Western Conference Semi-Final vs. Portland: Spurs 114, Blazers 97 Series: 2-0, Spurs
While most of the American sports-nut audience was enraptured by the first round of the NFL draft last night, the Spurs quietly and fairly anonymously went about the business of systematically suffocating the talented, precocious Blazers in the second game of their second round series. Sadly, but typically for this franchise, not only were the players on the court completely upstaged by the simple reading of names in another sport, but even in their own game the lead story was not the events of the game or any of its participants but rather a snake that was discovered in Portland's locker room before the game. The heroics of Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter and Tony Parker all fell "below the fold," as they say they in the newspaper biz. (Which is just how the Spurs' brass like it, by the way.)
I was as guilty of this as anyone, by the way. This is how I took in Game 2, at a sports bar:
The basketball in the upper left corner, hockey on the right, and the draft --on mute, the only way it should ever be viewed-- taking not one but two screens on the bottom, since both ESPN and the NFL Network broadcast it. (Thankfully, one of those was changed to the San Francisco Giants game when that started.)
Still, I found it wholly appropriate that Game 2 unfolded the way it did, on the eve of the draft, because the Spurs are a perfect example of the farce that is the stereotypical cookie-cutter modern definition of "athleticism," i.e. guys who are the fastest runners, the highest leapers and the most explosive accelerators.
When we think of the best current NBA athletes the guys who leap --literally-- to mind are LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin, and maybe dudes like DeAndre Jordan for a big or a John Wall for a small. With James, Westbrook and Griffin in particular, they can seemingly do it all athletically. They're thickly musclebound, to the degree that people just bounce off of them when they drive to the hole. They jump out of the gym. They run fast and accelerate even faster. They fluidly change directions without slowing down. Most important of all --and Kevin Durant fits in this category particularly-- they seem to have a boundless reserve of stamina, as though they could play a doubleheader if they had to, like a modern Ernie Banks in tanktops.
However, athletes come in all shapes, sizes and forms, and Spurs general manger R.C. Buford was recently honored with a well-deserved Executive of the Year award because of his ability to find, from all corners of the world, the kind of diamond-in-the-rough athletes that his peers miss. It's easy to quantify the biggest, the fastest and the strongest, but what Buford's done better than anyone has been to comb the proverbial desert for players with specific basketball skills, along with elite athletic abilities in one or two areas and the character and work ethic to fit in with the Spurs' culture.
Take Splitter, for example. By most appearances he's the stereotypical "white stiff" big man. He's in his athletic prime but still can't jump over a scouting report. He's not particularly coordinated, as his hundreds of wayward hook shots can attest to. There was one pitiful play in Game 2 where he got checked by the underside of the rim on an open layup.
However, there's a reason that All-Stars like Dirk Nowitzki and LaMarcus Aldridge have shot a combined 29-of-70 against Splitter so far in the playoffs. There's a reason why he's been among the league leaders in defensive rating the past two seasons and the overall leader in net rating so far this postseason. There's a reason that Aldridge has shot 32 percent against Splitter and 55 percent against other Spurs defenders.
While Splitter isn't an explosive or even average leaper, he does possess elite lateral mobility for a big. He can shuffle his feet quickly side to side without losing balance or leverage and is quick enough to hedge out far on the pick-and-roll and still recover to the dive man, similar to Dwight Howard during his peak years in Orlando.
Splitter is also disciplined enough to understand his limitations. He knows he's not going to block too many shots, so he's borrowed heavily from the "verticality" principle made famous by Indiana's Roy Hibbert. Instead of jumping, reaching or lunging into fouls, Splitter just keeps his arms straight in the air and alters shots that way, without fouling. The big Brazilian is still struggling to get the whistles in his favor on offense, particularly against smaller guys swiping down on him as he goes up with shots, but slowly but surely he's earned the benefit of the doubt from the zebras in his own end at least, which is a lot more important.
Combine with his defensive aptitude a new-found toughness on the glass, a deft passing touch and an unteachable sense of timing on the pick-and-roll, and what you have in Splitter is a very nice return for a 28th overall pick as well as someone who's unquestionably been the MVP of the Spurs playoff run so far.
(NBA.com's John Schuhmann has lots more of Splitter goodies here, by the way.)
Then there's Kawhi Leonard, a fellow who was drafted 15th overall by the Pacers in 2011 and looked redundant at the time considering that they already had Paul George and Danny Granger on the wings. We quickly came to discover that they drafted him in an arrangement with the Spurs, where San Antonio would send combo-guard George Hill to Indiana for Leonard's services. Two years of the Richard Jefferson experience was plenty long enough for Buford and coach Gregg Popovich to realize that even they aren't exempt from mistakes in evaluation and projection and that a Plan B was needed for a long-term small forward. They also came to understand, begrudgingly, that Hill had a ceiling as a player that was never going to be quite good enough for their needs.
Let's be clear straightaway: Leonard is NOT the athlete that a Paul George is. He can't run like him, can't jump like him, he isn't as fluid or explosive or as coordinated as him. George, like a Durant or a James, makes everything look so easy, effortless. Leonard is a bit stiffer, a bit boxier, more 90-degree angles than smooth curves.
What Leonard does have in spades though, is length, with a 7'3" wingspan and fingers that can dial long distance without a phone. It's not just the length though but also that Leonard has the anticipation and quickness to do something with it, swiping at balls and pouncing in passing lanes when opponents least suspect it. He rebounds far better than someone of his height and leaping ability should, but his massive, vacuum lock hands suck basketballs into their gravity.
