If there was concern over how the Spurs would score without Tony Parker on the floor, you can focus your thoughts elsewhere for now. Tonight against the Pistons, it wasn't about if they'd put up points. It was about how.
Manu Ginobili scored 17 points in the first half and ignited a 12-0 run upon entering the game in the first quarter, as San Antonio railed Detroit 114-75 at the AT&T Center on Sunday night. As good as Parker has been this season, the Spurs didn't need him. This team, this system, was too good for the Pistons, especially when the game is played in the comforts of home.
Cory Joseph got the surprising nod in the starting lineup for only the second time in his career, and outside of a slow start prior to Ginobili's first entrance, this game wasn't close. Despite Parker's absence, San Antonio had 35 assists on 45 baskets, giving the silver and black 76 dimes in the last two games. It helps to play against defenses like the ones in Detroit and Sacramento, but it's a wildly impressive number, nevertheless.
And as for Manu, he gave a boost to a team without its lead spark plug.
The game was tied at 12 with 5:22 remaining in the opening frame, but one four-point play to end the quarter and 10 Ginobili points later, San Antonio took a 32-19 lead into the second only to expand on it from there. We've heard it before, but it's a testament to the system that a team can lose its best player and still go out and roll another squad by 39 points. It might be the Pistons, but it's still an NBA team.
"Of course you miss a great player, but I think overall our system is the one constant. No matter if there's one player out, or two players out, or whatever the case may be, the system is pretty much going to stay the same," Gary Neal said afterward. "Our starting group, starting with Tim, came in and moved the ball. We had 19 assists in the first half. So I think that it's just staying true to the system.
"It will relieve the pressure off of everybody until our leader, our point guard, is back."
Without Parker probing the defense, the Spurs might not have been able to constantly push a singular pressure point. But given the passing ability this team possesses, trying to account for multiple threats in a nearly infallible system might be even more of a challenge for some. Not a single San Antonio player had more than six assists on a night the team racked up 35 of them. Tim Duncan and Stephen Jackson led the way in that department, and three other Spurs — Joseph, Tiago Splitter and Patty Mills — finished with four.
And the Spurs dominated in nearly every facet of the game. From the turnover battle to points in the paint, fast-break points to the war on the boards, San Antonio played crisply and efficiently from almost every angle. But without Parker, it was the ball-movement that was most impressive.
"That's who we have to be if we want to go to the playoffs and advance. We're not a one-on-one team. It's just not who we are," Gregg Popovich said. "We don't have that type of player. We've got good team- and ball-movement, and when we do that well we're at our best. When we don't do that, we struggle."
Pop also said Duncan looked closer to himself tonight.
"This is the first time he looked like Tim Duncan to me in the last two-to-three weeks. His timing defensively was good and his blocked shots were there," he said. "He had more spring and more balance out on the court.
"He looks good."
Duncan didn't exactly feel the same way.
"I still don't (feel like myself)," Timmy said. "Health-wise, I felt great tonight, moving around felt great. Offensively, I'm still not there. It's coming.
"I'm just happy to be out on the court."
Indeed. When Duncan crumbled to the floor against the Wizards on Feb. 2, many wondered whether or not the big man would even be playing again in his career, let alone a Sunday night in March. But despite not quite feeling all there yet, Duncan's numbers — 16 points, 11 rebounds, six assists and five blocks — are a bit better than pedestrian, or washed up, or old.
Perhaps the most interesting topic of conversation from tonight should start around the fact that Joseph, not Nando De Colo or Patty Mills, got the start for the Spurs' injured lead guard. CoJo put up eight points and four assists in nearly 18 minutes, and he drew some high praise from Popovich following the game.
"I thought he did a fine job. He played a good floor game, I like his defense, I like his aggressive attitude," Pop said of Joseph. "He's a really committed physical player, runs the show well and got us into our offense and looked pretty confident. He's improved a lot."
Pop credited Joseph's time in the NBA D-League as a main reason for his development. He was asked if there were any particular areas he had improved over the last two years.
"Everywhere," Popovich said. "He's always been a pretty good defender, but his knowledge and savvy in the pick and roll, his shot — which Chip (Engelland) has done good work with — have all improved."
The Cory Joseph project has been a highly scrutinized one since the day he was drafted. But the Spurs have remained dedicated to the young guard and their diligence could be paying off to some degree. When he's gotten extended minutes in both the D-League and out in Las Vegas during the summer, he's impressed. He does nothing spectacular, but his cerebral defense and improving jump-shot are two valuable skill sets in the San Antonio system. Facing an extended absence by his All-Star teammate, we'll see if Joseph can take advantage of a great chance.
While what we saw tonight was an impressive performance, to be sure, it's important to keep in mind it was only the Pistons. Still, this level of play was exactly what the Spurs needed in their first game sans their best player. As we talked about earlier, it shows the overall value of the system and the roles Popovich has implemented within it. Stick to the blueprint and things will work out just fine. Guys like Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard will undoubtedly have to step in and shoulder a bit more responsibility, but if tonight was an indication, that won't be much of a problem. If the Spurs can consistently get this Manu, things will be much easier.
Let's give it a little time, though. San Antonio should beat Detroit with or without Parker in the lineup, but it's a good first step with greater tests to come.
Still. So far, so good.
— Tim Duncan passed Buck Williams for 14th place in career rebounding.
— Cory Joseph's first start came last season against Portland, when the Big 3 didn't play and the Spurs lost by 40. Tonight, San Antonio won by 39.