Three straight close games, three wins, and maybe three years taken away from the lives of Spurs fans. The San Antonio Spurs, who are in the midst of putting together another impressive winning streak, seem to be living on the edge these past three games, escaping their opponents by an average of 3 points with the latest coming in this 112-06 overtime conquest of the Memphis Grizzlies.
Playing without the suspended Rudy Gay (flagrant foul 2 vs. Rockets), the Grizzlies hung tough with solid contributions from Zach Randolph (24 points, 21 rebounds) and starter-turned-6th man-turned starter again OJ Mayo (27 points). But despite a determined effort by the young ball club, they couldn't get past the Spurs and Tony Parker, who sliced and diced Memphis' putrid defense to pour in 37 points and hand out 9 assists in leading the league's top team to its 23rd win.
Since it's the weekend, I'm not actually rushing this recap like the previous ones. Let's see what happens, after the jump.
Music... just because.
A Little Story: The Compromise
December 2, 2010 -- 10:05 pm, San Antonio, Texas
After another four grinding hours of watching game tape, Gregg Popovich finally dismisses his bleary-eyed assistants, thanking his men for putting up with a thousand complaints that seemingly multiply tenfold after every loss. Pop's had his share of losses in more than a decade's worth of coaching, but still takes each one probably as painful as any other. "I don't know why losing makes me feel older, but winning doesn't make me any younger," he jabbed at new assistant Jacque Vaughn. "It's a mystery why I put up with this, I tell ya."
Despite the league-famous biting sarcasm, he couldn't help but break open a smile. He looks pleased. After all, this latest loss to the lowly Clippers -- the worst team in the league punching a hole through the best team's nearly invincible armor -- will serve his under-the-radar tactics quite well. They've been winning too much to garner the undesired attention of Stern and the NBA, and what better way to fade into obscurity again by letting the new darling big man, Blake Griffin, earn his pro stripes against the slowly evaporating aura of Tim Duncan.
Pop is the last one to head out of the video room, closing the door behind him and about to call it a day's work when he heard the faint sound of a ball swishing through the net -- music to any basketball lover's ears, but more like a ludicrous noise for a coach at this time of the night. We have a game tomorrow. Who the hell could still be here? He stomps towards the practice court, where the light at the far-end half of the basket illuminates the back of a wiry basketball player, but bounces off a familiar bald spot.
"What the... why are you still here?"
"I can't sleep... " (makes a grunting sound as he heaves another shot from the top of the key)
"Get outta here. Go home. We got a game tomorrow. I need you rested. Those Wolves are aching to get back at us, David Kahn's stupidity be damned."
The ball ricochets off the side of the rim and spins into Popovich, who catches and lets the ball rest gently in his hands.
"I shot 1-6 from three yesterday, Pop. Five of fifteen overall. I gotta be on top of my game tomorrow. I can't let us down again," Ginobili replies as he picks up another one of five basketballs sprawled all over the court. He performs a behind-the-back dribble, steps back and fires a 16-footer.
"For chrissake, Manu! We're 15 and 3, and sitting on top of the league! Is this not enough for you? Sooner or later, I'm going to run you and Timmy ragged out there. Who knows what could happen if I keep on giving both of you these minutes?"
"It's not going to be a problem, Coach. I like winning. The team likes winning. You of all people, like winning. Don't mind what the league thinks. I say let's keep on doing it."
Incensed by the constant sound of the W-word, Pop angrily responds, "The hell do I care about winning if you're breaking down in April!"
Manu finally stops shooting, breathing heavily, hands on his knees while giving Pop a curious stare. No, the best player on currently the league's best team doesn't feel insulted about his coach's lack of trust. Pop has trusted him before -- in his past international sojourns, even as the organization watched with horror as another injury happened. Pop has trusted him to break off plays to allow Ginobili to be Ginobili. Even during an exhibition game, Pop has trusted Manu to draw up a last-second play that led to a Gary Neal corner three and the win. To be fair to the old man, he has trusted enough. Maybe too much, in fact.
"Okay," Manu sighed, "Can we make a compromise, then?"
"Who said you have a say in this matter?" asked Pop.
"You're not the one playing."
"Good point. Fine. But you know this 'winning early' crap was your idea."
Manu walks over to Pop slowly, carefully pondering his words to make sure he doesn't anger his coach any further. "When I'm out there, I can't allow us to lose, you know that."
"You kidding me? You'd kill somebody just to win games. If you didn't speak English in a funny way like foreigners do, people might've mistaken you for Kobe."
"Ouch, Pop. That's too much. But seriously, I think I know how to make us fly off the map again."
Popovich's eyes narrowed at the sound of his team returning to irrelevancy.
"You can coach whatever you want out there. Play Matt 20+ minutes. Continue to bench Tiago. Let us shoot 20-plus attempts from three every game. Don't play Tim in fourth quarters if you like. Play Ime. Keep games close. Bring down that point differential if possible. If we lose, we lose."
"I'm agreeable to that. Is there anything else?"
"If we have chances to win games towards the end, I want the ball."
"Hah! As if that can still be debated. You're my best closer out there. I'll have Tim shove the ball down your throat if you don't take it on the last play."
Both coach and player share a laugh, albeit a nervous one. What is this guy up to now? Popovich wonders.
"Sure. So even if we win those close games, the fact that they're close means people will say that we're beatable. They'll tell others we can't possibly keep this up. You know, like Dallas last year."
"Yes... that should get those pests off my lawn. So, that's it?"
Ginobili takes away the ball Pop has been holding, and prepares to unleash his lefty jumper but not before giving Pop a quick sneer and a comment.