The thing that has been a pleasant surprise for the Spurs, a quality that maybe Buford and Pop suspected was there but couldn't have predicted was in such abundance, was Leonard's burning desire for self-improvement. The kid started behind the development eight-ball thanks to being drafted in a lockout and it's like nobody told him he's caught up yet. The dribble, the shooting stroke, the post skills, the vision to find people on the move, all of these abilities have developed in a way none of us foresaw. Leonard was supposed to be a tweener who could possibly become a "3-and-D" guy if everything went well. What he's becoming instead is an amalgamation of the league's star threes, with some James here, some George there and even some Carmelo Anthony mixed in for good measure.
Leonard hit 8-of-9 shots yesterday and none of them were layups or dunks. He was 4-of-4 from downtown. Almost all of them were on the pull-up rather than catch-and-shoots. If he ever realized how good he is already, the Spurs would probably be unstoppable.
Go back a bit and you've got Tony Parker, the 28th overall pick from Paris, who was, at the time, a relatively unknown 18-year-old. Parker's frame was hardly imposing back then and even now, 13 years later, he doesn't exactly resemble Westbrook or even a Chris Paul in terms of stockiness. He's not at all an explosive leaper. I think the last time he dunked was 2005. His jumper, still streaky to this day, was even more broken back when he was a prospect than Leonard's.
What Parker had going for him though was incredible quickness, not in terms of overall running speed, but with his dribble. His ball-handling and ability to accelerate on the dribble was extraordinary. What truly made him unique though was his preternatural feel around the basket, his ability to make layups with either hand in all manner of angles, body contortions and positions. Plus he had an uncanny feel with that trademark "tear drop" shot, giving him the ability to score over shot-blockers even though he couldn't jump over them.
What cinched the pick though was, like Leonard, Parker's inner drive, his determination to keep improving year after year. He's absorbed more constant criticism from Pop than any Spur, pretty much from his first workout to now, and he keeps taking it and coming back for more, without any anger or bitterness. That ability to be professionally coached without taking the words to heart is unique as hell in modern sports. I don't know how Parker does it. I'd have to told Pop to go jump in a lake by 2003, once the Spurs made it known that they were pursuing Jason Kidd, and never looked back.
Finally there was Manu Ginobili, the 57th overall pick in 1999, a 22-year-old string bean who was just making a name for himself in Italy. Ginobili was one of the best athletes in that league, but as far as the NBA was concerned, even the young Manu (think 2003-2005) was never more than average athlete as far as shooting guards go, no more of an explosive leaper than a Joe Johnson or a Steve Smith, really. And while he was quick, he was never remotely anything resembling fast. He was also quite lean for his position, with a frame that was never going to get thick enough to handle guys posting him up. Also, and this was the troubling part, since he was a "shooting" guard: Ginobili's jumper was streaky at best, far less reliable than the average NBA prospect.
However, there were things that Ginobili had going for him that Buford saw. First and foremost --and this was most apparent at the international level-- he was utterly fearless. Not only did he drive to the basket with complete disregard for his body, but he was unafraid of the consequences of failure in anything he tried on the court, whether it was a big shot, a tricky pass or a gambling steal attempt.
The other thing that surely jumped out at Buford was Ginobili's knack for getting to the rim. He had a good first step, sure, but he also had this unique move, this snake-like zigzag two-step to the rim with his unusually long strides. There was nothing like it in the NBA.
Combine those attributes and you had a guy with average physical ability for his position just cramming it on people in the NBA. It's like he never got the memo that foreigners with his pigmentation weren't supposed to go to the basket hard. Gino just didn't care.
Then there was the fact (and this was in stark contrast to the American collegiate system that was producing an endless --and mostly useless-- supply of shooting guards in point guard bodies) that Ginobili had the handles, selflessness and court-vision of a point guard, but in a shooting guard's body. He saw the court in a way few people did, could anticipate openings three moves ahead and had the flexibility, coordination and skill to make all manner of passes in all manner of ways, like a Pete Maravich.
I think what made Manu worth gambling on though was the dude's competitiveness, which again was best exemplified in the international level. Ginobili simply refuses to accept losing and does whatever is necessary on both ends of the floor to make a difference, with this innate ability to not only bring out the best in his teammates but to bring out their competitiveness as well. He plays hard and it just becomes contagious. It's a competitive charisma, if it makes sense. You watch him just two or three games, and it's impossible not to notice. By hook or by crook Ginobili makes whoever is on the court with him better than they are without him.
Did Buford see any NBA athlete when he took a flyer on Ginobili? Maybe, maybe not. But he saw something. 15 years later, at an age where most shooting guards have long hung them up or become strictly catch-and-shoot specialists, Ginobili is still among the very best players in the world, far better than he has any business being, given the deterioration of his physical skills. His NBA tombstone might as well read, "Was always much better than he had any business being."
Saturday's news cycle will be dominated by Michael Sam in all likelihood. Whoever picks him will be making history, and if he doesn't get picked at all that will also be a sad commentary and even bigger news. The Spurs game will once again fade into the background, noteworthy only if the visitors find a mongoose or something in their locker room.
No matter how Game 3 unfolds though, I hope you take a minute to pay tribute to Buford. Anybody can evaluate a James or a Durant or a Tim Duncan for that matter. Finding difference-makers and Hall-of-Famers with 28th and 57th picks though? Now that's a story.
Your three stars:
3) Belinelli (1)
2) Leonard (7)
3) Splitter (23)