Maybe it would be polite to say something about how concerned I was about the Spurs giving away this game to the Utah Jazz. I could say something about the Spurs' nasty habit of resting on their laurels when up twelve points with around 90 seconds to go in the game. I could even go so far as to say the last 90 seconds almost entirely redeemed my opinion of Trey Burke, whom I went into the game itching to see and left feeling only slightly disappointed.
The NBA's ridiculously lop-sided season
It's been an awfully lop-sided NBA season. Does that make it an awful season? Where does it stand historically, and how does it affect the Spurs' chances this year?
But I won't. The Spurs nearly gave this one away in terms of W-L only. If Alec Burks' layup with 40 seconds to go had fallen and brought the Jazz within four, and then Enes Kanter and Trey Burke somehow managed to get them a win... I don't know that I would particularly care. The Spurs' crunch time lineup for this game was Tony Parker-Marco Belinelli-Kawhi Leonard-Jeff Ayres-Boris Diaw. While that's not exactly scrub material, it's also not as if Tony Parker looked particularly interested in playing through the final buzzer of this game. The Spurs, especially of late with Memphis being the prime example, have been known to step off the gas and let things coast to a win, point differential be damned. I'm not going to suddenly write off what a solid 46:30 of basketball the Spurs played just because the last 90 seconds stunk to high heaven.
Because despite playing a team that always gives the Spurs fits - a giant team at that - a depleted and you have to figure tired San Antonio outfit kept the Jazz at arms length for most of this game. The second half, in particular, looked like vintage Spurs basketball, with each of the Big Three taking it upon themselves to control the offensive motion and keep the Jazz on their heels. Tim Duncan, fresh off being called "touchdown" by ESPN fill-in Avery Johnson, rattled off a number of impressive scores while being guarded by Derrick Favors (including the rare trademark banker from the left block) early in the third. From there the torch passed to Tony Parker, who put Dionte Garrett in the spin cycle twice and got his own trademark left block jumper humming. Then, to finish off the third, Manu Ginobili rattled off a three, a fadeaway and a beautiful pass to Patty Mills for a quick seven points to end the quarter. While they had been less that decisively dominant in the first half, the Spurs seemed poised to slam the door on the West's cellar dwellers.
But without Tiago Splitter, and with Pop reticent to use Time Duncan too much coming off a tough early week BABA and staring at Friday's matchup with the Portland Trailblazers, the rest of the Spurs bigs were bound to get exploited by the immense talent of the Jazz frontline. Immense in the literal sense. There are rare people as large as Aron Baynes, but Enes Kanter is one of them, and supremely more talented to boot. Favors has always found a way to torch the Spurs through his brand of surprisingly quick power, but his talents were muted after the first quarter and a half through Tyrone Corbin's perplexing election not to play him. Kanter, however, was a monster. After getting a slow start to the game in the first half, Kanter absolutely destroyed any post defender he was put up against (except for one, whom we'll get to in a second). Kanter is a giant of a man, and has only recently started to put together a string of dominant performances through well-developing back to the basket footwork. It helps Kanter that he now has a point guard who actively tries to work with him in the pick n' roll (Burke), something he hasn't had his entire tenure in Utah. With a young core of Burke-Burks-Gordon Hayward-Favors-Kanter and an almost assured Top 5 pick in this years absolutely dynamite NBA Draft, the Utah Jazz are poised to become a rapidly ascending force in the West if Corbin can figure out that playing Marvin Williams and Dionte Garrett a ton of minutes is not the smartest decision.
This was a game when the destruction of Pop's normal rotation nearly came back to haunt the Spurs. Whenever Pop was forced to go with the Patty Mills-Cory Joseph-Marco-Ayres/Bonner/Baynes/Diaw bench combinations to give rest for Parker/Duncan/Ginobili/Kawhi Leonard, the wheels began to fell off. This is going to be a necessary evil when faced with the extended loss of two major rotation players, but it bears mentioning how much these lineups struggled to score. Diaw has descended from the heights of his torrid start to the season, Mills is at best a mediocre facilitator, and Belinelli isn't being asked to distribute in any other lineup so it seems as if his skill have somewhat atrophied in that department, whatever skills there were held over from Chicago. That leaves a highly limited offensively big man rotation that feeds off of stars feeding them in the spots they want the ball. The Spurs bench played the Jazz bench to a draw for the most part (save for a troubling start to the second quarter), but second quarters against more talented teams might be pretty ugly from now until Green and Splitter's return.
