazilian as a first option. It really isn't hard to figure out why: Sparkles gives the Spurs a different dimension with his post scoring; a dimension they have lacked for most of Duncan's tenure, so the guards are still hesitant to give Sparkles the ball in the post and have an even harder time finding him when he rolls hard to the basket, since no other Spurs big man in a long time was able to do that successfully. We all knew Splitter was an above average defender, but his scoring acumen took even his most fervent supporters by surprise, so it's not shocking that even his teammates are having a hard time adapting to it. It's not all bad, though: his chemistry with Tony Parker makes me giddy to see what Manu can do with a big man setting some of the best screens in the league and rolling aggressively to the basket.
So that's about it. I guess there are two ways of looking at this win. You could say the Spurs barely escaped with a home win against one of the worst teams in the league or you could say that the Spurs, knowing they were the better squad, simply waited for the right time to put their foot on the pedal on offense and tighten the screws on defense to come up with the win. After the last couple of games, I'm leaning towards the second option.
- Bonner took 10 shots but only 5 of them were 3s. I noticed the Hornets closing out on him aggressively, but that's too many 2 pointers for Bonner to be taking.
- DeJuan Blair seems to produce more on defense than on offense right now. If you've watched a few Spurs games, you'll now that's not good.
- I'm personally hoping that the decision to bench Kawhi was based on matchups and is not permanent. He will probably be needed against OKC to guard Durant.
- Richard Jefferson continues to disappear for long stretches of the game. His passivity is frustrating to say the least but I believe he's doing pretty much what Pop is asking of him.
- The Anti-Jefferson, if you will, seems to be Tony Parker. Since Manu went down, Parker has been playing as good as any other guard on the Western Conference. If he doesn't get an All-Star berth I'm going to be pissed.
- Cory Joseph and James Anderson could have really benefited from a proper training camp and Summer League. They sometimes seem lost out there and have no confidence in their shots. I still think they could be quality rotation players in the future.
- The Hornets are probably going to be really bad for a couple of seasons unless Eric Gordon takes a big leap. Say what you want about the deal the League vetoed, but they would have been a playoff contender this season and if the Knicks don't turn things around, the pick they would have received from the Rockets would not have been much worse than the one they'll receive from the Wolves.
3 - Tiago Splitter 16 points 6-7 shooting, 7 rebounds
Tiago had another good game and I really hope Pop is noticing his offensive talents. He needs to become a constant threat if the Spurs want a chance to make some noise in the post-season.
2 - Tony Parker 18 points, 7 assists, 5 rebounds.
Tony keeps showing that he is an elite player. Up until Duncan's recent resurgence, he was carrying the Spurs.
Tim Duncan - 19 points on 8 shots and 9 rebounds in only 23 minutes.
Timmy seems rejuvenated and is showing a lot of leadership by taking over games in which the Spurs' youngsters struggle to establish themselves. He is also scoring efficiently by going to the line often; let's hope he is saving something for the playoffs because the Spurs will surely need him.
Next up: the Thunder on Saturday. A real test for the Spurs' improving defense.