It's been a couple of days since the Spurs got stomped at home by the Pacers. If you need a reminder of what the second and third quarters were like, here's a quick recap:
If you had any questions about my subtle metaphor, the lady is wearing Spurs colors...
While I realize that you expected me to be all doom and gloom after the rout, I'm taking a different tack, for a few reasons. First and foremost, the Pacers played damn near perfect basketball for the middle two quarters. There just wasn't much the Spurs could do defensively, the way they shot the ball. There just weren't too many teams in NBA history who were going to beat the Pacers on Friday night and the 13-14 Spurs, without the services of Tiago Splitter, sure weren't one of them. The game wasn't about breakdowns, effort or bad execution as much as the Pacers were just really, really good for a long stretch. If the Spurs played at that level for a half while Indiana played their normal game, then San Antonio would've blown the Pacers out. You just can't predict or explain these things. Those "A" halves just pop out of nowhere.
I suppose Pop could've adjusted the defense to extend further out and invite them to drive, but A) I'd question the wisdom of that strategy without Splitter in there and B) why show your hand in that regard in a regular season game when it's not something you've practiced all that much and the opponent is someone you can potentially face in the Finals? Better off to save it in your back pocket.
That isn't to say that I was completely pleased with how Pop coached the game. Far from it. There were plenty of things to question. For example, why did Splitter play at all if he wasn't healthy? I thought Pop was someone who always erred on the side of caution during the regular season. If the coaching staff felt there was even a slight chance of Splitter aggravating his calf injury, then why risk it? Now they're going to be without him for at least two games and perhaps more. It was just a stupid risk.
My other concerns were lineup oriented. The Spurs played big (or quasi-big with Matt Bonner or Boris Diaw as stretch fours) the entire game, never daring to match up Kawhi Leonard against David West and trying to explore that athleticism and speed mismatch. I would've liked to see the trio of Leonard-Manu Ginobili and Danny Green play together to see what would've happened defensively, but Green and Gino never logged a second together. Sure, it was hard to make much of an argument for Green as a legitimate NBA player that game much less someone who should've played a ton of minutes versus the Pacers, but if Splitter's size isn't available I think your best shot against Indiana is to go as quick and athletic as possible.
Speaking of quick and athletic, yeah, let's start Bonner the second half and play him the entire third quarter. I can't believe that didn't work. As I mentioned in my column extolling the virtues of Leonard, shooting slump and all, Bonner is a fellow who's underrated as a post defender but waaaaay overrated by Spurs fans who love to point out his post defense stats but never consider how immobile and useless he is away from the rim on his own end. Indiana, with West and Luis Scola as his backup, is absolutely the worst kind of match-up for him because Bonner can't do anything but let those guys shoot open 15-footers all night. They abused him mercilessly in the third quarter and Pop never adjusted.
What Pop did do, however, with the Spurs off to a healthy 35-24 lead, was take Ginobili off the floor with 8:34 to go in the second quarter and elect to play "naked" without his big three (or Leonard for that matter) and go instead with a lineup of Diaw-Jeff Ayres-Green-Marco Belinelli-Patty Mills. Shockingly, this went poorly. The Pacers quickly built momentum and by the time the starters came back in for the Spurs, it was too late to stem the tide. In the second half, Pop didn't bring Ginobili, who established himself as their best player against Indiana in the first half, back into the game until 3:45 remained in the third quarter, choosing to stay with the same lineup for the first 8:15 of the second half despite the Pacers outscoring that quintet by 15 points in that time. He played the big three a whopping 45 seconds together in the third quarter before pulling the plug.
Look, I'm aware that more likely than not none of these things would've affected the outcome. The Pacers were just ridiculous on Friday. Nothing the Spurs did was going to matter. The Pacers team that played the next night at Oklahoma City? That squad the Spurs can beat. It's just one of those things.
My concern is that maybe, just maybe, we shouldn't hope for the Pacers to be the team to come out of the East as opposed to Miami. Perhaps the Heat are actually the easier match-up for the Spurs, despite last year's Finals. I mean, after all, the Spurs were 20 seconds from winning the title and that was with a gimpy Tony Parker and without home court advantage. This year's club could, in a perfect world, have an intact Parker, a sturdier Ginobili, Belinelli instead of Gary Neal, a more aggressive Diaw and home court advantage versus Miami. That's quite an upgrade to the odds, if you ask me. Against the Heat the Spurs have the advantage inside with Duncan, they don't have to worry about the boards (except well, you know) and the Heat can't really guard a healthy Parker and Ginobili at the same time.