However, when one of the Big Four was in the game the aforementioned role players took on a new life. Joseph continues to look like a plug-innable smallish wing who will do the dirty work and not look for his own shot all the time. SAMMICHES, PARTY THRILLS and INVINCIBILITY STAR are who we know they are. The man who continues to impress with the extended minutes Pop gives him with the starters is Jeff Ayres. Ayres has earned a (deserved) reputation as a slightly clumsy, small-handed big who can get too excited too close to the basket in his time with the Spurs - a sort of un-Whataburger'd Dejuan Blair. But, taking this game and the past few, Ayres has been far more consistently hitting exactly the right spot on rolls through picks, oftentimes finding Manu, Tony or Kawhi finding him for a open dunk. Defenses, especially the somewhat porous one of the Jazz, don't know that merely stunting Ayres' movement while rolling effectively ruins his offensive game. Tonight, in a fit of jumping that has to make ESPN Top 10 in some capacity, Ayres scored 10 points... entirely off of dunks. When Ayres is dunking with this proficiency, two great things are happening - he's hitting his spots, and guards are finding him there. His skill set is limited but necessary for this period until the return of Tiago Splitter, and Ayres gave very good offensive minutes tonight.
I guess if anything I suppose this little fright at the end of tonight's game was a nice reminder that the Spurs aren't quite who they want to be right now. Wins, especially consistent, one-way affairs like this one looked to be, can certainly be a mirage. If we learned anything from the Spurs' cake opening schedule and resultant double digit win streak, pride in beating up on weaker teams only lasts as long as the Spurs keep playing weaker teams. Scares like this against the Jazz are (hopefully) a helpful reminder to the team that, even against the dregs of the Western Conference, playing 98% of the game well can come up short. I have little doubt this Spurs will give 100% when the time is right... this game was just a heartening reinforcement to the team and the fans that we're not at 100% yet. Not by a long shot.
Standard Manu Quote
We got a little comfortable there.
- There is no comfort when Enes Kanter is on the floor.
The dunk trampoline returned!
Look, I know this section isn't a big draw for you guys... but I actually like looking at the progression of what the Coyote does for his first bit during the season. Tonight was one of those vintage Coyote nights that made me remember the early days of the SBC Center (I know!) or even the Alamodome. The Coyote has become much more of a farce than a mascot over the last ten years, and while this trampoline dunking show did feature farce, it was nice to see some athleticism from the old man. He has been in the league 31 years, so you take it where you can get it.
Kawhi Leonard - 15 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals, 2 blocks on 6-12 shooting (2-6 from three) in 33 minutes.
It is so tempting to give this to the magnificent Tony Parker, who is putting me to shame for even remotely thinking there might not be a Spur in the All-Star game. But Leonard was the man who kept the Spurs ahead in this game in the first half, displaying an uncanny knack for knowing where to be to get his best shot depending on his defender. The Jazz started out playing Alec Burks on Leonard, and Pop's immediate reaction was to run action through Leonard posting the smaller Burks. Kawhi probably won't ever be a magnificent post player, but when he has a smaller man on him few wings are as good at getting to the exact right spot to get his shot. He hit a couple of threes (although that 2-6 number makes it seem a lot worse). But during a fourth quarter malaise which saw the Jazz dart back into the game for mere moments, Kawhi was the Spur to jolt the Spurs awake and get the lead back up to sixteen. In two consecutive possessions he recorded a steal, a fastbreak dunk that you will see a .gif of below, and a corner three. His defense is world class based solely on his natural ability, but watching Kawhi Leonard survey the floor on offense is getting to be as exciting as any of the Big Three doing the same. Kawhi has the tools and intelligence to become a very Manu Ginobili-esque offensive player in this league; it's up to him to keep pounding away at the weaknesses keeping him from that. Tonight we saw a taste of what should be a great rest of the season.
Aron Baynes - 2 fouls, 0-1 shooting, 5 minutes
This is mean, but let me explain. Baynes is ideally suited for these type of situations. The Spurs have given up stellar performances from two of the more talented giants in this league in the last three games (NIkola Pekovic and Kanter). In the absence of Tiago Splitter, that is somewhat to be expected. What Baynes should be able to do is spell the rotation quality bigs for ~10 minutes and not completely screw up on either side of the floor. While he was merely mediocre on defense tonight (he did do a good job of keeping Kanter from imposing his will, even if Kanter drew the two fouls on him), his offense was unconscionable. No one is expecting great, passable or even mediocre things from Baynes offense. But it's hard to understate how stunted and discombobulated the Spurs offense looks when Baynes is on the floor. Part of this is that Baynes is frequently playing with the scrubs, but another is that he's a big body who hasn't learned how to use it effectively yet. Consequently, Spurs players almost never even pass to Baynes. Seriously, watch the next time he's in the game. There is rarely a time when Baynes is involved in the main play action.
I don't expect this to markedly improve, but it would be nice, with Tiago out, to be able to use Baynes as an effective brute when the Spurs need him. Tonight he was a highly ineffective brute.
By The Numbers
- 70 - Points in the paint for the Jazz. Really missin' Tiago.
- 8-8 - Spurs insane start to the first 7:30 of the third quarter. It was a combination of shots just falling and the Big Three taking turns taking over, but either way the Spurs appear to be shaking that back-from-haltime malaise we saw earlier this season.
- 10 - TEN POINTS ON DUNKS. Just thought I'd reiterate Ayres' awesome line. AYRES BUD!... It's a play on Air Bud. I know, I'm running out of "air movie" puns.
