Rehash: Spurs pass the trap game test, annihilate Cavs

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Admiral Ackbar would've been proud. Next up, the Death Star.

Game 60 @Cleveland: Spurs 122, Cavs 101   Record: 44-16  1st in Southwest, 2nd in West   Streak: W-4

For better or for worse, I think the 2012 Spurs are back.

If you recall, the 2011-12 Spurs, the team that played during the lockout-shortened campaign, was quite the unusual team by our standards. For one thing, they had three separate winning streaks of at least ten games in a 66-game season, which is hard enough to do, but they actually started quite miserably, relatively speaking, struggling to a 12-9 record before finding their stride. For another, they made not one but two big mid-season acquisitions.

The game they lost before their first winning streak, in overtime at Dallas, was the one that convinced Gregg Popovich for good that Danny Green was a keeper and, more importantly, that Richard Jefferson was not. The next time they played the Mavs, some six weeks later, again they lost but the game marked the return of Stephen Jackson. The Spurs sank to a good-not-great 29-14. A week later they finally beat Dallas, and this time they had a new weapon to throw at Dirk Nowitzki in Tony Parker's pal Boris Diaw, whom the Spurs bought out from the Bobcats.

(They haven't lost to Dallas since.)

With Diaw and Jackson in tow an already good Spurs bench became something else entirely and the Spurs won 21 of their final 23 games to end the season 50-16, tied with Chicago for the best record in the league. (One of the two losses was a game at Utah in which Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili were all held out.) The story wasn't that they were winning, but how they were winning.

Their average score over those final 23 in games was Spurs 109, opponents 96. Over their final 10 games, it was Spurs 115, opponents 97. They weren't simply winning, they were destroying teams. And they were doing so with the starters holding the fort and the Ginobili-led reserves blitzing their counterparts. The Spurs routinely had games where seven and eight guys scored in double digits, as both the starters and the reserves scored a similar number of points and Popovich's most difficult bit of calculus during games was to juggle the rotations so that all 13 active players got somewhere between six and 23 minutes of burn. What stood out more than margins of victory and the everyone's-a-sixth-man playing times -- was the passing. The Spurs just zipped the ball back-and-forth, side-to-side, in blurry, dizzying, mind-bending fashion, rarely bothering to dribble. At times they toyed with their opponents, seeming to play the game to amuse each other more than anything else.

Those Spurs closed out the regular season with ten straight wins and then won ten more in succession in the playoffs, before running into a young Oklahoma City team that just refused to stop making long twos over the course of Games 3-6 in the Western Conference Finals.

The 2012-13 edition of the Spurs was a more defensive team and one that relied more on its starters. The bench wasn't as strong, from the injury-riddled Ginobili on down. Diaw was more hesitant to shoot than ever. Mills was out of shape and lost his backup job to steady-but-unspectacular Cory Joseph. Jackson was a flat out disaster and had to be expunged late in the season. It's arguable whether last year's Spurs were better than the 11-12 version. Perhaps they just had a more fortunate playoff draw, but they had more of a defensive spine with increased roles for Green, Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter and were a couple of terrible breaks from winning it all.

Maybe what made the 2012-13 Spurs more successful, ultimately, was that they were more similar to the championship teams of the past, particularly the 1999 and 2007 squads. They played with this edge about them, a grimness. Maybe it was the way the season before ended so suddenly against the Thunder. Maybe it was the myriad, relentless injuries they had to endure. Whatever it was, it was a team that I don't recall smiling or joking a whole lot, or having much fun at all during games. As loathe as I am to admit it, in many respects last year's squad fit a lot of the stereotypes and narratives the national media and casual fans have about the Spurs. We rooted for them, they won a bunch of games, but they weren't as fun as the 2011-12 team. They just didn't have the same vibe or energy. The team just played angry the whole season, and maybe that's necessary to win. I don't know.

The 2013-14 Spurs look to me more like the '11-12 team than last year's. Marco Belinelli is a better version of Gary Neal. Boris Diaw is playing like he wants to send DeJuan Blair to the bench again -- like nobody told him Blair is in Dallas. Mills is back and proving the less of him there is, the better he plays. The ring-leader Ginobili continues to be a passing fool, in both the best and worst senses of the word. More often than not, the bench has to save the starters' bacon because, for whatever reason, the Spurs really struggle to score when neither Ginobili nor Diaw are on the court.

Whether the team can forge last year's steel is an open question and one we might find a hint of an answer to on Thursday. Ideally you'd want to mix the best qualities of both the 2012 and 2013 teams; the dominant, lock-down starters and the bench that scores for fun, but that's a lot to ask. For what it's worth, the bench disappointed in the 2012 playoffs as well, and the starters actually played pretty well that postseason, reversing the trends of the preceding 66 games and perhaps setting the course for what followed in 2013. The 2014 Spurs are going to need to be solid 1-9 to have a chance.

Tuesday night at Cleveland doesn't amount to much in the long run. It was another runaway against an over-matched, hapless Eastern squad. 39 assists on 43 baskets reminded me of that 2012 team (even though a few of those assists were generous, to be kind, and fewer still were of the highlight variety) and I'm curious whether this team will rediscover that spirit now that everyone is back playing, or if too much has happened for that feeling to ever return.

I don't think it's possible to win it all when motivated solely by revenge and righting past wrongs and holding on to negative feelings and bitter memories. At some point you have to remember that it's a game that you love and to have joy in what you're doing. There has to be a balance of that light and dark. Seriousness and fun. It's the only way. The Spurs cannot succumb to the power of the dark side.

So maybe Tuesday night at Cleveland provides a new hope?

