Gregg Popovich chose to rest Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili against the Golden State Warriors. With Tony Parker already sidelined by an injury to his calf, the choice to sit the rest of the Big 3 was a logical one. This was the Spurs second game of a back to back, fifth game in seven nights and seventh game in ten nights. The schedule had not given his players enough rest, so Pop took it upon himself to make sure his players didn't overextend themselves in the early part of the season. It was a wise decision, regardless of how the game played out.
The Warriors, on the other hand, came into this game at full strength. Andre Iguodala made his return from injury in their previous game and Steph Curry's often hobbled ankle has been relatively healthy this year. Even the often injured Andrew Bogut looked spry; well, spry for a 7-footer with limited mobility.
It seemed obvious that the Spurs were destined to get blown out of the Oracle Arena, and the start to the first quarter cemented that notion. The Spurs' B Team looked overmatched early on and the Warriors jumped out to a 23-11 lead. It made sense. Without their Big 3, that's exactly what the world expected.
However, the best bench in the league did not go quietly. In fact, they bunkered down and played a fantastic game. The bench cut the lead to five points by the end of the first with great defense and good shooting. With a plethora of excuses ready to explain away a blowout, the Spurs chose to use none of them tonight.
In the second quarter, the Warriors seemed to get fed up with the undermanned Spurs and built their lead to 14 points. Once again, it seemed as if the expected blowout was imminent. But once again, the Spurs' bench players responded with tenacity. Their defensive intensity was present throughout the entire game and they forced the Warriors into committing turnover after turnover. Behind strong performances from Kawhi Leonard, Patty Mills and Marco Bellinelli, the Spurs battled their way back into the game. Timeouts weren't enough to calm the rattled Warriors, and the Spurs took a two point lead into the half.
In the third quarter, Marco Bellinelli caught fire. He scored 17 points in the period. The NBA's best 3-point shooter put on a show tonight. He finished with 28 points making 10 of his 16 shots. His play throughout the game was what allowed the Spurs to compete. The Spurs owned the third and went into the fourth leading by eight, 82-74.
The pessimist in me was waiting for it to all fall apart. It just seemed so ridiculous to expect the Spurs to keep it close, let alone lead at this point in the game. To hope for a win felt greedy. There's no way the basketball gods would allow it to happen.
I kept having flashbacks to the infamous Miami game last season when Pop rested everyone and the Spurs were fined $250,000 by David Stern. In that outing, the Spurs' B Team put up an admirable fight but ran out of gas and lost the game in the fourth quarter. It's just too much to ask of bench players to flip a switch and go from playing 12 minutes to 35 minutes with all the added defensive and offensive responsibilities that go along with it. It's not supposed to be sustainable and it never is; well, almost never.
The Spurs began the fourth with three turnovers in the first two minutes. The Warriors took advantage and the lead dissipated. This is what was supposed to happen. Before the Spurs knew it, they were in a tie game against the Warriors and Oracle transformed into Roaracle. Steph Curry was hitting those crazy threes and Golden State had all the momentum. Again, it was totally understandable and I was ready to applaud a great effort by the Spurs' bench. But once again, the Spurs responded. They did not fold, as they did in Miami a year ago. They settled down and executed. San Antonio was not going to fade in this one.
With 31 seconds remaining, the gritty bench had fought to build a three point lead. They withstood many runs by the Warriors throughout the game and turned down the many excuses that they could have used to explain away a loss. At this point, I couldn't help myself. I wanted this win. The Spurs had earned it.
The Spurs played great defense and forced Curry into taking a contested floater. He missed and the ball took a long bounce. It was batted around and the ball found its way back to Curry. He pump-faked and Danny Green went flying by. He took one dribble and calmly knocked down the 3-pointer to tie the game. It felt like Ray Allen's three all over again. Why does the ball have to bounce in such an unfavorable manner?
