The thing we have to understand about Wednesday night's win -- in which the Spurs outlasted the Blazers on the road on a SEGABABA without the services of either their top three players or three of their top four -- is that Patty Mills didn't even play all that well, relative to what we've come to expect from him.
I mean, 29 points from your erstwhile ninth-man is phenomenal, and his 13 in the fourth had much to do with the victory over the relentless Blazers, but it speaks to how great Mills has been this past month in that it's almost a bit of a letdown that it took him a whopping 26 shot attempts to get there. Crazy as it may seem, this was only Patty's fourth-best game of the road trip.
The Spurs starting lineup of Tim Duncan, Tiago Splitter, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Tony Parker haven't played a second together in 2014. They've logged all of 137 minutes together, spread over 17 games. They're a proven commodity (at least defensively).
If you recall, the quintet couldn't get on the floor all that much last year either, as again injuries to Duncan, Parker and Leonard forced Gregg Popovich to mix and match all season long. The preferred starters were together for just 364 minutes over 31 games, a fraction of what the cohesive five-man units around the league managed. However, their defensive rating together was better than everybody, even the highly regarded starting fives of Memphis and Indiana, and despite the scoffing of the "small sample size" crowd, those numbers translated very well in the postseason for the Spurs. The starters ran roughshod over their first three opponents before succumbing to some small-ball induced match-up problems against Miami.
Where the Spurs struggled mightily in the playoffs, both in 2012 and 2013, was with their second unit. Manu Ginobili was inconsistent, to be kind, but he was coming off a long injury layoff so there were issues of rhythm, endurance and his own damaged psyche he had to overcome. The more glaring problem was that he had to play with a bunch of guys who either wouldn't (Boris Diaw) or couldn't (Gary Neal, Cory Joseph) shoot. And we're not even mentioning the defensive shortcomings of this group. By the end, Pop was basically playing seven guys.
It was highly unrealistic to expect the starters or Ginobili to improve, given their respective ages. The only hope the Spurs had to keep pace among the contenders -- barring a marked development from Leonard and Splitter -- was for the bench to improve by leaps and bounds.
The acquisition of Marco Belinelli at Neal's expense has been a master stroke. He's provided more playmaking and rebounding, but the efficiency of his shooting has been startling to behold. In the last two years Belinelli's transformed his career from a guy just barely hanging on in the league to one of the most valuable reserves in the NBA and a perfectly respectable starter when called upon.
But the truly happy accidents have come with incumbents Diaw and Mills. The former's aggressiveness, has been a lifesaver for these Spurs. Diaw has become, out of nowhere, not only the most efficient post scorer on the Spurs but one of the most reliable guys in the league down low. It doesn't look pretty or graceful, but somehow the ball keeps going through the hoop. Diaw's three-point stroke has returned the past month too, so now he's a threat to score from anywhere, and he can actually drive to the bucket when guys play up on him.
For Mills, aggression was never the problem, but like Diaw, conditioning was. It's one thing for a power forward to be roly poly, quite another for a point guard to be. Mills didn't have the stamina last season to endure even short backup stints and his defense suffered for it. He got serious about his career in the off-season and the results are evident. His PER of 19.89 is a tick below Parker's and ahead of Damian Lillard, whom Mills played to a draw in the win.
During the Rodeo Road Trip, Pop has been squeezing every drop of blood he could from the rocks his charges have been pounding, to mix analogies. He's gone full mad scientist, sometimes out of necessity, sometimes for fun. The Spurs have used 24 starting lineups, the second-most in the league to the Lakers' 27. Third-most is Milwaukee. If you notice, the teams right above and below San Antonio on the list are the dregs of the league. You're not supposed to be good when there's so little cohesion. Against Portland, he started Ginobili and Mills in the second half over Green and Joseph just for the hell of it. Because he could. Because it really doesn't matter.
More than ever, it seems the NBA's television partners are hellbent on making this a two man league. It's Kevin Durant and LeBron James and everyone else is scenery. Beating either of their teams -- with the specter of having to play 5-on-8 always looming -- is going to take a herculean effort. More to the point, it's going to take a team effort. The Spurs have to be without a weak link for the full 48 minutes, they can't ever let up if they want to have a chance. Having nine guys who are expected to score around double-digits and fully capable of 15-plus, will go a long way toward that end.