Standard Pop Quote:

"To have 39 assists, wow, that was pretty impressive and doesn't happen often. We're always trying to move the ball from good to great (shots). Sometimes, it's an A-minus effort, but tonight was an A-plus in that regard."

By the Numbers:

17,966: The paid attendance at Quicken Loans Arena.

17,966,000: The number of times the fans there have made the "I wish the Heat would Quicken Loan us LeBron," joke.

13: First quarter points for the Spurs, a season-low.

109: Spurs points in the subsequent three quarters.

39: Assists for the Spurs, a season-high.

43: Made baskets for the Spurs. That 39/43 ratio was the seventh-best in NBA history, according to play-by-play man Bill Land.

13: Spurs with at least one assist, the first time any NBA team has ever done that, according to Elias (h/t SAEN's Jeff McDonald)

7:12: How much time the Spurs starters logged together after playing a season-high 19:18 as a quintet Sunday night versus the Mavs.

0-of-10: Matt Bonner and Marco Belinelli from downtown (sort of).

14-of-23: The rest of the team from downtown (but not really, see below).

13,770: Career rebounds for Duncan, passing Washington's Wes Unseld for 11th on the all-time list.

Feb. 8: The last time the Spurs made up a game on the Heat in the standings, prior to Tuesday night, when Miami dropped a game at Utah, of all places, and the Spurs had a nice comeback win at Charlotte. Two nights later, they gave that game back by losing at Detroit while the Heat won at Phoenix. Hopefully history won't repeat on Thursday. Actually, a loss would be like dropping two games in the standings to them, so they should really not do that.

Sequence of the Game:

It has to be the 15 points the Spurs scored on five straight possessions in a 1:31 span overlapping the third and fourth quarters. The first four of those were three-pointers (Mills from Belinelli, then Mills again from Ginobili and then Diaw from Ginobili to end the third quarter; then Green from Ginobili to start the fourth) and the final hoop was an and-1 floater by Green from Diaw. The 15-3 run turned an 11-point game into a 23-point rout and set up extensive garbage time --not to mention rest for the big three in advance of Thursday's game.

Tweets of the Night:

Really? What a podunk town.

Who throws a shoe? I mean honestly?

I have the same look on my face when I have to sing "Happy Birthday," in Italian in my waiting job.

I feel like Brad Pitt and Jared Leto were screwed in the looks department here and Kevin Spacey was greatly aided. Also, they forgot to give Jennifer Lawrence a face.

Maybe if we tell LeBron it's going to be a slam dunk contest he'll decide to sit it out.

Apparently the official scorer couldn't believe he missed the bunny either (see below).

I'm a combination of myself and Bono.

Would a Cure concert from, say, 1990 count as a television show?

It would take six seconds for McCutcheon to find his butt with both hands.

To be honest, Leonard blocked it clean. Duncan just happened to foul Thompson a split-second after, without a call.

He's programmed to be witty just like "Samantha" from Her.

Duncan's wardrobe is like ten times nicer than mine. I'm gonna have to upgrade it in a big way when I cover games.

Random Observations:

A dirty secret in the NBA is that as precise and exact as they try to be with their stat keeping and game tracking, every game they're bound to miss a couple of plays here or there. Usually it's with blocks, steals or turnovers, but every so often they'll credit the wrong player with an assist or just miss the assist altogether. What's more rare though is when the stat-keeper fails to notice a shot attempt and even more uncommon still is when they charge one guy's miss to a teammate. Well, each of those things happened to the Spurs on Tuesday, and Belinelli was involved in both.

In the first quarter, Ginobili rebounded a miss and found Belinelli ahead of the pack with a bullet pass. Rocky, perhaps sensing Deng in desperate pursuit, missed the bunny layup at the 2:47 mark. The scorekeeper simply makes no mention of it, so Belinelli doesn't get charged for the missed field goal.

The more bizarre one though came later. You may have noticed that the box score credited Diaw with a perfect shooting game, 7-of-7, including 2-of-2 from three-pointers. Well, in fact he did miss a three, at the 1:30 mark of the third quarter, but the scorekeeper charged Belinelli for the miss. Marco was already 0-of-4 from downtown, but officially he's 0-of-5 and must be thinking, "thanks a lot." I suppose Belinelli's official 3-of-8 mark on field goals is accurate enough in the end, but Diaw should really be 7-of-8.

Also, whatever got into Rocket tonight? The Red Mamba was channeling The Black Mamba, chucking six shots in 9:50 (and making but one of them, but that's another story). I can't ever recall Bonner firing at such a quick rate in his entire Spurs career. Even odder, he pulled down four boards. Who are you and what have you done to Matt Bonner?

Your Three Stars:

3. Boris Diaw (45 pts): Almost perfect but not quite (despite what the box score says), Diaw continued his fine shooting form inside and out and meshed well with his mates, regardless of whether he was playing with the reserves or the starters, a beneficiary of Pop's quick hook with Splitter in the third quarter.

2. Patty Mills (38 pts): Instilled some much-needed life to a sluggish team and his 10 point burst in the second quarter opened the floodgates. His two late threes in the third effectively ended the game. A rare playmaking game from the Aussie too, with five dimes.

1. Kawhi Leonard (48 pts): Hit his final seven shots --including both from downtown-- after missing his first three and filled the stat sheet in every category, including four steals and three blocks. Thoroughly outplayed the more-celebrated Luol Deng, similar to what he did last year in leading the Spurs to win at Chicago without the "big three."

Up Next: Vs. Miami Heat (43-15), Thursday, Mar. 6: The following are my rational, unbiased, and perfectly-suitable-for-a-family-blog thoughts about the Miami Heat...

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