There were a number of lessons the Spurs handed the Pacers on the floor Monday night in a game that went pretty much as scripted considering the fortunes of the two teams over the past month. After all, the Spurs had come into the game having tied a franchise record with 17 straight wins and had outscored their opponents -- some of them even respectable -- by an average of 16 points per game. The Pacers, meanwhile, were a game below .500 in that same stretch, 8-9, but one of those wins was over their white whale, the Miami Heat, so they hadn't reached a crisis point yet. (Never mind that the Spurs also beat Miami at home during their run and far more impressively.)
One would hope, in the interest of a competitive Eastern Conference playoffs, if not outright fear of the Heat, that the Spurs taught the Pacers a few things on the floor as far as playing with pace and space on offense, the value of having a deep bench and maybe even that it's not against the rules to string a few passes together before attempting a shot.
But I think the most valuable lesson is one that applies off the floor, and it's one of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich's pet mantras: Just shut up and play.
I'm not one who uses this space to praise the Heat very often, and lord knows that guys like LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh are hardly paragons of humility, but Bosh had it right when he and his teammates dismissed the Pacers' oft-repeated public goal of finishing with the top seed. It was quite obvious that the Pacers were obsessed with Miami, while the Heat in turn had the well-earned championship arrogance of just worrying about themselves and their own problems.
The Heat's mindset this season could be summarized like this:
You want to go 100 mph for the best record in the regular season? Go nuts, guys. This isn't the English Premier League. We still have a playoffs at the end and you still have to beat us four times when it matters. You break your necks trying to get home court for a seventh game that may never come, we'll worry about keeping Wade's legs attached and integrating Greg Oden and Michael Beasley into the fold.
Now understand that this is coming from someone who's written, repeatedly, that I think getting home court advantage is pretty important for the Spurs, against Oklahoma City and Miami in particular, and that they should pursue achieving it within reasonable means.
However, I'm not being a hypocrite here. It's not like I'm demanding the Spurs play Tim Duncan and Tony Parker 40 minutes a night or to wear them out on back to backs. I'm just asking for them to not be shut down completely in April. Just treat it like any other month, until you clinch what you can.
The mistake the Pacers have made from the beginning is not only setting a lofty regular season goal (something beyond simply making the playoffs or winning a division) but voicing it, over and over again. Whether it was Paul George or Roy Hibbert or David West or Lance Stephenson, we kept hearing the same thing from these guys: Home court. Miami. Home court. Miami. Home court. Miami. Dental plan. Lisa needs braces. Home court and Miami
Internal team goals are fine, but what good thing ever comes from sharing them in public well before the fact? All you do is put a target on your back and set yourself up for failure. Once the media knows what your goals are, they have license to ask about them over and over again, which naturally leads to distractions and team meetings and player confrontations and guys pointing fingers.
What the Pacers did is attach playoff intensity and desperation to regular season games in November and December. They treated a marathon like it was a sprint and burned themselves out. To be a team that wins 60-plus games you need serious luck with injuries, a deep bench or a couple of superstars. At least two of those things, anyway. The Pacers just got the injury part right, miraculously for them.
George started off like gangbusters, but he's nowhere near James' level as a player yet, and it doesn't help him at all that he has to expend a lot of energy on the defensive end (something James clearly did not do for the first 40 games this season) and that he doesn't have a top-tier point guard setting him up.
Hibbert is a defensive stud, but he's only a threat on both ends of the floor against the undersized Heat.
Stephenson broke out a bit early, felt himself a bit, complained when he wasn't selected to the All-Star team and is jacking more threes and passing less.
West is in the slump of his life. He just can't hit an outside shot anymore.
The bench continues to be atrocious. Neither Luis Scola nor Evan Turner can guard anybody. They're badly missing C.J. Watson, who's hurt, and oddly enough D.J. Augustin, who was a train wreck for them last season as the backup point is now lighting it up for the Bulls. I understand why they made the Turner trade with Philly for Danny Granger, but it's backfired badly on them. Andrew Bynum has given them nothing, as expected, but I think they signed him just so he wouldn't go to Miami.