- 71 - Tim Duncan's 71st straight game against the Jazz scoring in double figures. This is insane, and I didn't believe it for a while. Compounding this, Tim started the night in an awful funk, and it certainly looked like the streak was to going to end. But the GOATPUFF got on his horse and, for a while, was single-handedly dragging the Spurs along in the second quarter. Unfortunately, this streak is second All-Time to...
- 80 - Kobe Bryant's consecutive double figure scoring nights. Against which team, you might ask? The Spurs. Obviously.
Bird the The Word
Small-sample-size theatre: The Jazz' Burke-Burks-Hayward-Favors-Kanter lineup has a net rating of +28.6 in 19 minutes played this season.— Matthew R Tynan (@Matthew_Tynan) January 16, 2014
This is the number one case against Ty Corbin. Although who knows... maybe he's tanking?
NBA strength of schedule ranks. Sorry Portland, the free ride's over. pic.twitter.com/OBTWyAbIhN— Ed Kupfer (@EdKupfer) January 16, 2014
Gets a lot tougher from here, Spurs fans. Get ready. Also... lame Indiana. Also also... Portland's life is about to get a whole lot tougher.
Greg Oden just scored!!!!!!!!!!— Kirk Goldsberry (@kirkgoldsberry) January 16, 2014
I wholeheartedly smiled for a while seeing this. I want Greg Oden to be a success, most especially after the reports on his post-injury career came out. Then I realized he's playing for the Heat and he's probably going to start contributing. Nothing good ever happens, does it?
I hate Ime Udoka and his expensive, impeccably tailored suits.— Dan McCarney (@danmccarneysaen) January 16, 2014
I made this graph: NBA winning % vs. the strength of their competition so far this season. GO THE TORONTO DRAKEASAURS pic.twitter.com/bwow4jkxzG— Matt E. (@mattomic) January 16, 2014
Graphs all day! But seriously, this is great.
Pop says Marco is the Spurs’ "best cutter." You should see his paper snowflakes!— Pounding the Rock (@poundingtherock) January 16, 2014
The NBA, where live Tweeting a grown man's bathroom break possibly happens.— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) January 16, 2014
Nobody postgame asked Manu if it was No. 1 or No. 2. More thank likely because nobody wanted to know.
They are flipping to see who interviews Pop. Amazing.— Graydon Gordian (@therealgraydon) January 16, 2014
End result was not a hug this time.
I don’t get it. Then again, Hollinger is in the building. #RememberMemphis— Matthew R Tynan (@Matthew_Tynan) January 16, 2014
I geeked out trying to find Hollinger on press row when I saw this, and actually kind of squealed when I saw the bald NBA stat guru. He's an idol of mine, for some reason.
Odds and Ends
- Richard Jefferson got a mildly noticeable boo from the 2/3 full AT&T Center crowd. I guess I understand why. But at the same time, Jefferson did a lot while he was here to try and reinvent his game to fit exactly what Pop was looking for. He was just never the right fit. I think more than anything the Richard Jefferson animosity stems from his being heralded an inductee into a Spurs Big Four upon his arrival, when in reality he wasn't ever really going to be any such thing. I don't blame Jefferson for anything that happened with the Spurs during those years, and it's not as if he particularly hindered Kawhi Leonard's development. Anyway, that's my Richard Jefferson take.
- Danny Green was a stark contrast to Ime Udoka's on-point suit game tonight. Green didn't look particularly bad... actually he was quite well fitted. But wrapped around the shoulder stitch of the suit was a strange black piping. It made Green look like he was wearing a suit jersey with long sleeves. Anyway, just thought I'd introduce a counterpoint to #SpursSatorialism
- With two minutes to go in the fourth, apparently thinking the game was over, Tim Duncan began to play a little game with Sean Marks. While pretending to watch Coach Pop draw up a play, Duncan subtly undid Mark's tie. Marks couldn't find a way to put the thing back on as Tim giggled next to him. Frustrated, Marks took the tie off. What did Tim do next? Obviously he went for the buttons. Gotta love playful Timmeh.
- The always great Andrew McNeill pointed this graph out: the Spurs are the only team that does not in any way effect ticket prices during the regular season. There are many teams on the lower end, and a few on the higher end (Miami, obviously, towers over everyone else). I think it's fascinating that the Spurs are the only team that doesn't effect the price at all.
- Lastly, #KAWHILIGHTS
vs. Portland Trailblazers (29-9), Friday January 17, 7:30pm CST: I. Am. Pumped. I know that I should probably temper my excitement given the hobbled and presumably tired state the Spurs will be coming into this game under, but I can't help it. I have pegged the Trailblazers as marks to fall back to the formidable West Seeds 3-7 pack, and they have already slowly started to show signs of slowing down from their torrid start. They play everybody well in their hometown, where they often face teams on SEGABABAs, even more often last games of Western United States road swings. This is a chance to see how good Damian Lillard is away from home. This will also mark the Spurs' first look at promising Blazer rookie guard CJ McCollum, who just entered the Blazers rotation. Should be a crazy game, my third to attend in a week and fourth to be monitoring intently. Hope you all have a great rest of your week, Go Spurs Go!