Thanks to Lauri, who added the "Go Spurs Go"
Before we embark together on this latest rambling journey, filled as ever with the usual obvious observations, trivial statistics and tangents that always manage to be both random and uninteresting, I think it worthwhile to point out that despite the post's oh-so-current headline I have not in fact seen the Benjamin Button movie starring Brad Pitt nor read the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story on which it's based. I gather, however, that the plot involves a man who ages in reverse, having been born as an old man-baby who over the years eventually turns into a baby-old man.
Am I far off base?
Now, not having seen the film, I can roughly imagine what Mr. Button looked like at birth. Like a miniature old man. Probably a disturbing sight for his mother and the doctor (and of course, the audience) but not the worst thing in the world. I mean, babies are supposed to be all wrinkly anyway, so how bad can a baby-sized old man be?
The other end of the spectrum though, sounds absolutely horrifying. If he's born a tiny old man, and I assume he is because really how else can he exit the womb, then it stands to reason that he'll die as roughly a 5'6"ish baby. I do not know if the film showed this scene nor do I want to know. Just the prospect of it (along with the movie's nearly three hour running time and the chick-flickness of it all) has kept me out of the theater. There are, after all, somethings we can never un-see, and if a man-sized baby isn't nightmare fuel, then I don't know what is.
What does all this have to do with our San Antonio Spurs, you ask, impatiently.
Not a god damn thing, really. And everything.
The Spurs have gone all topsy-turvy on us. Up is down, left is right, black is white and Michael Finley doesn't suck. In fact, Finley's been a stone-cold, ice water in his veins assassin, hitting one clutch shot after the next, burying his ex-Maverick teammates in a hail of fourth quarter threes one night then canning one momentum-turning jumper after another the next.
It'd be one thing if it was just Findog. Anyone can get hot for two games in a row. Anyone. But a whole team? All of a sudden the assorted puzzle pieces of our roster, all the guys that looked the whole year to be un-athletic, uninterested, and most of all, uninspired, have started to fit together, seamlessly, into a cohesive unit of ass-kickers. Everyone contributes, everyone knows their role, and everyone plays like their hair is on fire, yet intelligently, all at once. Imagine if James Naismith and Karl Marx had a baby. That's our team right now. Glorious, beautiful Communism, but actually applied to something worthwhile- a professional basketball team - instead of something I don't much care about - a functional working society.
Let's count all of the things that are happening that shouldn't be, for kicks.
1) Fab and Rocket are playing excellent defense, particularly on Dirk
2) Tony is acting like a genuine leader
3) Finley's aforementioned clutchness
4) The Spurs playing their best defense of the season without their best defensive player
5) The team is as fun to watch as it's ever been. (More on this later.)
It boggles the mind. So, anyway, how did this happen? The only theories I could give would be the same ones you've thought of:
The oft-chronicled effect of the Rodeo Road Trip, bringing everyone together.
The team always starts to peak this time of year.
The guys relaxed and focused when they finally realized that none of them were going to be dealt and that this was going to be the playoff roster, similar to the sudden turnaround the team made in the '07 season.
Really, when you think about it, all three of those things are pretty much related. The Rodeo Road Trip always happens in January/February, it always overlaps the league's trade deadline, and the team always gels either during it or shortly afterward. I think the only different ingredient we can throw into our feel-good stew is the collective desperation necessitated by the absences of Tim and Manu. The guys all had to play this well to win. There was no other way.
Anyway, let's briefly discuss the past two games individually.
Spurs 93, Mavericks 76
By now we know the particulars. As John Hollinger already stated, Parker personally accounted for more points than Dallas' entire team when he was on the floor, 66-54. Not only did Tony have his hand in our first 24 points, with 18 and three assists, but I was most impressed with his unselfishness on a play late in the first quarter. Parker had already reeled off 18 consecutive points and was well within range of Manu's team record, 24 straight, which he recorded at Atlanta a couple years back. But instead of trying to set a new mark, Parker dished to an open Oberto for an easy layup. To me, this showed a lot of leadership and maturity, two attributes where I (and many others) have oft-criticized him for lacking in the past.
This is what leadership and maturity looks like, bitches. Deal with it.