I like Hill and appreciated his contributions as a Spur and will always wish him well, but I've always steadfastly maintained that his ceiling is a third guard on a contending team and that he's in over his head trying to lead a contender. He doesn't have the handle to get into the paint to finish at the basket or to drive and kick -- not to mention that his pick-and-roll has always been spotty. Hill's scored in the single digits in seven of his past ten games and is averaging just 3.6 assists, despite playing 32 minutes a night. That's pathetic.
Vogel meanwhile, never saw the potential pitfalls of his team talking big early and obsessing over Miami. In fact, not only did he encourage it, but he did some talking himself. He's worn down his starters to the nub -- they've already played the equivalent of 60 more games, or 12 more per man, more than the five leading minute earners on the Spurs -- and he can't seem to figure out a way to scheme the team out of its offensive rut. In fact, the Pacers don't seem to be making any adjustments at all. If anything, instead of speeding up the possessions, they seem to be playing even slower, grinding every shot clock to the very end, but with no purpose. The ball isn't exactly whizzing from end to end and their spacing is poor. They're not passing because off-ball motion and cutting and screening is producing open men. They're passing because they're closely guarded and they don't know what to do. It's like watching a college team. Whatever baskets they get come out of individual talent and zero scheme. I don't know if they ran one set that fooled the Spurs on Monday.
Maybe Vogel wants to play faster but the team is just too exhausted to try. Their vaunted defense produced only eight turnovers from a Spurs team that isn't always frugal with the ball, they hustled to precisely zero fast break points and they even surrendered 15 offensive boards; another stat that isn't exactly the Spurs' forte. What I know for sure is that Vogel hasn't done a very good job of keeping the team together, the morale high, and the players from sniping at each other in the press. The Pacers aren't tugging on that same rope right now but rather measuring each other for nooses.
Popovich and his players deserve much praise for how they've handled themselves, not just during the streak but the entire season. Never once have they said anything about avenging the Finals loss to Miami or needing home court to do it. They keep their goals short, simple and mostly internal. Follow the process, the results will come. Most of all, they're smart enough to not attach so much significance to any one opponent. You do that and the other 28 teams say, "What are we, chopped liver? Watch this."
The Pacers may have been built to beat the Heat, but as they're painfully discovering this past month, there are other teams out there filled with professional players and coaches getting paid to perform well and win. In glorifying Miami they unwitting created a league of Miamis.
The Spurs just continue keeping their heads about them and they treated the Pacers no differently than the Pelicans two nights before, and that's probably a compliment to Indiana. If Anthony Davis was healthy, New Orleans would destroy the Pacers right now.
Standard Pop Quote:
"We've never set any numerical goals. We've never set goals to win a division or X number of games in a row or anything like that. We just talk about trying to be the best team we can be come playoff time."
By the Numbers:
18: Wins in a row by the Spurs, a franchise record.
2: Second time in franchise history they've been undefeated over a full month. Coincidentally, it's been March both times (previously in 1995-96).
16: The 16th time this season the Spurs have won by at least 20 points, the most in the NBA. (h/t ESPN Stats & Info)
16.6: The Spurs' average margin of victory during their streak. (h/t NBA Stats)
49-8: The Spurs' record when Leonard plays at least 20 minutes (h/t Arturo Galletti)
24,818: Career regular season points for Duncan, passing Patrick Ewing for 19th all-time.
22: Western Conference Player of the Week honors for Duncan, who picked up his most recent one Monday morning after averaging 20 points (on 62.5 percent shooting), 8.5 rebounds, 4.3 assists and two blocks over his previous four games.
29-0: Spurs record when holding opponent to 93 points or less.
48-1: Spurs record when leading after three quarters.
32-0: Spurs record when Splitter scores at least seven points.
