Nearly 13 years ago Avery Johnson made Spurs history by doing something he wasn't known for. We all recall his baseline jumper that eventually won the Finals in '99, a shot that will always be remembered. But A.J.'s career revolved around something entirely different: his passing ability. Now fast forward to Saturday night, when the Little General's replacement, Tony Parker, broke his predecessor's franchise assist record (4,477) in a 107-96 win over Oklahoma City. Parker (who's been oft-criticized for his inability to distribute the ball throughout his career) may have set the new "dime" mark, but, on this night, he took the time to remind us of what he'll be most known for by the time his career's all said and done.
The Thunder's 23-year-old point guard will almost certainly be named as a reserve in the NBA All-Star Game as he has turned into one of the league's most dynamic players. His quickness, leaping ability and propensity for thunderous dunks and flashy play already caught the eye of ASG voters, but tonight it was Parker's turn to audition for a part in All-Star weekend. He took this matchup personally. His jump shot was falling from all his favorite spots, he was able to get in the paint at will and his defense on Westbrook never let the former UCLA Bruin get comfortable in the half court. The most fun part about it: the two stars went right at each other all night.
Parker acted aggressively against the bigger Westbrook, running him off pick and rolls and making him expend as much energy as possible throughout the game. Tony looked for every chance he could to get into the lane, but when you see these kind of point totals from him it generally means his jumper is falling. And when he's hitting his shots it means the lanes in the opponent's interior are open to attack. Once Thunder defenders converged on the penetrating Parker he was able to initiate the movement of the ball toward the perimeter, and San Antonio hit its threes. We all know the Spurs are at their best when this happens.
After falling behind 11-4 within the first five minutes of the contest, San Antonio went on top 14-13 after a 10-2 run gave it the lead for good. At one point in the third, the Spurs were up 88-64 with Parker leading the charge in one of the best games of his career . Oklahoma City would not get closer than nine points the rest of the way.
T.P. played like he was trying to make a point on Saturday, and he mentioned afterward when someone with Westbrook's ability comes to town it's easy to get up for it. The matchup looked a little bit chippy at times, with even the fairly laid-back Parker barking in what seemed like the direction of Westbrook at one point (although it might have been directed at the officiating). Basketball is a sport that is built around a team concept, but it's the individual matchups that constitute its substance. When those one-on-one battles are as good as the one we saw between Russell and Tony, basketball is a pretty fun game to watch.
"Yeah, I was rolling tonight. It was just one of those night where my shot was feeling good," Parker said. "But it was just a great win for us tonight."
And, as I said before, this was one of the best performances we've seen from Parker in
years his 11-year career, without question. Not only did he burn the Thunder on the offensive end, his defensive intensity was revved up from the start. He was jumping passing lanes, harassing Westbrook and taking away as much air space from him as possible, and it looked like he may have gotten into the young point guard's head. He remained physical with the volatile Westbrook all night and never let him get his confidence going (which is difficult to do considering RW is not lacking in this department).
"(You know you're playing) the best team in the NBA; they have the best record so you want to be aggressive, you want to play well, you want to win," Tony said when he was asked about appearing more animated than usual during the game. "And I knew this game was big for us because then we go on the road forever. I got a little bit excited. After 11 years you try to find stuff to get excited (about).
"I really respect Westbrook," Parker continued. "He's a great player in our league."
Tony scored or assisted on 64 of the team's 107 points, and when you get that kind of production from one player your chances of winning skyrocket. Still, there were other significant contributions. Kawhi Leonard was back in the starting lineup on Saturday to match up with one of the league's most unstoppable scorers in Kevin Durant. It was just another challenge on Leonard's learning curve as the rookie gets an NBA education on a nightly basis.
Durant managed just 22 points on 19 shots, only getting to the line six times and making four of them. In fact, he and Westbrook combined to go just 5-for-7 from the stripe, and when you can keep those two guys off the free-throw line you're not allowing the easy points that let the Thunder pile it on. With all the weapons it has at its disposal, Oklahoma City is going to score. But if you limit its stars you'll have a chance.
Leonard worked hard to slow down Durant, but his effectiveness on the offensive end was also crucial. The Spurs were 12-for-23 from the arc as Leonard hit all three of his long balls, an area where he continues to improve. Yes, he was quite open on each attempt, but that just illustrates that he knows the importance of shot selection. When he didn't have a good look, he was great in the passing game, finishing with five assists.
Leonard (15) and Tim Duncan (13) were the only other Spurs in double figures, and it was Duncan once again anchoring an ever-improving Spurs defense. Though he struggled against the crazy length of the Oklahoma City frontcourt in a 5-for-16 shooting performance, he managed to grab 15 rebounds and block two shots in another inspired effort.
But you would hope this team would come out inspired. With 16 of the next 21 games on the road, the importance of getting wins at home has never been greater. The Spurs are now a league best 13-1 (16-9 overall; 13-8 without Manu) at home (with the one loss coming at the hands of the Kings. Uuuugggghhhhh!!!) but have had their struggles on the road, going 3-8 in games away from the Alamo City. Still, a win like this against the best team in the league can be a motivator and confidence-builder going forward. As Gregg Popovich put it, this game was the first of the road trip in the sense that whatever happened on Saturday was going to trigger momentum one direction or the other as San Antonio heads to Memphis.
"The last game of the homestand, you always kind of call it the first game of the road trip," Pop said. "Beating a great team like Oklahoma City is a great way to do it ... they're something else."
While this might be a good way to approach things mentally, realistically, this was very much a home game. It was comfy in the AT&T Center on Friday. Oklahoma City was on the SEGABABA, the crowd was raucous and the Spurs were hitting their jump shots. Don't take anything away from the victory, though. When you beat the league's best team by double digits you're making at least some kind of statement. But the real test begins now as they hit the road for the next nine games of the RRT in what could be a make-or-break stretch for this team, and especially this defense. There will be those nights on the road where the shots aren't falling, but if the defense can respond like it has recently - the Spurs are allowing just 86 points per game over their last seven - they'll certainly be putting themselves in a position to succeed.
On a night when Duncan hit a third-quarter jump shot that elevated his long-time point guard to the top of this franchise's record books, we're once again reminded of the greatness these two stars have given the fans in San Antonio over their careers. Parker's 42 points on the night he broke A.J.'s assist record were an ironic reminder that this guy's best attribute is putting the ball in the hoop. And if he continues to play at this level (without getting hurt) alongside the always steady Duncan and the improving Spurs bench, the silver and black will not go home so early this year.
Still, something is missing. There's some absent yet omnipresent force whose potential energy is just waiting to become kinetic. We don't know when or where it might happen, but we know it will be soon and we know the Spurs will be a better team for it. If it's any consolation for losing the Spurs for the next nine games, we can reasonably expect the next game in San Antonio to mark the return home for a familiar face. Regardless of what happens during the RRT, LWM is about to come to an end.
3. Tim Duncan: 13 points, 15 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks, 1 steal
Timmy was steady yet again, but the Thunder's interior length gave him trouble in the paint. Still, as he's done so many times throughout his career, Duncan contributed significantly in other categories when his shot didn't fall.
2. Kawhi Leonard: 15 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 steal
Really helped things get going for the Spurs during a crucial stretch in the first and second quarters. But his consistent defense on Durant was his biggest contribution.
1. Tony Parker: 42 points, 9 assists, 3 rebounds, 2 steals
Say hello to the new franchise assist leader for the San Antonio Spurs.
Box score and highlights: http://www.nba.com/games/20120204/OKCSAS/gameinfo.html?ls=gt2hp0021100350#nbaGIboxscore
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