Yes, we get it. LeBron and Durant are the two best players in the world. It's being hammered into our heads incessantly, night after night. To beat them the San Antonio's two through nine are going to have to be better. Much, much better. With Mills, Diaw and Belinelli, they have a chance.
Be sure to read Chris Itz's game recap if you haven't already.
Standard Pop Quote:
"Patty was spectacular again. He's a tough cover. He's a great competitor and he has helped us like that all year long."
By the Numbers:
20,057: The paid attendance at the Moda Center.
19,957: How many of them spent most of the game conversing about Bayern Munich's Champions League stomping of Arsenal.
93: Points for the Spurs in the final three quarters after a crummy 18 point opening period.
+39: What Ginobili's managed, in about 35 minutes of work, against two playoff teams in the Clippers and Blazers after a three week layoff.
19:16: Combined minutes for the Spurs best four players (including Ginobili, obviously) in their win at Portland. I mean, imagine if they played like 26 minutes.
19.0: Scoring average for Mills on the Rodeo Road Trip. On 52.8 percent shooting. Without the Big Three to occupy defenses.
5: Points for the Blazers in the first seven minutes of the fourth quarter.
23: Points for the Blazers in the final five minutes. Those dudes are scary.
6-2: Record on the Rodeo Road Trip with one game to go, and considering who's played and who hasn't, that's borderline miraculous.
945: Pop passed Bill Fitch for ninth on the all-time wins list with his 945th regular season victory.
1: Number of teams (the Lakers, to be precise) who have used more starting lineups than the Spurs' 24 this season.
1: Number of times the Blazers have had to change their lineup all season, and it was on Wednesday, with Dorrell Wright starting in place of the injured LaMarcus Aldridge. Poor guys.
Sequence of the Game:
The Spurs had just fallen victim to an 11-2 run to squander a 99-90 lead and it looked like they were set up to lose another heart-breaker in Portland, but Belinelli worked himself free at the top of the key late in the shot clock thanks to a pick from Splitter and buried a three. And then -- following a fine contest and rebound by the Brazilian -- Marco rewarded Splitter for his tough work by finding him rolling on another high screen for a layup and the foul. Splitter wound up missing the free throw, but the six point cushion with 54 seconds to go was enough.
Tweets of the Night:
One of the NBA's most elusive unicorns: A Tiago Splitter jump shot.— Dan McCarney (@danmccarneysaen) February 20, 2014
If it had come after a Bonner rebound, the Earth would've spontaneously combusted.
Tony Parker had a "Variety of maladies". I just realized, that's a very, very French-y phrase. Translates as "variété de maladies"— Alex D. (@DewNO) February 20, 2014
How do you say "He's getting Wally Pipp'd" in French?
Hello all, this is @_IanDougherty. I've had to come in as an emergency reliever for Tyler for the rest of the game. Let's get into it.— Pounding the Rock (@poundingtherock) February 20, 2014
Even the team's bloggers can't stay healthy.
welp i'm out goodnight universe RT @mdotbrown: If the Lakers want to deny Dwight the ball, they should put a condom on it.— Aaron McGuire (@docrostov) February 20, 2014
That might have been my favorite tweet of 2014.
Did Danny Green just post?— Jesse Blanchard (@blanchardJRB) February 20, 2014
Splitter canning it from 18 and Green getting an and-1 on a post-up. If these aren't positive omens then I don't know anything about sports.
Apparently the Blazers advance scout only stuck around ASW long enough to catch Belinelli's two airballs.— Jesse Blanchard (@blanchardJRB) February 20, 2014
They say a lay-up counts the same as a dunk, so why not an air-ball counting the same as a rim-out? A make is a make and a miss is a miss. Do or do not, there is no try.
I totally get why fans of other teams hate Manu, by the way.— Jesus Gomez (@JejeGomez_PtR) February 20, 2014
They hate him because he's A) good B) smarter than their guys and C) wants it more than their guys.
