Honestly, I'm not sure what to make of Thursday night's tilt at Dallas. The game contained a little bit of everything, from a desperate opponent, to shaky coaching decisions on both sides, to really sloppy play befitting NBA ball in April, to stretches where the Spurs' postseason hopes looked rather ominous indeed, with awful flashbacks to the 2011 stretch run, and finally, a reassuring, Settle down y'all, I'm here now, we're gonna be fine, moment from Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio's 22-year-old, do-everything wunderkind.
We'll get to Leonard in a second, but we should probably begin with the play that briefly looked like it would end the Spurs postseason run before it even began. Tim Duncan, who as you may have heard is not 22-years-old, was chasing down a potential offensive rebound when he got inadvertently kicked in the back of his right leg --his good leg, the one without "The Punisher" brace-- causing him to plant awkwardly on his heel and for his knee to gruesomely buckle inward, at an angle human legs aren't at all supposed to bend. Duncan rolled on the floor in seeming agony, grabbing his knee.
It turned out he was just being an over-dramatic weenie.
The bedrock of the franchise, Duncan was up on his feet less than a minute later, and walked to the locker room under his own power with a slight limp. Three minutes later he returned, like nothing had happened. He told reporters later he was more scared than hurt, but it was just a relatively minor hyper-extension of his leg. Luckily, Duncan is considerably more flexible and more a lot of things than the typical 37-year-old seven-footer.
A disaster avoided, a sigh of relief and now the simple matter of beating a 48-31 team on their home floor without Tony Parker, who was out, resting his ailing back.
Both Gregg Popovich and Rick Carlisle, two of the most-respected coaches in the league made curious decisions in the game. Pop started Mills instead of Parker's usual understudy, Cory Joseph. All season long Pop has played Mills as a reserve, regardless of Parker's availability, to keep the chemistry of the bench unit intact. Besides, Mills' talents are better served as a sparkplug who lights it up in short bursts than someone who has to defend opposing lead guards and look for teammates and all that. As it turned out, Mills didn't have any problems blending in with the other starters, but the bench had no rhythm at all with Joseph (it didn't help that Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw and Marco Belinelli all came out sluggish) and he was a brutal -15 in 7:43 overlapping the first and second quarters. Pop didn't play him again until garbage time very late in the fourth.
Carlisle, meanwhile, did some odd things himself. He played Nowitzki just 34 minutes in a game of immense importance, even though the Mavs don't play again until Saturday and then don't play their final game of the season until Wednesday. What's he saving him for?
Worse, he decided to use zone defense liberally in the fourth quarter. I know the Mavs are pitiful defensively and they have to try some unorthodox things to get stops with a backcourt of Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis, but the Spurs, who lead the league with a .399 three-point percentage from downtown, are the wrong squad to be daring to shoot open threes. They hit 16 of them in all, and weren't exactly bashful about firing away, with 34 of their 88 field goal attempts on the night from behind the line. Mills had six of those 16 in an otherwise Kobe-esque display of "hero ball," but it mattered not, thanks to Leonard, whose progression from game to game seems to grow geometrically, as does his reach.
Zach Harper does a pretty solid job of covering Leonard's ascension from prospect to burgeoning superstar, and I'm sure I'll spend a few words in the coming weeks gushing about him, but let's just say that over the past two months that Leonard has grown very much into the role that many of the pundits and prognosticators out there projected for him from the jump this season after his breakout Finals last June. As it turned out, he needed Parker and Ginobili to suffer injuries, and to suffer his own, before it all clicked for him. However it happened, regardless of reason, there's no denying that he's been an absolute monster since late February.
Post All-Star break Leonard is averaging 14.6 points (with a .530/.444/.871 shooting line) and 6.6 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.9 steals and 1.3 blocks per game, in 30.1 minutes. His offensive rating is 111.0 and his defensive rating is 95.2, for a net of 15.8. Leonard isn't the Spurs' best player, but he may be the most irreplaceable, from game-to-game. There's just nobody else on the team who does the things he does. He just wrecked a Mavericks team that was giving everything they had to make the playoffs, and did so on a night where he didn't even shoot well.
You watch Leonard just ruin teams night after night, and then you listen to Charles Barkley droning on and on about how old the Spurs are and you wonder what he does with his time while the games are on.
Standard Pop Quote:
"He's always aggressive. He's not going to get a whole lot of rebounds or stop a whole lot of people, but he's going to shoot it. That's what his skill is."
Pop, describing my game. Or Mills'. Whichever.
By the Numbers:
1: The Spurs' magic number to clinch home court advantage throughout the playoffs. Pop makes it sound like no big deal, but they haven't actually had it since 2004.
30: Road wins for the Spurs, a regular-season franchise record. I'd be good with about eight more.
33-0: The Spurs' record when Splitter scores at least seven points. Too bad he can't get a foul call against the Thunder...
+39: Splitter in 28 minutes at Dallas.
16: A career-high 16 boards (in the regular season anyway) for Leonard, who became the first Spur besides Duncan and David Robinson to record that many boards along with five assists and two steals since 1994, when Dennis Rodman turned the trick.