However, while Tony started the game like he was from another galaxy, hitting 10 of his first 11 shots, he finished it like he was back in New York, making only four of his final 21 to finish with a fairly pedestrian 15-of-32. 37 points sounds pretty good, but on 32 shots it's basically Iversonian.
What saved Parker's night from looking like a statistical downer for the past three quarters after his 18 and 3 opening stanza (I texted Matthew that I thought Tony's first quarter was "acceptable") was the nine dimes he dished, including five in the fourth quarter. He repeatedly gave Finley wide open looks in the fourth and was smart enough to get it to the hot man to turn the game into a laugher.
The Mavericks, meanwhile, were clearly not prepared for the game. Maybe their whole gameplan revolved around stopping Duncan and they found out too late that he wasn't playing. Or maybe they did know but didn't come out with the proper intensity, figuring that just throwing their jerseys on the court would be enough to get it done. Whatever the reason(s), they were absolutely putrid, and all the blame has to go to their three best players. The forward tandem of Nowitzki and The Big Bug combined for 33 points on 32 shots, while Jason Kidd, the supposed "second best player in the league" according to Mark Cuban's convoluted metrics (which aren't nearly as sophisticated as Stampler's patented "MEJV Ratings") managed a craptacular two points and four assists, while notching a -19. The only Mav that could hold his head up in the locker room afterward was reserve James Singleton, a whodat who somehow wound up with 14 and 14, including seven offensive boards.
Besides Tony and Fin, Kurt Thomas was a beast for us once again, getting a double-double of his own and tying his season high of 15 caroms. Really, ever since the Wallace/Camby/Carter/whomever trade rumors started, Thomas picked up his play significantly, perhaps realizing that if he didn't he was either going to be dealt or lose his spot in the rotation to the newcomer. After all, if Vinsanity came aboard (and assuming Manu was healthy) we know Pop was gonna play an assload of Tinyball. For February Thomas has been averaging 7.1 points (on 58.6% shooting) and 8 rebounds (2.6 offensive) and the numbers are even better in his past five games: 8.0 points (on 66.7%), 8.6 rebounds and even chipping in with 1.4 blocks.
As long as the combo of Thomas and Bonner sustain their current level of play, we don't need to acquire another big.
While nobody, except arguably Fab stood out from the bench brigade, all of these guys played ferociously in their own end. Alright, I guess Hill struggled in his first stint against J.J. Barea, but he was much better in the second half. The most impressive part of the defensive effort to me was the aggressive manner in which we challenged Nowitzki, almost always doubling him, and often with both bigs. This guy has simply murdered us almost every time we've faced him, and almost always we've played him straight up. I guess with Tim out Pop figured he had nothing to lose and we tried something new. We attacked Dirk and dared him to make the right pass and he really didn't hurt us all night. And even when we had only one guy on him, Fab stuck his nose in there and did a hell of a job. That block by Bruce at the end was icing on the strudel. Which for all I know might be a disgusting idea. (I'm not a pastry guy.)
Spurs 99, Blazers 84 SA: 39-17 1st in Southwest
Is it me or has our schedule been totally fucked this year? Not only was the Rodeo Road Trip totally disjointed with those two home stops, but this was the second time we've had a home-home back-to-back, something I can't ever recall in all my years as a Spurs fan. What's the point of being at home if you can't rest?
Anyway, even though they were the visitors, and even though they too played the night before, this game seemed to favor the younger, healthier Blazers. They were 14-1 in SEGABABAS and guys like Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge, not to mention young Frenchie Nicolas Batum, a guy many Spurs fans coveted in the draft, are the kind of tall, athletic guys that usually give us fits. Throw in Travis Outlaw and the saucy Rudy Fernandez (a Stampler favorite) and it was easy to imagine one endless conga line to the hoop with no Duncan to impede anyone's progress. Not only was this Blazer team alarmingly springier than our depleted, tired bunch, but, unlike the Mavs, they were too well managed to underestimate us, and pretty much everybody but their towel guy can hit an open 20-footer.
So imagine my delight with the way we handled them. Again, Tony had sensational numbers, with 39 and 9, only this time he was a terror from beginning to end, with no slumps. Racking up 39 points on 27 shots, and having but one indiscretion with the ball all night, he somehow topped his impressive performance the night before. In fact, it was easily the best two game stretch of his impressive career, and I'm not even qualifying it by writing "considering that Tim and Manu were out."