16, 7: Points and made baskets (on 24 attempts) for Parker over the three games leading up to Monday night.
22, 10: Points and made baskets at Indiana on Monday.
6, 3, 2: The Spurs' magic number for clinching home court advantage over the Thunder, Heat and Pacers, respectively. We're just about done having to scoreboard watch in the East.
Sequence of the Game:
From the 9:20 mark of the fourth quarter until just 2:19 was left in the game -- well after Vogel waved the white flag and brought in his deep reserves -- the Spurs scored on 13 straight trips down the floor, turning a relatively close 71-63 game into a 99-75 rout. The order, if you care: Splitter free throws, a Diaw three, a Splitter layup, a Diaw turnaround banker, a Belinelli three (after a Duncan offensive rebound), a Leonard dunk, a Duncan dunk (after a Belinelli offensive rebound), Diaw free throws, another Leonard dunk, Belinelli free throws, a Belinelli jumper, an Ayres dunk and Ayres free throws. Whew!
Tweets of the Night:
If a rivalry developed between Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, we could be in for a treat for the next 8-10 years.— Andrew A. McNeill (@drew_48moh) March 31, 2014
Silver's NBA really will be different than Stern's if he's marketing George and Leonard as they D up each other for two small-market teams.
Bench vs. bench doesn't seem a fair fight for Pacers.— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) March 31, 2014
Hey, they did dominate the starters 60-58, and all it took was four more field goal attempts.
A 17-point first-half deficit is nothing in the NBA ... but might be for a team as offensively challenged as Indy can be.— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) March 31, 2014
Maybe Frank Vogel was relying on the power play to make it up.
Spurs slicing up the Pacers with a casual efficiency bordering on contempt.— netw3rk (@netw3rk) March 31, 2014
That should be our new tagline on PtR: "Watching the Spurs slice up the opponent with a casual efficiency bordering on contempt."
Talking to local AP guy waiting for Jurgen Klinsmann today in Phoenix. Manu's name came up. "They they really hate that guy around here."— Dan McCarney (@danmccarneysaen) March 31, 2014
I don't know why. He's got his work visa.
Pop jumping on Duncan. "Shoot the ball! Shoot it!" ... Still on him at this timeout. "Don't aim it. Shoot it."— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) March 31, 2014
Duncan ignored that bit of instruction. Turns out he's not coachable at all.
Popovich is coaching at a different level right now. He’s like LeBron when he’s in the zone— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballSource) April 1, 2014
I'd pay $100 to see Pop coach in a headband and to do that "squash the roof" thing LeBron does after a big basket.
This has "Pacers get it Together" Game written all over it. The weird part? I’m not so angry about that.— Pounding the Rock (@poundingtherock) April 1, 2014
If by "get it together" you meant all of the matter they had rumbling through their individual lower intestines collected and was dumped on center court in one gigantic uninspiring pile, then I'm with you.
Since winning streak started, Spurs lead NBA in Off. Eff, Def. Eff, Points, Point Diff., FG%, 3P%, TS%, EFG%, AST/TO, Blocks & Def. Rebounds— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) April 1, 2014
But not alley-oop dunks, so whatever.
Marco Belinelli, unafraid to shoot with 23 seconds on the shot clock— Pounding the Rock (@poundingtherock) April 1, 2014
Must be an Italian thing, eh Knicks fans?
You should see what he looks like in the fourth quarter of Game 4 of a playoff sweep.
With the game being broadcast on NBATV, I couldn't pick the announcing crew so I was stuck with the Pacers guys. This from color man Quinn Buckner after Stephenson blew past Danny Green for a baseline dunk: "Green has never been known for his defense."
Well, actually Mr. Buckner that's exactly what he's been known for. It's why the Spurs plucked him off the D-League scrap heap. It's why he's been a steady starter the past couple of years. The three point shooting is a nice bonus and he did set a Finals record and all, but Green would not be a Spur if he played defense like, say, Evan Turner.