671: Three-point field goals for the Spurs this season, still 15 away from breaking the franchise record of 685 set in 2010-2011.
.399: The Spurs' league-leading three-point percentage, .014 ahead the closest opponent, the Mavs, who shoot them at a .385 clip. Very unlikely these Spurs catch the 2000-01 squad who shot .407 from out there though.
26: How many points Patty Mills scored tonight.
25: How many shots he attempted, for those of you wondering why he won't be making an appearance on "Your Three Stars." Settle down, Patty.
Sequence of the Game:
Midway through the third quarter Mills poked a ball loose from behind, got the lead pass from Leonard for the breakaway layup, missed that, the trailing Leonard collected the offensive board over Dalembert and Nowitzki, he missed, soared over the two bigs for another rebound, found himself pinned underneath the glass and found Mills in the corner for a three. If ever a play perfectly captured two players' abilities, that was the one.
Tweets of the Night:
TNT guys quick to drop Derrick Rose's name after Duncan limps off. Take it easy fellas. You're freaking everyone out.— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) April 11, 2014
And he's about to check back in. Tim Duncan is a cyborg.— Dan McCarney (@danmccarneysaen) April 11, 2014
He's a well-oiled machine.
Haters gonna hate.
I mean, if the Spurs just brought in Pip to consult Kawhi on every aspect of his game I'd be fine with it.— Trevor Zickgraf (@yowhatupT) April 11, 2014
No thanks. I think Leonard could be a better rebounder and I was never a fan of Pippen's elbows-out shooting form. Also, I'd like him to stay in games at the end even if Pop doesn't call the final play for him.
Bad Manu making an appearance tonight. His third turnover.— Dan McCarney (@danmccarneysaen) April 11, 2014
Through the first 30 minutes Ginobili's game was awfully reminiscent (with an emphasis on awful) of Game 6 of the Finals. Finished nicely though, by tossing in a couple of threes and dishing five dimes.
Ginobili sliding when the season gets to Aprl is becoming depressingly regular unless he's playing the Lakers. Did kill Memphis too, tho— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) April 11, 2014
Ginobili in April: 14.0 ppg, 4.0 ast, 3.5 rebs, with a .559/.500/.917 shooting line. PANIC TIME, EVERYBODY.
*Mavs crack the door open* *Kawhi sees them* *Kawhi runs over to door* *SLAM SLAM SLAM SLAM*— Pounding the Rock (@poundingtherock) April 11, 2014
We should animate that. Just an emotionless Leonard casually nailing in a coffin.
I really think it's possible that we see a starting lineup of Aron Baynes, Matt Bonner, Austin Daye, Damion James and Cory Joseph tomorrow, with a "bench" of Jeff Ayres mostly but maybe also spot minutes for Boris Diaw, Marco Belinelli and Patty Mills. After that, Pop will play it by ear at Houston next Monday, depending on whether the Thunder win their next two games or not. I don't buy for a second that they don't care about home court, not when it's this attainable. They'll play hard versus the Lakers for a half in Game 82 if they have to. Pop is still going to want to give Parker a tuneup going into the playoffs anyway and it's not like the Lakers play physical defense, so I can them tearing through those guys to a 75-37 halftime score before taking it easy.
Your Three Stars:
3) Tim Duncan (131 pts): It wasn't The Golden God's best game, but 20 and 15 is still pretty good considering the scare he gave us in the first quarter. Duncan shook off a hyper-extended right leg and gutted it out for 39 minutes in the win, remarkably leading everyone on the court in floor time. The jumper looked pretty good, too.
2) Tiago Splitter (42 pts): A game-high plus-39 in 28 minutes and it's not like the game was a runaway from the beginning. It was actually a back-and-forth affair, where the Spurs went backward with Splitter on the bench and, uh, forth, I guess, when he was out there. Did the best job of anyone on Nowitzki and his offense in the post got better as the night went along.
1. Kawhi Leonard (86 pts): Four straight gold medals on the YTS podium for "The Aztec," and he's absolutely a runaway train right now, playing as well as he ever has in every facet of the game. It sounds hyperbolic to say, but he very well might be the best Spur right now, and it's not like the "Big Three" have been playing poorly at all.
Up Next: Vs. Phoenix Suns (47-31), Friday, Apr. 12: I'm not saying I'm frightened of the Suns or anything, but I think it's pretty obvious that of the three clubs fighting for the last two spots out West that they're the most dangerous. The backcourt of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe are young, super athletic and both have size and versatility to do a little bit of everything. They can play the pick-and-pop game with Channing Frye, a stretch-five. The Morris twins are relentless pests. Gerald Green is like a younger J.R. Smith, but 10 percent less crazy. The bottom line is they're a bunch of talented, unpredictable dudes who don't know that they were supposed to stink this year and they've already given the Thunder fits twice this season. I'd be perfectly fine with the current Western standings holding form to the end, with the Suns in seventh, the Mavs in eighth and the Spurs obviously first. With Duncan and Leonard playing heavy minutes Thursday and Ginobili, Green and Parker all iffy, this looks to be the mother of all rest games for Pop, which should only help the Suns' chances of finishing in seventh further.