The Spurs called timeout. After allowing the clock to wind down, the Spurs ran a two-man game with Boris Diaw and Marco Bellinelli. Marco took a handoff from Boris and launched a baseline fade-away as he sailed out of bounds. It missed, but the Spurs didn't give up on the play. Tiago kept the rebound alive and Boris found the handle underneath the basket, surrounded by warriors. He found an angle and got the ball to the rim but it bounced off. Tiago Splitter jumped up and tipped the ball in to give the Spurs a two point lead with just two seconds remaining in the game.
The Warriors called a timeout and ran a play for Curry, but the Spurs played excellent defense and Curry was forced to throw a one-handed desperation heave at the basket that wasn't close. The undermanned Spurs won in Golden State, 104-102.
- Here are the excuses I had ready to go. It was the second game of a back to back. It was the Spurs' fifth game in seven nights. It was the Spurs' seventh game in ten nights. Tony Parker is injured. Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili aren't playing. The Warriors are fully healthy and well rested. The game is in Oracle. We barely beat them in San Antonio when the Spurs had a healthy squad and the Warriors were without Steph Curry. Last year in the playoffs, even though the Spurs beat them in six games, all of them were close and it took everything the Spurs had to advance. With Iguodala on the floor, the Warriors are an elite defensive team, which used to be the flaw the Spurs exploited. The Warriors are a complete team this year and the loss was to be expected.
The current state of Kawhi Leonard's offense
While his incredible Finals performance may have whet Spurs fans' appetites a bit too soon, there's plenty to like in the young forward's somewhat underwhelming third season.
- Marco Bellinelli, as mentioned above, played a fantastic game. It was easily his best game as a Spur. Everytime it seemed the Warriors were about to put the game out of reach Bellinelli seemed to hit a big shot. It seems silly to point out now, but he's clearly a huge upgrade over Gary Neal. Where Gary was streaky, Bellinelli is consistent. We already have Danny Green, we do not need two Icy Hots on this team.
- Kawhi Leonard was the anchor tonight. He kept the Spurs from drifting too far into dangerous waters. In 35 minutes Leonard scored 21 points, snatched 10 rebounds, threw three dimes and only turned it over once. His defense was spectacular.
- Patty Mills further secured his spot as the Spurs' backup point guard. He ran the team well, especially when compared to Cory Joseph. Though Cory had an overall good game, he got rattled early in the fourth and looked like a rookie. He kept turning the ball over and when he managed to get it across half court, he didn't get the Spurs into their sets in a timely manner. Mills finished with 20 points, five boards, three steals, two assists and just one turnover. He pestered Steph Curry up and down the floor. Steph is on track to become an All Star this year and nearly won the game for the Warriors, but Patty did everything possible to slow him down. I bet Steph has nightmares tonight that star Patty.
- Tiago Splitter and Boris Diaw didn't have phenomenal games, but they got the job done. They battled underneath and controlled the paint as best they could without Tim there to help them. They fought hard the entire night and Tiago's put-back game-winner was no accident. He was fighting for offensive boards the whole night.
- The Spurs' defense forced the Warriors into committing 24 turnovers. My least favorite commentator, Reggie Miller, refused to give the Spurs their due credit. He kept saying things like, "Why are the Warriors turning the ball over?" "The Warriors have so many unforced turnovers tonight." "The Warriors keep giving the ball away." Hey, you dolt. The Spurs were playing physical, aggressive defense. The Warriors were turning it over because every time they tried to dribble or pass, the Spurs' defenders were in their jerseys. If you want to say the Spurs were getting away with fouls, I'd be fine with that. But don't discount the Spurs' defense by claiming they were unforced turnovers. Curry and Thompson didn't dribble the ball off their own foot in the open court ten times. The Spurs were getting deflections up and down the court.
This was easily my favorite Spurs game of the season. They demonstrated a champion's will to win. They withstood many runs. They never panicked. The Spurs stayed focus the entire night and believed that they could win the game. The belief turned into expectation as the game progressed and in the fourth, when the game was close, they made the critical plays to win the game as champions do.