You know how it is late in the season. Players are banged up and teams pretty much know where they will land in the playoff picture so it's not uncommon to see stars resting and teams getting a little too complacent. But this lackluster performance by the Spurs for a two point win over the Atlanta Hawks felt a little too familiar.
The Spurs decided to get Kawhi Leonard shots to start the game and he delivered. Off screens, off the dribble, in the post; Kawhi hit from all over and on pretty much every type of play. The Hawks' defense was vulnerable with neither Josh Smith or Al Horford playing, and the Spurs took advantage of it early on. When Tim Duncan took a breather DeJuan Blair stepped in and helped shoulder the offensive burden, punishing Atlanta inside. The shorthanded Hawks, meanwhile, had to rustle up points from the unlikeliest of sources to stay close, but used some balanced scoring (seven players put up points in the first quarter) and took advantage of the Spurs' almost experimental approach to the game (Pop even busted out a zone) to keep it close.
In the second quarter both coaches went with their depleted benches and the lack of firepower was obnoxiously evident; both teams had trouble putting points on the board. John Jenkins and Mike Scott stepped up for Atlanta, combining for 18 of the Hawks' 20 points in the quarter. But then Duncan took over. Timmy has been outplaying star bigs all season long; having him go against Johan Petro and Ivan Johnson seemed almost unfair. Duncan scored 14 points, dished out a couple of assists, pulled down three boards and had three blocked shots in slightly over seven minutes of second quarter action. He controlled the paint on both ends and was the main reason why the Spurs were up 11 going into the break, 51-40.
At this point it seemed like the classic game in which the better team takes control and cruises to a win. But the Spurs have a tendency to lower the intensity when they feel like the game is in the bag and they obviously did that very thing in this one. The Hawks started the third quarter better and closed the gap to three, before a Leonard three-pointer from the corner stalled the onslaught. Besides Leonard and Duncan, the other starters were contributing very little and the Atlanta scrubs just refused to go away. Heading into the fourth the Spurs led only by four.
It never really felt to me like this one was going to slip away. The Hawks were missing most of their rotation players and were going to have a hard time putting up the points and getting the stops needed to steal the game. But it is a little worrisome that it had to come to the last possession. It shouldn't be this hard to contain Ivan Johnson, John Jenkins and Mike Scott but the Spurs keep having trouble defending jumpers, taking care of the ball and closing out games.
The Hawks, meanwhile, had nothing to lose and played the game with confidence. They benefited from some hot outside shooting and some questionable transition defense to stick around and even had a chance to steal the W after the Spurs failed to secure it. Green missed a free throw, Tiago Splitter turned it over and Cory Joseph put Dahntay Jones at the line for three free throws, down four with one second to go. He hit the first two and intentionally missed the third but Kawhi Leonard secured the rebound.
- First, the bad news. Sure, the Spurs were missing three rotation players if we count Diaw, who left early in the second quarter with back spasms, but the Hawks were missing six, so that excuse doesn't fly. Tiago Splitter is feeling the loss of those playmakers that have been finding him in scoring position all year. It's no surprise that Gary Neal and Danny Green have not been suitable replacements even for the version of Manu we've been getting this season. The guards are not getting to the rim. The overall defense was poor on this one, allowing 57 second half points from a Hawks team missing five of their six top scorers. In addition, transition defense continues to plague San Antonio; the Hawks scored nine fast break points in the third quarter alone.
- Now that we've dealt with that, let's talk about Kawhi Leonard and the fantastic game he had. Leonard took advantage of the green light he got from Pop to take and hit all kinds of shots. Kawhi pulled down six boards and had two blocks and two steals, but the most impressive thing about his performance was the assiduity with which he got to the line. Sure, the Hawks defense was bad, but he scored 23 efficient points in a featured role.
- Duncan is just the best big in the league this season and it's not even close. 31 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks for Timmy, who controlled the paint whenever he was on the court. Big Fun is carrying the team right now.
- The lineups and minute allocation was weird. De Colo and Joseph played together for stretches, as did Leonard and Jackson. Splitter only got 16 minutes and Gary Neal 13. some things worked and some didn't. I'm expecting Pop to keep throwing new combinations out there and see if anything sticks while Parker is out, especially with so many guys under-performing right now.
- After complaining about his lack of playing time against OKC, DeJuan Blair got 22 minutes in this one and did fine. If Diaw's back problems cause him to miss games, it seems DeJuan will see his number called more often and it looks like he is ready for it.
- I'm struggling to find nice things to say about the Spurs so I'll just focus on the Hawks for a second. I've been a big John Jenkins fans since I saw him play in Summer League. The guy is just a fantastic shooter. He's probably too small to ever be effective enough on defense to be a starter but as a shooter off the bench he will have a long career. It'll be interesting to see how he fits with the Hawks' long term plans.
Now, I don't want to make a bigger deal of this near-loss than it merits. Sure, it was a "pathetic performance", as Pop called it, but there's nothing to panic about. The Spurs will likely have their full roster ready in the playoffs and some let down games from role players after a long, tough season are to be expected, especially against shorthanded teams from the Eastern Conference. Complacency won't be a problem in the playoffs and the team should have everyone back. So let's forget this one ever happened and simply come prepared for the next one, Spurs.
For the opponent's perspective, visit Peachtree Hoops.