A game after the Spurs reintroduced themselves into the national conversation when it comes to teams truly capable of winning the Larry O'Brien trophy, coach Gregg Popovich gave signal that a checkpoint of sorts has been passed.
Well, several of them, actually.
First of all, mathematically the team is officially in the final quarter of the regular season with Game 61 behind them. Now we're in the home stretch.
More importantly, we can put the "signature win," stuff to bed, since there were no asterisks whatsoever against the Heat, with both teams red-hot, fairly rested and at full strength. Also, an opponent can't be more respectable than the two-time defending champs.
Perhaps most significant of all though was that the opponent was Miami and the Spurs did beat them, convincingly. Not only was it a relief, but I think finally there is some closure there with that mental block out of the way and now I don't think the team will give last year's Finals a second thought unless they happen to see the Heat again in June.
Though I'm sure the team would all deny it, I don't buy for a second that the Heat game wasn't circled on the calender, from Pop on down. Now that that's behind them, the Spurs can get on with the business of readying themselves for the playoffs, for building game by game to peak in April.
With that comes the establishment of a real rotation and you'll notice, as they did a week ago versus the Mavs, the Spurs played a playoff-like 9.5 man rotation in their win over the Madge, with Aron Baynes getting those second quarter spot minutes and none thereafter until garbage time.
Saturday though the minutes were closer to what I imagine they'll be like come playoff time, and what I mean by that is not only sticking to a three bigs rotation but also a lot more small-ball than we've come accustomed to. Against the Magic Pop played small for 21:23, with the Spurs at +8 in that time. Boris Diaw had the lion's share of it with 10:24 of playing time with four smalls and finished -3 in that stretch, Tim Duncan was next --and the most productive-- at 6:36 and a +8, and Tiago Splitter got 4:23 and was a +3.
Of particular interest to me was the Tim Duncan-Kawhi Leonard-Danny Green-Manu Ginobili-Tony Parker lineup that saw a lot of action in last year's Finals but has hardly been used at all this season, just 21 minutes over eight games. They played 4:42 together, in two separate stints against the Magic though and were +12. Overall that lineup has a net rating of 10.4. (Replacing Green with Marco Belinelli produces similar results, but replacing Leonard with Belinellli has been a defensive disaster and replacing him with Ginobili has killed the offense in micro samples.)
My hunch is that while the Spurs probably won't bust out 21 minutes worth of small ball too often, they will use it a lot more than they have been all season long. Against the Heat they got 7:07 and Baynes didn't play until the final couple of minutes. My guess is that over these final 20 games the Spurs will play small between 10-15 minutes on most nights to prep for the playoffs and opponents who are sure to use similar lineups against them. It's true that Diaw provides a versatile buffer for the Spurs, the ability to play against both big and small lineups simultaneously, but with only three bigs in the rotation and two of them centers, playing Leonard at the stretch four in portions of games will be quite necessary. There will also be times where the opponent will go small, without even a stretch four out there, where there won't be anyone on the floor for Diaw to guard.
Incidentally, the team's best lineup in terms of net rating has been the one they used to start against the Heat, with Diaw replacing Splitter. To echo J. Gomez's prediction, I expect the Spurs to start Diaw quite a bit in the playoffs, especially if they draw the Rockets, Thunder or the Blazers. About the only team where it makes absolute sense to start Splitter is Memphis, actually. Every other Western power starts a four who can shoot.
For what it's worth, the scoring-challenged traditional starting lineup managed 31 points (while allowing 24) in 12:32 against Orlando, over the first and third quarters. I'm not sure what we can take away from that in a game where defense was strictly optional for both teams.
It was wholly unsurprising for the Spurs to take their collective feet off the gas pedal following the hill they climbed against the Heat, but it's a testament to their talent that even when they're not physically committed or focused on defense that they can still pass and shoot their way to 120 points against an inexperienced opponent. This was classic low-impact aerobic West-coast basketball, filled with running and scoring but not much banging or grit and Pop probably sensed as much, loosening the reins on Ginobili for 27:13 against a foe unlikely to bang him around much and letting Parker run free for 34:00. Even Leonard, sure to be to in line for a heavy workload come the playoffs, is quietly building his stamina for that undertaking, and he played nearly 38 minutes against the Magic, and was at his strongest in the fourth quarter.
It's got to be a scary proposition for the rest of the league. The Spurs are tied for the best record in the NBA and they're just now finding fourth gear. If they can get past this tricky BABA coming up at Chicago and then the Blazers at home, they're going to be set up for quite a March.
Standard Pop Quote:
"I thought Orlando played really good basketball. They were aggressive. They shared it. They were in attack mode all night. I thought their defense was good. We picked our defense up and got a little more physical in the second half."
(I'd rather not imagine how many points the Spurs would have to score for Pop to not be complimentary of the defense of one of his former assistants.)
By the Numbers:
18,581: The paid attendance at the AT&T Center.
18,581: The people in attendance whose hearts skipped a beat when Manu rose up for a dunk that looked exactly like the play he last hurt his hamstring on. He missed the dunk, and came down none the worse for wear.
4: Spurs that have cracked 30 points in a game this season now that Parker's done it. Not sure any other NBA team can claim that.
5: Spurs that have scored 29 in a game, which has to be the most in the league.
9: Spurs that have scored 21 in a game. I mean, come on.
4-of-4: Green from the field, all threes. A quiet 12-6-4 for Verde.
11-0: The Spurs record when Splitter scores in double digits.
3: Combined points for Marco Belinelli and Patty Mills (two of the above-mentioned 30-point scorers) in 32 minutes. The hell?