The Pacers, on the other hand, present all kinds of problems. They have the size to neutralize Duncan and protect the rim. They have three good perimeter defenders instead of one, including an excellent point guard defender in George Hill. They have the aforementioned power forwards who can kill you from 18-feet. And add to all that a hybrid of LeBron James and Kevin Durant in Paul George. Yikes. The only edge at all the Spurs have on the Pacers is on the bench, where the difference between the two teams is substantial, but by now we all know how little benches come into play once you get down to the last few teams. Frank Vogel will roll seven deep when he has to, just like Erik Spoelstra did. I'm not going to declare that we should root for the Heat versus the Pacers or anything like that, because when it comes down to it, I'd much rather have Indiana win it if the Spurs don't, but I'm just saying I don't think facing the Pacers would make it any easier to win a chip.
As for the Spurs' crummy record versus good teams (1-4 now by my reckoning, and again the one win was at home versus the Warriors without Stephen Curry), I'm not going to freak out about that for now. We've all seen what happens when Spurs teams peak early. Nothing good comes of it. I'd rather have them build towards a crescendo. As long as they keep beating the teams they should beat, the record will take care of itself. The upcoming FOGAFINI provides four such examples, though I'd bet quite a bit of money that nobody of note will be on that flight to Utah.
Now for something different. JRW told me as long as I write mainly about basketball, I can sneak in some soccer since the World Cup draw went down. Over my next eight posts I'll preview the eight groups, starting with Group A here.
Group A: Brazil, Cameroon, Croatia, Mexico:
The Brazilians are the hosts and therefore enter as tournament favorites, and why shouldn't they be after their victorious run in the Confederations Cup, in which they trashed Spain 3-0 in the Final? They should get by the opening group no problem, but after that I have my doubts. Up front the detestable Neymar is a supreme talent, but I'm not quite as sold on Jo or Hulk alongside him. In the middle Kaka has never lived up to his star billing, so they're going to have to rely on Oscar and Paulinho, a couple of fellas who don't dominate in the EPL on a regular basis, so this stage may be too big for them. In the back they'll likely depend on the mercurial David Luiz, who has fallen out of favor with Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho and can't get in a game, so he may well be rusty.
Mexico was awful in CONCACAF qualifying and needed the U.S. to intervene by beating Panama on the road to secure their lifeline for the two-team playoff with New Zealand, which they won by an aggregate score of 9-3. New coach Miguel Herrera raised eyebrows when he selected a squad made up entirely of players from the Mexican league for those games, leaving out, among others, Javier "Chicarito" Hernandez and Giovani Dos Santos, his most accomplished striker and midfielder, respectively, who ply their trade for Manchester United and Villareal. It'd be quite the controversy if he didn't take those guys to Brazil.
The Croats failed to impress during qualifying, finishing well behind Belgium and they barely nosed past plucky Iceland in their two-team playoff. They've got one of my favorite players, Luka Modric (who looks like an ugly 14-year-old girl) in midfield but striker Mario Mandzukic will be suspended for the first two group games, severely hurting their chances. They've also replaced their coach with Niko Kovac, a recently-retired player, so there's decent Jason Kidd potential there.
Cameroon has no one of consequence on their roster except maybe Alexandre Song, a defensive mid. Their striker, Samuel Eto'o is like Stephen Jackson-level done.
Prediction: Brazil, Mexico, Croatia, Cameroon. No matter how bad their run up is, El Tri always find a way to get to the round of 16 in World Cups, whereupon they will promptly get smashed. They'll have the advantage of playing Cameroon the first game while Croatia gets the Brazilians in the tournament opener. Also, for whatever reason, Mexico always seems to play Brazil tough. Their record against them over the years is astounding. Argentina, on the other hand, always destroys them. When the tournament comes around, make note of how many Mexicans you know will switch their rooting allegiances to Brazil the second their country gets eliminated, probably in round two to Spain.