Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is fond of saying "It's a 48-minute game," when explaining how his team persevered (or didn't) after facing some early deficit. His perfectly valid point is that there are lot more possessions in a game than one realizes, and however bad the momentum may be going, it can flip back the other way given the right amounts of effort and execution.
All that is well and good, but sometimes two minutes is all you need to explain the meat-and-potatoes of what transpired in a game. Sure, technically it's much more complicated, there are runs either way and various highlights and low-lights and whatnot, but if ever a two-minute stretch encapsulated the larger picture, it's hard to top the window from 8:45 remaining in the second quarter to 6:45.
At the 8:45 mark, Dallas' DeJuan Blair got one of his trademark floaters to go, this ugly monstrosity of a shot that hit every part of the rim before bouncing in, an omen of how the night would go for Spurs fans. The bucket came on backup point guard Devin Harris' fourth assist of the half, showing once more he's not just a shooter in the half court. Mavs up, 36-32.
8:29 - Blair, who only got into the game because Brandon Wright got in early foul trouble, displayed his lone defensive skill, the ability to swipe steals. He snatched the ball from Boris Diaw, his third theft in 6:31 since entering the game and the second time he stole it from The Land Walrus. It was the Spurs' 12th turnover in the opening 15 minutes of the game.
8:21 - Vince Carter missed a layup in transition. It'd be a quiet night for Vinsanity, as he finished with just eight points. Blair rebounded the miss, one of 14 offensive rebounds the Spurs allowed.
8:15 - Blair missed the put-back, because that's what DeJuan Blair does. Tim Duncan rebounded the miss and got it out to Tony Parker on the fast break. Parker had a 3-on-2, with Kawhi Leonard streaking down the wing, but elected to take it to the rim.
8:13 - Monta Ellis had it all Wednesday night, including the benefit of the charge call when Parker barreled into him. Turnover no. 13, an unwise forced drive when passing options were available.
8:00 - the Spurs got a rare miss from Harris, with the ball deflecting off Blair on the attempted board. On the other trip down, Duncan hit a short jumper to make it 36-34, Mavs. The Spurs were shooting 71 percent and down a bucket. That is hard to do.
7:26 - Kawhi Leonard, who was subbed out a bit earlier than usual in the first quarter after picking up his second foul, was far too aggressive in trying to force a steal against Carter. The refs rightly called the foul, a very foolish attempt that not only put the Mavs in the penalty, but also forced Leonard to the bench for the half, scoreless.
7:12 - after Carter made the first free throw and missed the second, Blair rebounded the miss. Quickly after Ellis hit a jumper to reach double figures. He'd go on to score 13 in the first half on the way to 20 for the game. 39-34. Again, the Spurs were shooting 71 percent.
6:58 - Blair, naturally, was called for a defensive three-second violation. Parker missed the technical, before ...
6:45 - Blair fouled Parker on a lay-up attempt. Parker missed the first freebie. He finished 2-of-5 from the line. Manu Ginobili was 4-of-7. The Spurs were 18-of-29 from the line. Dallas was 15-of-16.
So there you go. Turnovers. Bad defense. Crummy rebounding. Awful free throw shooting. The four pony-men of the Mavopalypse.
I mean, good lord, 24 turnovers! That's one every two minutes. (Yup. Math skills: I got 'em.) Manu Ginobili had a quarter of them, and two or three were even his fault, so I guess, begrudgingly, I have to admit this might be a thing where we're going to have to cover our eyes with him these whole playoffs, as he just can't seem to get a call when people poke and prod at him.
He was far from the only culprit, of course. Six other Spurs committed at least two giveaways and there were two shot clock violations to boot. The Mavs capitalized relentlessly, with 33 points off those turnovers and the Spurs transition defense was sorely lacking. They fouled, they lost shooters, they failed to successfully contest a layup. Basically, they turned into the Lakers.
Surprisingly, the Spurs had just 10 turnovers in the first game. It's not like the Mavs radically changed up their defense or did anything much differently. The Spurs were just careless with a lot of unforced stuff -- from travels, to lazy soft-floating-diagonal jump passes in the half court, to committing charges to simply having the ball bounce off their hands and feet. Very few of the giveaways were acts of preternatural athleticism and awe-inspiring anticipation by the Mavs. They were just kind of there.
Speaking of Ginobili, it's a shame to waste what's likely to be his best shooting game of the playoffs. He was 9-of-10, including 5-of-5 from downtown, before a couple of misses in garbage time. While his stroke looked good, what was troubling for me was that very few of his shots came off passes from others. He pretty much just shot them off the dribble, and they were fairly decently contested. The Spurs had only 17 assists for the game, and it's not like they shot poorly.
In fact, they shot 50 percent from the field and 50 percent from three. Obviously both percentages fell off in the second half, but you knew they would. Their blistering first-half pace was unsustainable, especially when they weren't creating many easy looks for each other. What wasn't unsustainable, unfortunately, were the turnovers. 15 in the first half, nine more in the second half.
It felt like the Mavs were making every shot, but really only Harris (7-of-9, 18 points) and Shawn Marion (8-of-10, 20 points) killed them. Ellis was far better than Game 1, but still scored 21 points on 20 shots. Dirk Nowitzki had 16 on 19 shots. Jose Calderon was on fire in the third quarter and still finished 5-of-10, with 12 points. Dallas shot 49 percent from the field and 38 percent from three.
