The Spurs defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers Sunday night 114 to 98 to extend their win streak to seven. Gregg Popovich allowed Tim Duncan to dress, but kept him on the bench. It's becoming apparent that Popovich wants the one seed. He normally does not play the insurance card. Normally, if Pop decides to rest a player, that player is going to sit. In this game, he had Tim dressed so that if this game went poorly, he had Duncan available. Popovich managed this game very well. He played Tony and Manu for key stretches, but pulled them often to keep their minutes low; Manu scored a team high 20 points in his 22 minutes, and Tony only played 21.
The Spurs nursed a 10 point lead for most of the game. The Cavaliers made runs, but the Spurs always countered. Strangely, the Cavaliers played to win. While most bottom-dwellers are doing everything they can to lose, the Cavs showed up and played a very respectable game. On the other hand, by their standards, the Spurs played a fairly sloppy game, but still managed to win quite comfortably.
Tony and Manu, each in limutes, played extremely well. It's nice to see both of them playing at a high level with the playoffs quickly approaching. Tony has been playing well all year, so this was not a surprise. But Manu, who missed so much time with various injuries, is looking like his old self. His step back threes are falling, his passing is impeccable, and his mastery of the pick and roll is something to behold.
Think about this. This Spurs team that currently has the best record in the West climbed to that summit without Manu Ginobili. Manu has played in 32 of the Spurs' 63 games. While he was involved in roughly half of the games, how many games did he play completely healthy, in game shape, and fully prepared for battle? Probably the first four games of the season, and maybe the last few we've seen. In the rest, he was either recovering from an injury or playing with an injury. So, we are basically adding Manu to a team that already is the best in the West. That's insane, right?
Speaking of insane, I have to take a break from the recap to talk about Ronald William Artest Jr. and the incredible display of buffoonery he put on today. In my opinion, Ronnie has proved to be mentally unstable. This is his second major offense to humanity. I think he should be suspended for the entirety of the playoffs, but more than that, I think David Stern needs a doctor to clear him to play. He should not be allowed back on the court until a psychiatrist decides he his no longer a threat to those around him. Also, can Harden press charges? Shouldn't Artest be arrested for that? If he threw that exact same elbow at someone in an airport, he gets arrested, right? Surely there's somebody reading this with a Law Degree: does playing a sport somehow excuse you from the laws of the land? Is there something I'm missing?
Back to the Spurs game. Stephen Jackson played very well. He's looking more comfortable in the Spurs uniform with each passing day. His aggressiveness on the offensive end is a nice bonus for the Spurs. When plays break down, rather than settling for a long two, Jackson attacks the rim, puts pressure on the officials to make calls, and creates high percentage scoring opportunities. In the fourth quarter, with the Cavs hanging around as they had all game, Jackson followed a three pointer with a three point play, which basically put the game out of reach.
With three games remaining, and the Spurs' magic number to take the West's top seed down to 1, it will be very interesting to see how Pop manages these games. My guess is that he will go for the win tomorrow night against Portland. If we get that W, I believe that will be the last game the big three play in until the playoffs begin.
At the moment, it looks as if Utah is going to be our first round match-up. While I feel very confident that we will beat them easily, it's unfortunate that we will have to play a tough, large team. Our big guys will have to be ready for a very physical series, even if it looks to be a short one.
Your Three Stars
Tony scored 6 points and had 9 assists in 21 minutes of action. The improvement we've seen from him in scoring is minimal. He's always been a great scorer. With his speed and ability to penetrate, as soon as he mastered that intermediate jumper, he became as close to unguardable as a player his size can be. The improvements we've seen this year, have been in how well he runs the team. He now drives to pass, and more than that, to create specific opportunities. His understanding of the game now matches his physical gifts, and he is only 29. We're going to have many more season with this version of Tony.
Captain Jack had 17 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, a block and a steal in 22 minutes. As I mentioned earlier, he was responsible for the game-winning run in the fourth. He earned 7 free throws, connecting on 5 of them. His aggression is going to be huge for the Spurs in the playoffs. In the playoffs, the game will slow down and the high percentage looks will become less plentiful. In those stretches, having a guy that can draw fouls will be very helpful.
He's really playing well. Manu's game is one that requires impeccable timing. When Manu misses games, it takes him a while to get his timing back. You know it's back when those plays that require exact precision work flawlessly. In the last two games, he's executed passes of the highest difficulty, perfectly. He's playing All Star level basketball and the timing could not be better.