Honestly, I thought I'd be more upset.
Maybe it was the Manu-splosion or the fact that the guys had the built in excuse of not having Tiago Splitter and Danny Green for the game, plus a 65 percent --at best-- Tony Parker, but watching the Spurs lose to the Blazers Saturday morning wasn't quite as depressing as I figured it'd be. It was a 50/50 game that could've gone either way and in the end they made the plays and the Spurs didn't. Obviously it'd be silly to argue that the Spurs are the better team, but I don't necessarily think they're worse. There's just too many built in advantages they'd have, over a seven game series, to think they'd have no chance, and I'm certainly including home court advantage in there because I think the Spurs' depth and their ability to pound the minnows will pay off in the long run with a better record, as long as they don't suffer any serious injuries to one of their core guys.
Game Preview: Spurs vs. Bucks
The Spurs look to bounce back from a tough loss to Portland versus the not-so-mighty Milwaukee Bucks.
1) The Blazers play almost no defense whatsoever.
Ginobili got to the cup as easily versus Portland as he has against any opponent all season and he would've scored well over 30 points had he not had a subpar evening regarding shots near the basket, very few of which were seriously contested. Neither Wesley Matthews or, surprisingly, even Nicolas Batum could really keep up with him and as long as Ginobili is feeling spry, that's very encouraging. Also, even a clearly hobbled Parker was getting to the basket fairly easily, before his shin stiffened up on him and limited his effectiveness severely (think Game 7 of the Finals) in the second half. Parker spoke afterward of playing Sunday against the Bucks, but I'm hoping that common sense prevails and we get a Cory Joseph start in that one to let him heal in advance of the Thunder game.
It's true that Robin Lopez' size bothers Duncan somewhat, but I'm betting that Timmy will get his share of the calls in the playoffs against him. More importantly, I think what was lost in the late game-winning three-point barrage by the Blazers was all the open threes the Spurs had in the game. Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli rimmed out quite a few of them and Kawhi Leonard --for reasons known only to him-- opted to not shoot two or three open ones. I don't think scoring will be a problem against these guys. Even Boris Diaw gives them problems, since LaMarcus Aldridge plays defense like a guy who wants to make sure he's not going to be in foul trouble.
2) The Spurs have the far superior bench.
Once Splitter and Green return, we're likely to see Belinelli and Diaw return to the bench, to give the the Spurs a solid nine or ten-man rotation. The Blazers, meanwhile, have a terrific starting five and Mo Williams and that's pretty much about it, unless C.J. McCollum comes on during the second half of the season. It's true that they could always add a piece in the trade deadline/waiver period, but for now the Blazers are looking at having to play their starters 40 minutes a night in the playoffs, and that pace will eventually wear them down because they're not Kevin Durant/LeBron James type freaks. Good shooters and great athletes to be sure, but not aliens sent to destroy humanity.
3) They can't shoot like that every night.
Right? Right? Even without Splitter and with the Spurs defense specifically trying to run guys off the three-point line and pushing them toward the paint, the Blazers still scored just 38 points in the paint, got only 20 free throw attempts and snatched just eight offensive boards. Those numbers are all perfectly acceptable, if you're the Spurs. One would think that over a playoff series that the percentages will even out and the Blazers won't shoot 50 percent from downtown, that they won't make 95 percent of their freebies and that LMA will be sporting enough to miss the occasional 18-footer, because like Charles Barkley says, you can't win championships by shooting jumpers (or something like that). The Spurs scoring more of their points at the rim should help them over the long haul, you'd figure.
1) Not having Splitter isn't as big of a deal as people make it, especially against Portland.
I know this would seem like "the-world-is-flat," type of statistical blasphemy on most Spurs-centric blogs, perhaps even this one, but it's worth pointing out that this loss against the Blazers was the first of the season without Splitter in the lineup (9-1 sans Tiago now) and that the team's defense had been on the upswing of late without the Brazilian big-man, and downright awful in early December when he was playing.