I even did the research, if you don't believe me, just to show that I can do charts for people besides Manu.
Parker Consecutive Game Highs
’01-02 Points: 41 Assists: 16 Both: 54 (41 points, 13 assists)
’02-03 Points: 54 Assists: 20 Both: 69 (54 points, 15 assists)
’03-04 Points: 45 Assists: 24 Both: 60 (41 points, 19 assists)
’04-05 Points: 62 Assists: 22 Both: 83 (62 points, 21 assists)
’05-06 Points: 55 Assists: 21 Both: 74 (55 points, 19 assists)
’06-07 Points: 62 Assists: 24 Both: 74 (62 points, 12 assists)
’07-08 Points: 63 Assists: 23 Both: 81 (63 points, 18 assists)
’08-09 Points: 77 Assists: 21 Both: 97 (76 points, 21 assists)
All right, all right, I did one for Manu too, you pricks. All of his consecutive game highs came last season.
Manu: Points: 80 Assists: 19 Both: 94 (80 points, 14 assists)
Anyway, as you can see, the 76 points Parker scored is only one fewer than his previous two-game best, also set this year (getting 55 in one game helps), and the 21 dimes is only three fewer than his career consecutive game high of 24, which he's done twice. Add up the points and assists and the combined 97 is 14 more than any other two game stretch of his career. Talk about picking up the slack. Parker's been amazing, any way you slice it. And that's not even taking into account his combined +52 in the two games, or that once again when he was on the floor he was responsible for more points than the entire other team (outscoring Portland 61-53). Also, as Matthew pointed out, while Tony combined for 76 points, 21 assists, 3 turnovers and a +52 in a little over 24 hours, his counterparts, Jason Kidd and Steve "Dewey" Blake totaled two points (on 1-14 shooting), five assists, two turnovers, and a -30 in about 59 minutes.
Poor Blake. Not only is he a dead ringer for a child actor (Erik Per Sullivan of "Malcolm In The Middle"), but he scored zero points and had one measly assist in 24 minutes. Has one starting point guard ever so badly outplayed another in an NBA game before?
Parker's heroics aside, kudos have to go once again to Fin (13 points on 6-11) and Rocket (15 on 6-9) who both hit many crucial long range bombs to always keep the Blazers at arm's length and to Fab who notched a fabulous +20 in his 26 minutes on the floor, doing all kinds of savvy/annoying Fab things. Joel Pryzbilla and company did manage to rassle 13 offensive rebounds, and our defense couldn't quite rotate to every shot (they're quite good at moving the ball to get open looks from the corners, the most efficient shot in basketball, proving that their front office staff knows how to use a computer), but we did manage to shut down both Roy and Aldridge (a combined 27 points on 27 shots) and held them to 37% shooting as a team. As with the Mavs, their most effective guys were reserves, with Outlaw and Channing Frye both hurting us with jumpers.
I don't really have anything all that different to say about this game that couldn't also apply to the Dallas game, but to go back to the fifth point on my Benjamin Button analogy, the Spurs have been as much fun to watch these past two games as they've ever been. I'm on the edge of my seat again, yelling at the TV, at my laptop, cheering them on full throat like it's the playoffs. Not only have I thrown all my chips into the table, but, remarkably, it took the absence of Manu and Timmy to make me fall in love with the '08-09 Spurs. I'm fully invested in these guys. Not just the big three, but Kurt, Mace, Rocket, Bruce, Fin, Fab, Hill, everybody. I can't imagine a single one of these guys not on the roster. Nor do I want to. I believe in this team. I really think if they play to their full potential, they can go the distance and capture the fifth ring to shove it in all the naysayers' faces.
The guys are playing inspired, they're playing together, they're playing for one another and everyone seems to be peaking at once. Even curmudgeonly ol' Pop admitted after the game that
"The last four games, we've been the defensive team we've been in the past," Popovich said. "If we can continue that, I think we'll be a pretty good team."
and by "pretty good team" he doesn't mean the second round of the playoffs, people.
Right now nothing seems impossible for this team. After all, can you imagine the Lakers winning two straight against Western playoff teams without Kobe and Pau? Yeah, I guess it's not fair to compare Tony to Lamar Odom, but still, be afraid of a healthy Spurs team in April, be very afraid.