0: Number of teams in the league who have fewer losses than the Spurs.
Sequence of the Game:
In a span of 4:07 in the fourth quarter Leonard had two blocks and two steals that led to, in order, two free throws from Parker, two free throws from Leonard (one missed), two more free throws from Parker, and finally a breakaway Leonard dunk. Not coincidentally, those plays were a part of an 18-7 Spurs run that broke open a four-point game.
Tweets of the Night:
Jacque Vaughn, on Chuck Barkley saying Spurs too old to win it all: "I think Barkley was saying those things when I was a Spur."— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) March 9, 2014
I'm curious whether there's any opponent the Spurs can draw in the first round where Barkley won't pick the upset. He seems to enjoy his role as a Spurs troll for reasons I don't quite understand.
$20 says Duncan finishes the game over 50 percent.— Dan McCarney (@danmccarneysaen) March 9, 2014
Probably the worst Tim Duncan Outlet Pass ever.— Pounding the Rock (@poundingtherock) March 9, 2014
I feel like we say this every fifth game.
Duncan owns Father Time but can't deal with Human Nature.
Vucevic (19 pts, 12 rebounds) pretty much outproducing Duncan and Splitter (14 points, 13 rebounds) combined.— Dan McCarney (@danmccarneysaen) March 9, 2014
I am an unabashed Nikola Vucevic fan-boy.
Manu tried to set Splitter up by looking away before he dropped that pass off. Tobias Harris knew it was coming the whole way.— Matthew R Tynan (@Matthew_Tynan) March 9, 2014
You really have to think quite little of the other team to try the same trick four plays in a row.
The Spurs have scored 100+ for a league-leading 48th time. Tied with Dallas and Porland.— Project Spurs (@projectspurs) March 9, 2014
National Media: Zzzzzzzzzz.
We might have seen the quickest make-up call in NBA history tonight. With 3:55 to go in the first quarter Duncan was seemingly fouled by Maurice Harkless on a layup attempt but ref Michael Smith didn't make the call. Vucevic got the board and dished it off to Afflalo, who turned to find Ginobili's prodigious schnoz a centimeter from his face and was called for a quick charge by fellow ref Nick Buchert two seconds later.
Also, the Spurs really like Vaughn. I mean, they really like the dude. Not only did Pop give him a minute-long pep-talk after the game, but Duncan and Ginobili also had long exchanges with him and a number of other Spurs made a point of coming by to wish him well. My guess is maybe there are whispers going around that Vaughn isn't long for Orlando --Sean Elliott seemed to imply as much-- and this looked to me a confirmation that should the former Spurs backup point find himself unemployed, he'll be welcomed back as an assistant (and perhaps even be groomed to be Pop's successor) in 0.239 seconds.
Your Three Stars:
3) Kawhi Leonard (52 pts): Another great box score-stuffing line with 17-6-4-2-2 for Leonard and obviously scoring that many points on just six field goal attempts (he knocked down 6-of-7 freebies, which was nice to see) is impressive and all those steals and blocks late sealed the win. His defense in the first three quarters was nothing to write home about though and I think it's safe to guess that Leonard's wasn't quite as geeked about shutting down Afflalo as he was LeBron two nights before.
2) Manu Ginobili (68 pts): Definitely the best Gino's looked since returning from his strained hammy. He doesn't have the lift back quite yet and the three still looks wonky but slowly but surely the fluidity, quickness and rhythm is coming back and with them the confidence. Ginobili had a couple of sick drives to the rim and seems to have a decent idea where that fine line is between "safe" aggressiveness and unnecessary recklessness.
1) Tony Parker (95 pts): A season-high 30 for Parker and unlike the Heat game he was able to sustain his energy and effort for the full four quarters instead of just coming out hot and then fizzling. Parker got whatever he wanted against Orlando and played a real smart game, but now the question is whether he'll be able to string back-to-back strong performances together, especially against one of the best defensive clubs in the league. (Also, will he get the chance?)
@Chicago Bulls (34-26), Tuesday, Mar. 11: Though the Bulls dropped their last game, at home, to Memphis 85-77 and have lost two of their past three, they've still lost just 10 games in 2014, one more than Brooklyn and Miami. As you're no doubt aware, they've been without Derrick Rose for most of the year, and they traded Luol Deng two months ago for a few minor picks so he wouldn't leave as a free agent for nothing in the off-season. In a real display of character, the remaining Bulls, led by Joakim Noah, rallied after the trade and now they look like a team that not only should win a playoff round but might make life really uncomfortable for a contender in the conference semis (especially if they meet low-scoring Indiana). Noah is on some kind of passing tear and he's had three triple-doubles in his past ten games including two of the past four. He had a mere eight dimes in Chicago's 96-86 win at San Antonio on Jan. 29, to go along with 10 points, 10 boards and four blocks, as the Spurs played that one without Leonard, Ginobili and Green and had Jeff Ayres, Nando De Colo and... wait for it... Othyus Jeffers in the starting lineup that night. A happier Spurs memory was their last visit to the United Center on Feb. 11, 2013, a game in which they rested the "Big Three," but won convincingly anyway 103-89 thanks to Leonard's 26, 18 from Green, and 16 apiece from Splitter and Gary Neal. Really, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if Pop puts the guys in position to pull off the same trick again on Tuesday since there's a tough SEGABABA in the offing with Portland back home and both Parker and Ginobili played relatively heavy minutes against Orlando. The more I think about it, the more I'm convinced they won't be on that plane to Chicago. I hope Leonard will be, though.