In his pregame press conference, Gregg Popovich didn't exactly inspire confidence. He began, "I didn't think we ended the season very well. We ended it worse than I can ever remember the entire time I've been here. Going into the playoffs, we've never been this discombobulated."
Here at PtR, the Spurs' floundering end to the regular season has been discussed by many. I was under the impression that injuries prevented the Spurs from playing to their potential. That's how I made peace with the Spurs losing seven of their last 10 games and carrying a three game losing streak into Game 1. In my mind, Tony and Manu were the cure and they were scheduled to play. So, there's nothing to worry about, right?
Pop continued, "We had become one of the top teams in the league defensively after being mediocre the year before and that dissipated the last three or four weeks of the season. That was a big concern. Then Manu and Tony, with their injuries, exacerbated the situation."
So, the trend began prior to Tony and Manu's injuries? According to Pop, the team has been in a month long defensive slump, and it's not all injury related. It was obvious that Pop was anxious as he educated the media with his brutal honesty. It didn't sound like the 2-seed coach speaking about an opening round against a 7-seed. It sounded like an 8-seed coach speaking about his sputtering team that was lucky to be there. This was no good.
Pop, sensing the tension he had just created, and probably noticing that all color had left my face, followed with, "I probably should have told my team how I felt about their defense. Oh, I did! I remember now." I laughed inappropriately loud.
The first quarter began tentatively, as both teams seemed a little nervous and tight. After several empty possessions, Tim Duncan took control and scored the Spurs' first four points. During his pregame shoot around, Tim looked focused. He hit an array of shots over assistant coach Sean Marks. It all looked fluid. He is moving like he did at the beginning of the year, so it was no surprise to see Tim score the first four for the Spurs.
With six minutes remaining in the first quarter, the Spurs up 13-10, Popovich made his first substitution. It was Manu Gin... No, Pop decided that the Spurs needed Matt Bonner. With Diaw out until the second round, at best, Popovich apparently decided to go with Matt Bonner over DeJuan Blair. It's understandable, given Blair's severe lack of height, but it still startled me, because it's Matt Bonner.
The Spurs won the first quarter 24-15. In it, the Spurs found themselves defensively. I'm sure it alleviated Pop's pregame apprehension. The Spurs packed the paint and forced the Lakers to take contested two pointers. It was a thing of beauty. It was the Lakers that seemed discombobulated as the Spurs stymied every effort they made on the offensive end of the floor.
The Spurs were in control the entire game. The Lakers' only lead of the game was 2-0 and they unsuccessfully played catch-up the rest of the contest. Though in control throughout, the Spurs were unable to break it open. The fact that this team hadn't played together in months was very evident. The Spurs' defense won this game, not their offense, which never seemed to find a rhythm.
Even so, offense was needed at several key points of the game to keep the Lakers at bay. With 5:26 left in the third quarter, the Lakers had managed to cut the Spurs' 12 point lead to five, 53-48. Enter Manu Ginobili. Manu scored 12 points to close the third quarter and the Spurs found themselves with their biggest lead of the game to enter the fourth, 70-57.
For all those Manu fans out there, it was simply another performance to add to his legacy. Manu played a total of 12 minutes of basketball for the Spurs in the last month. 30 days, 12 minutes. He's been either playing through an injury or sidelined by an injury the entire season. He should be rusty. He should be winded. He should be old and slow. Instead, Manu stepped out onto the court and won the game for his Spurs. It was gutsy. It was inspiring. It was Manu Ginobili.
"We needed something to get us going," Manu said in the locker-room after the game. "After 11 years together, [Pop] knows the way I play. I seek my moment. It was one of those times."
In the locker-room, as I listened to him articulate his heroics, I got goosebumps. "I seek my moments." That is why Manu is great. His awareness on the court transcends the game.
That 13 point lead that Manu gifted the Spurs proved too much for the Lakers to overcome. I think Popovich summed up the game best, before the game began. In his pregame talk Pop said, "At this point in the season, you do what you do. You're not going to change your offense or your defense based on what somebody else is doing. You have to do what you practiced for 82 games well and if you do that, theoretically, you should be in pretty good shape."
For the games out of the 82 that the Spurs played with a healthy roster, they played like what we witnessed tonight. They harassed the ball defensively and rotated well enough to deter 3-point shots. They passed the ball effectively and normally found a high percentage shot to take before the shot clock expired. They looked like the best team in basketball while healthy. I know it was a long time ago and it was brief, but this team flashed greatness in the regular season. "You do what you do."
In their current state, the Spurs are not the best. However, they have time to improve. The Spurs will need a fully healthy Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili to make some real noise. It seems as if they are already halfway there with Ginobili's performance.
Health and reps are all that separate the current Spurs from the team that flashed greatness earlier this year. I hope Tony can get right in time for the final push.
-- Popovich decided to keep T-Mac in street-clothes. I was a little disappointed by the move, but it made sense. I think it also demonstrated the confidence Pop has in his squad. He doesn't need a last minute signing to help his team. This team doesn't need help; they need to execute.
-- Matt Bonner gave the Spurs 29 quality minutes. He hit three of his six shots for 10 points, grabbed five rebounds, and had a very Bonner-esque +/- of +18. With Diaw sidelined, the Spurs are going to need him not to be a negative on the floor. Anything he gives will be a plus. Tonight, he was definitely a plus.
-- Tim gave a nice performance considering he had to play against two of the best centers the league has to offer. He registered a double-double with 17 points and 10 rebounds. Most importantly, he held his own in the paint and prevented the Spurs from getting destroyed on the block.
-- Cory Joseph apparently won the backup point guard battle. He beat out Nando De Colo and Patty Mills for the minutes tonight. Cory played a very respectable game. He took what the defense gave him and scored 4 points while not committing a single turnover. I think that's what won him the minutes. Pop likes the fact that Cory takes such good care of the ball. Nando has better court vision and Patty is more of a scorer, but Pop wants a point guard that can control the tempo and take care of the ball. CoJo it is.
-- Tony Parker looked rusty but still showed heart. In 37 minutes, Tony made 8 of his 21 shots for 18 points. While it wasn't Tony's most efficient performance ever, he also contributed 8 assists and 3 steals. I said it earlier, but the Spurs need Tony to be MVP Tony for them to have a chance at the trophy. It was a promising first game. Tony seemed to get to his spots with ease, he just missed. Hopefully, with more minutes, Tony will find his mid-range jumper.
-- Kawhi Leonard played as well as someone could with Metta World Peace beating on them. According to the officials, Metta only committed one foul tonight. I guess wrestling isn't a foul? I don't understand how this happens. Kawhi didn't shoot well, hitting only 3 of his 8 shots, but was a monster on the boards. His 11 rebounds were a big reason that the Spurs were able to control the game.
-- Manu Ginobili gave a heroic performance. He made 6 of his 13 shots, 3-5 from distance, for 18 points. More than that, he sensed the Spurs' momentary vulnerability and reacted in such a way that completely changed the game. He looked spry and ready for battle. It's the best thing a Spurs fan could have seen from the Argentine.
Please visit SilverScreenAndRoll for the Lakers' perspective.