Portland is one of several contenders, along with Miami and Houston, where it's highly questionable whether Splitter would have any impact over a long series. With the Heat and Rockets that's understandable because they play small, but with the Blazers it's trickier. The thing about them is that they're a big team that's actually a small team in disguise. Aldridge is a stretch four who happens to shoot 18-footers instead of threes. Still, he's a guy who's an uncomfortable cover for Splitter because of his quickness and range and the Blazers as a whole are a team that don't go to the basket much anyway, so the idea of two rim-protectors against them is obsolete. (For what it's worth, Splitter played 18:13 in the first game at Portland, 17:10 of them with Duncan, and was -5 in those 17 minutes and change).
I'll make this point a bit more emphatically in a future column, but I have yet to see evidence of Splitter being a difference-making player, particularly against elite teams that are perimeter oriented. I think a lot of his defensive rating and rim-protecting numbers come against crummy teams and crummy offenses. Splitter is a valuable player and an important player, but he is neither essential nor transcendent. He is a good role player, and one that Gregg Popovich protects to a degree by putting him in situations that emphasize his strengths and hide his weaknesses. Against the Blazers, I'd argue that we missed Green more.
2) What was Jim Boylen/CIA Pop doing down the stretch with Leonard?
I'm not sure what the coaching staff's plan was in that fourth quarter, but any rationale that goes along the lines of "I think Patty Mills should get four minutes more run in the final quarter than Kawhi Leonard," is a faulty one. Leonard was effectively benched for the final nine minutes of the game and against an elite offense such as the Blazers, one capable of detonating at any moment, it just seems absurd to me.
Was Leonard having a great game? Far from it. He only took four shots all night and was passive to a fault, constantly deferring to Ginobili or Parker. He didn't have his usual pep, for whatever reason. Still, he was more than solid in his own end, holding Batum down and gobbling up a bunch of boards. This fourth quarter was eerily similar to the first Rockets game, where Pop made the bizarre decision to go with Belinelli's offense over Leonard's defense down the stretch.
Against the Blazers, the Spurs weren't in some dire need for points in a desperate comeback effort. They were up one, with free throws coming, when he subbed out at the 8:50 mark. The game was a lost cause by the time he subbed back in. I don't know why the coaches continue to do this in big games versus the best offensive teams in the league. I'm far more confident of an elite defender like Leonard locking his man down and scoring on a couple of hustle plays down the stretch than I am of Belinelli hitting big shots on one end AND getting stops on the other.
You'd think that Leonard has earned the same status as The Big Three, where he is guaranteed to play late in close games regardless of how he's played in the game up to that point, but apparently Pop disagrees. I think it's silly. The Spurs closing lineup should ALWAYS be Duncan-Leonard-Ginobili-Parker-X. The only question should be the fifth guy, whether it's Diaw, Splitter, Green or Belinelli. The other four should be entrenched like The Beatles by this point, even if Leonard is the Ringo of the bunch.
3) The Spurs didn't play their optimum lineup for very long and not at all when it mattered.
Regardless of whether you support Splitter and/or Green, with neither of them available it stands to reason that the Spurs top lineup against Portland, or really anyone, is Duncan-Diaw-Leonard-Ginobili-Parker. In his fine story about the Spurs lineups, J. Gomez had this quintet in the "not bad but could improve" category, as they'd scored 116.5 points-per-100 possessions in 123 minutes together and allowed 108.6, a net rating of +7.9.
Against the Blazers, those five played for just 3:58 together and were a crummy -5 in that stretch, but all that came in two brief stints during the first and second quarters and none at all in the second half. Who knows, maybe the Spurs would've gotten blown off the court if those guys got some run together in the second half, but the larger sample size over 123 minutes suggests that wouldn't have been likely.
The bottom line is that once the games matter for real, we're gonna see some combination of the big three and then two out of the Leonard/Diaw/Belinelli/Green/Splitter pile to close out games, probably in that order. It makes sense to me to give the Duncan-Diaw-Leonard-Ginobili-Parker lineup as much run together as possible, especially with Splitter and Green out, so at least something positive could come out of their absence.
Oh, and for the love of all that is holy, please no more naked-ball, where the big three all sit. I hate that. The Spurs were -3 in 2:58 when they tried that on Friday, briefly, in the second and fourth quarters. Gotta stagger Ginobili and Duncan/Parker's minutes better than that.
In conclusion, I want to add that I hate Wesley Matthews and it'd really be swell if he missed a shot against the Spurs sometime between now and the year 2542.