The problem was the, uh, small matter of them attempting 28 more shots. 28! Dallas squeezed off 92 field goal attempts to the Spurs' 64. At the rate San Antonio was turning it over they would've had to play an additional 21 minutes to get to 92 field goal attempts.
One team was sloppy with the ball and one was more careful, but that doesn't tell the whole story of the steal stat, which was 13-to-1 in favor of the Mavs. How can the Spurs play a whole 48-minute game and come up with one steal? That's lazy, lethargic, inactive defense. A big part of that is Leonard playing just 22 minutes, but still. No matter how well an opponent executes, finishing with just one steal is absurd. The Spurs also had just three blocks.
This was the worst I've ever seen Leonard play as a Spur. Really, it's not even close. Foolish decision making, awful, sluggish defense (even Carter was driving past him easily) and a total non-factor on offense who belatedly decided to chuck away for a spell in the fourth. I don't know where his head was at but he was clearly unfocused on the game, and it was telling that he didn't stick around afterward with the press. It's not like Leonard has ever been much of a media-friendly guy, but he was in no mood to offer explanations or excuses.
We can only hope that whatever is plaguing him won't continue, or the Spurs are in huge trouble.
Meanwhile, Ginobili, even with his turnover binge, continues to be the only bright spot from an otherwise disastrous bench. Diaw did not come up with a singe rebound in 17 minutes and was off the sheet completely save for two layups and two turnovers. He finished -21. Patty Mills hit 1-of-7 shots, almost all of them wide open looks, and he couldn't be hidden on anyone defensively. The biggest culprit, again, was Marco Belinelli, whose fingerprints were all over each of the Mavs' four big runs in the game. He finished -31 in 29 minutes, with woeful transition defense.
Frankly, I don't know what the solution is for these guys. Except for a brief spell early in the second quarter, they were miserable. The shots will come and go but what we saw from San Antonio all year is that they just get stops. You take Leonard, Splitter and Duncan out and the stops dry up. Pop might have to seriously consider inserting Belinelli in the starting lineup and using Green as a stopper with the second unit, especially if he stubbornly decides to stick with Leonard on Ellis.
Which I think is a mistake, by the way. Ellis is just too small and too quick for Leonard. The better match-up would be to put Green on Ellis and Leonard on Marion, who he wouldn't have to stick too close to, and it'd free him up to play free safety and cause havoc. Leonard's offense is sparked by defensive energy, so giving him a chance to make things happen early would be a boost.
If not Green, then I'd just as soon put Parker on Ellis, take our lumps there and shut everyone else down. Parker gets motivated by playing against top scorers anyway.
The Mavs killed the Spurs with a million high screens involving any of their three guards and Nowitzki. More often than not, the guards shot, with the second big sagging back rather than hedging hard and forcing another pass. On the rare occasion an extra pass was needed, Carter or Marion hit from the corner. I think the proper way to play it depends on how hot or not anyone is at a given time. If the guard in question doesn't have it going, let him shoot. If he does, force the pass and take your chances. I'd let Marion shoot all day. Carter, not so much.
Offensively it was disappointing to see, for the second game in a row, for Ginobili to check in early for Green, which forced Calderon to guard him, only for Gino to not touch the ball for several trips until Calderon was subbed out. There were a number of mismatches the Spurs didn't exploit early. Leonard had Ellis on him and never posted up.
Sorry, but a lot of the blame here has to go to Parker. He was way too focused on his mismatches on switches with the Mavs bigs when there was better stuff available. The Spurs started off well, but stagnated after a few minutes and Parker never recovered. He was outplayed badly by his counterparts and needs to be much better. He's spending too much time dribbling and trying to set up his shots. All it's doing is making everyone else stand around. Duncan had five field goal attempts in 30 minutes, with Blair in the game for large chunks. That's on Parker. He stands to improve more than anyone.
How about starting Belinelli to put Calderon in a compromised position right away and make him think about defense a bit. Focus on posting Leonard up whenever Ellis is on him and let Parker play Ellis on the other end while locking up everyone else. Remember, the turnaround against Golden State last year was when Leonard shut down Klay Thompson? Kawhi should someone closer to his size.
The parallels to last year's Golden State series are striking. Last season, in Game 1 of their semifinal series, the Warriors, who hadn't beaten the Spurs in San Antonio in the Duncan Era, were up 16 with little over four minutes to go before the Spurs furiously rallied to catch them, eventually winning on a Ginobili three in double overtime.
Mentally devastating or emotionally crushing for the Warriors? Hardly. They thumped the Spurs in Game 2, behind Thompson's eight threes and 34 points. They had their win in San Antonio at last.
In Game 3, Pop switched Leonard onto Thompson, they took the rabid Warriors' crowd out of it early with a great first quarter and Parker was sensational with 32 points, while Duncan added 23. The Spurs had 11 turnovers all night and held the Warriors to 39 percent shooting. Thompson scored 17 on 20 shots. The rest is history.
We can only hope that's the model to follow, the overconfident, invincible-against-this-foe Spurs being punched in the mouth, regrouping, and redoubling their efforts once the fear has been properly instilled in them. We'll see.
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