We see this over and over and over again from ex-jocks who get these cushy broadcast jobs based on little else other than name recognition, networking and the good sense to not openly cuss on live television. These guys get extremely well compensated and put in next to no research or preparation on that night's opponent. They rely on the play-by-play man to serve them up a steady diet of observational softballs for them to whack out with pithy clichés and for the producer to guide them back on the road when they stray too far from fact-land.
I'm not asking for men of Buckner's ilk to watch as much film as the coaches, but is it so hard to just watch a game or two of the team you're going to cover, or to take a cursory look at a stat sheet? I suppose I'm asking the impossible here. The most popular analyst in the country is renowned for not knowing which teams half the guys in the league play on and it's a mortal lock that once the playoffs roll around (especially if the Spurs draw Memphis in the first round again) the pundits will say the Spurs' biggest weakness is interior defense because, c'mon obviously Tiago Splitter is some stiff, right? And his backup is only Matt Bonner.
Just remember, the Spurs are a defense-first, grind-it-out team that likes to slow down the pace and keep it in the 80's. They can't be running up and down the floor and shooting threes like all these young athletic whippersnappers.
Your Three Stars:
3. Boris Diaw (51 pts): Scored nine of his 14 in the fourth quarter and probably had the biggest bucket of the game, a driving layup after Rasual Butler had cut the lead to seven with 11:18 to go. The Diaw/Luis Scola match-up of backup fours went precisely how we figured it would.
2. Kawhi Leonard (66 pts): Fantastic on both ends of the court, as usual, but please let's not get too carried away with any "Leonard is better than George" proclamations. Leonard has it pretty good as a Spur as his team's third/fourth option. George is melting before our very eyes under the weight of expectations of being the Pacers' star.
1. Tony Parker (111 pts): Fresh as a daisy and just toyed with his protege, Hill, and even more cruelly with the statuesque Hibbert. I admit, I was getting worried about Parker there for a while but it turns out he was just coasting against the cupcakes. I'm very relieved because the alternative is most troubling.
Vs. Golden State Warriors (45-28), Wednesday, Apr. 2:
All in all, I'd say that March was quite satisfactory for the Spurs. Now we flip the calender to April, to find out if the basketball gods were just playing an elaborate prank on us. The Spurs are 3-0 against the Dubs this season, including two road wins I've had the pleasure of taking in, despite the Big Three playing a grand total of 28 minutes (all from Parker in the last game) in Oakland. You might have also heard something about the Warriors not having won a regular season game in San Antonio during the Duncan Era, which hasn't been exactly brief. Will Duncan and the other prominent dudes play in this one? I don't see why not, even though there is a BABA in OKC on Thursday.
The Warriors are struggling somewhat. They're barely holding on to sixth in the conference standings but they're just two games ahead of Memphis in ninth. Coach Mark Jackson is facing considerable scrutiny for myriad reasons, ranging from his rotations, to the curious dismissal of assistant coach Brian Scalabrine, to his playing struggling sophomore Harrison Barnes too much, to the team's iso-heavy offense and finally his defensiveness with the media. There is a growing sentiment that he's a "all hat no cattle" kind of coach, similar to former 49ers honcho Mike Singletary, whose bizarre reign I covered in person. The Warriors lost to the Knicks at home Sunday night, scoring just 84 points to a team that had allowed 51 in a single quarter to the Lakers a couple days before. The Knicks! How awful do you have to be to Knicks at home? They should throw you out of the league for that.
Anyway, the Warriors will be without Andrew Bogut, who's dealing with a pelvic injury, and David Lee will reportedly play, but he'll be limited by a hamstring problem. The game is actually a SEGABABA for them, as they visit Dallas on Tuesday, and the tentative plan is for Lee to sit that one out and play against the Spurs the next night. Just know going in that y'all have it better than me because you'll get the Spurs broadcasters while I'll be stuck, again, with Bob Fitzgerald. Ugh.