Every time a Danny Green 3 splashes through the net, a puppy is born.— Pounding the Rock (@poundingtherock) February 20, 2014
We coulda used a few more puppies in Games 6 and 7.
Earlier today, I'm getting ready to listen to an ESPN podcast today and the promo advertising Thursday's Heat-Thunder game was, "and listen to LeBron James and the Miami Heat take on Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder in a rematch of last year's Finals."
And people say I'm paranoid about this stuff.
Now that Durant is going nuts and Russell Westbrook is on track to return from his knee surgery, it seems like the Whirlwide Liter is trying to whitewash history and pretend the Spurs never even made the Finals last year. Over the last month especially they're hyping the Heat and Thunder like that Finals match-up is a mere formality and that the Spurs and Pacers don't even exist. If those do end up being the match-ups in the conference finals -- not a given at all in the West -- I'll be extremely curious how those series will be officiated, especially now that there's a new commissioner. It sure seems like the league's broadcast partners aren't even hiding their rooting interests anymore. It's getting pretty overt, and pretty gross.
(Yup, you can tell we're getting close to the playoffs when I start raving like a lunatic.)
Also, the Blazers game marked the end of Shannon Brown's second 10-day contract. Now they have to either let him go or sign him on for the rest of the year. I'll be absolutely floored if they choose the latter. He'w been pretty awful, hardly ever put his athleticism to use and finished off what was likely his final game as a Spur with a -13 in 13:28. I will not look back fondly on the Shannon Brown Era.
Your Three Stars:
3) Manu Ginobili (61 pts): Back on the podium for the first time in 15 games, Ginobili did a bit of everything in his 19 minutes and change: 16 points, five boards and four helpers. Once again he led everybody with a plus-20. He showed a willingness to scrap and fight in the paint, which was nice to see. He's not tentative, so now it's a matter of building rhythm, fluidity and endurance.
2) Marco Belinelli (37 pts): Pulled the team out of its doldrums after their awful first quarter, hit 7-of-11 shots including 4-of-6 from deep and made a couple of game-winning plays at the end, first with a tie-breaking three after the Spurs blew a late nine-point lead and then a snazzy pass to Splitter on the pick-and-roll for the and-1 layup.
1) Danny Green (42 pts): What, no Patty? Sorry, he was a bit too chuck-ish for me, with 26 FGA in 29 minutes, and he was fairly abysmal on defense tonight. Instead, I'm giving the plaudits to Green, who had an excellent all-around game with 16 points and a team-leading seven boards, and did a great job of limiting Wesley Matthews on the other end. Green had three blocks in the fourth quarter and his consecutive threes early in the period during a 13-1 run gave the Spurs a nice cushion that allowed them to play from ahead for most of the final period.
@Phoenix Suns (32-21), Friday, Feb. 21:
The Spurs conclude their nine-game odyssey at long last with another trip to an arena where they're not well liked, visiting a Suns team that continues to defy expectations and hang on to playoff spot -- barely -- in the competitive Western Conference. The Suns weren't supposed to win 32 games all season and they were really supposed to fold once Eric Bledsoe went down, but it just hasn't happened thanks to Goran Dragic's emergence and impressive work from rookie coach Jeff Hornacek. They have won their past two games, and seven of their past ten, with the most recent triumph coming Wednesday against the Celtics. It was a typical Suns performance, with six guys in double figures, led by Markieff Morris' 18 off the bench and 17 points and six dimes from Dragic. I'm still not sold that they'll hold on to a playoff spot, however. Even though they're the sixth seed technically, they're only a couple games ahead of Memphis for ninth and the Grizzlies are a more veteran, battle-tested squad. Unless the Suns can pull of a miracle trade for Pau Gasol, I don't think they have quite enough. They haven't had quite enough so far against the Spurs, losing narrowly twice, including 108-101 on Dec. 18 at the US Airways Center, a game in which the Spurs had everyone available but Parker, which figures to be the exact same situation they'll be in on Friday, with Leonard expected back into the fold. Ginobili led the way in that win with a 24-6-7 outing, and had 11 of those 24 in the final four minutes. Hopefully the Spurs won't need such heroics this time out and can end the Rodeo Road Trip in style with a comfortable win instead of having to sweat it out once more.