"If I'm the one taking the last shot, your team will keep on winning. Guess you'll just have to deal with it."
I suck at writing fiction, but let me get to the game now.
Cruisin'... for a Bruisin'
I'm not sure why some people were expecting a blowout for this one. The Grizzlies were a decent team last season, and maybe could've gotten in the playoffs if they were playing in the East. They have a nice collection of talent -- two big men who have above-average skills in Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, an All-Star wingman in Rudy Gay, and young talented guards in OJ Mayo and Mike Conley. Maybe two more years together, and this core can do some damage in the West, granted they already have TWO of what the OKC Thunder are lacking -- a quality big man.
Even if Rudy Gay was MIA, there are instances when teams tend to play better when their star player is out. Not on a consistent basis, of course, but there will be players wanting to step in and try to fill the void. They'll see it as an opportunity to show what they can do, and this is what happened in this game with Mayo moving back to the starting lineup. The kid torched the Spurs for 27 points, mostly off smooth jumpers. His season hasn't gotten off to a good start, but he's been a monster every time he went up against the Spurs, averaging 22.5 points in four meetings with the silver and black a season ago. He sure wanted to prove a point to his coach tonight, and did so if I may add.
The Spurs didn't have such a great first half. They led by nine points early on, but allowed the Grizzlies to take control of the game with a massive 20-5 run. San Antonio's defense was just plain awful for the better part -- we allowed them to run in transition (I remember three straight possessions where the Grizz got a fastbreak layup), played cotton-soft paint defense, and were mostly lethargic with rotations.
It didn't help that Udoka came in and made a fool of himself. When he got chased off the three-point line, he dribbled straight into Mordor and turned the ball over. Fatality also made some silly passes that got stolen, and he shot this one undergoal stab that hit the bottom of the rim and bounced off to the opponent for a fast break. It was just fugly.
Also, Zach Randolph happened. It looks like we'll constantly be facing difficulty with wide-bodied big men eating up that glass, as already experienced with the Loveness Monster. Z-Bo just flat out owned every Spur big man on the boards as he gathered TEN offensive rebounds (yeah, you read that right), ate Bonner's sandwich and took Blair's picnic basket as well. The repetitive offensive rebound-putback sequences looked like a Pac-Man game but this one played with an oversized PacMan gobbling up orange instead of yellow balls. Ugh.
Good thing though, is we actually have a bench. Pop
demanded prayed for it, and the FSM granted. With RJ in foul trouble and Tony just keeping the team close, Manu Ginobili went back to being leader of the BAM, and collected most of his assists playing with the second stringers. He had several nice passes to open guys -- Chris Quinn slipped on the One Ring To Rule Them All and scored 8 points in the second quarter. Tiago Splitter assisted on 2 baskets, too, one of them to Manu for an uncontested layup. Gary Neal also played well, draining a three, a stop-and-pop jumper in transition and a floater plus-one to give the Spurs some breathing room.
A vaincre sans péril, on triomphe sans gloire ("To win without risk is a triumph without glory")
The second half started off most awesomely with Tony doing what he does best -- one-man fastbreaking, spinning and twirling for beautiful layups (who says the Spurs are boring???), and lofting those pretty runners above the heads of Gasol and Zachary. For a good chunk of the period there, Tony made me forget about Manu. Blasphemous, I know, but you gotta give some love for the Wee Frenchie, right?
Richard Jefferson also got into the scoring act, draining two threes, assisting to Timmeh for the and-1 and finishing off his 3rd quarter barrage with an alley oop. Then the crummy refs, determined to keep the Spurs from destroying the league's "fun" factor, called Rage for his 4th foul to effectively banish 2.0 from the party. Booo.
The fourth quarter saw Memphis come roaring back behind the stellar play of Randolph and Mayo, giving the Grizz a two-point lead. That fleeting experience would be brief, however, as Tony Parker again came back to dominate Mike Conley as if to say, "YOU DON"T DESERVE THAT CONTRACT!" Poor Mike was beaten to the punch all day, and even rookie Greivis Vasquez took a beating as well. Tony scored nine of the final ten of the Spurs' points in regulation before RJ flubbed an alley oop attempt that would've sealed the game. Instead, we get the Mayonnaise launching a long bomb to tie. We're goin' to oooovertime!
There is Nothing to Fear but... Yourself
"What is your deepest fear, Mr. Cruz?"
One of the cable channels here kept on showing Coach Carter, starring Samuel L. Jackson, the past week (twice or thrice, I've caught it), and even though it's "just another basketball movie," I liked it. The question above was something Coach Carter often posed to his players. It reminded me of a tried-and-tested Popovich tactic, which he terms "appropriate fear."
Pop believes in the idea that unless you at least have a bit of fear in your opponent, you won't have that necessary edge to win basketball games, especially the close and pressure-packed ones. Everyone knows the Spurs could've made it easier for themselves to win comfortably these last few games without those boneheaded mistakes. But these close games should also help somehow in instilling that appropriate fear to the team -- that despite our record, anyone is still very much capable of beating us at any time.
For 48 minutes, most of the players lacked that appropriate fear which allowed the Grizzlies to make a game out of it. And then for 5 minutes, the urgency -- the fear -- appeared. As Parker kept on blasting the jets on offense, the defense finally caught up and clamped down. They hacked or blocked anyone who dared go to the hole to discourage driving into the lane, and added a few more stops here and there to get the W.
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
This is what Timo Cruz, quoting Marianne Williamson's Our Deepest Fear, said just when Coach Carter was about to leave the team after a school jury voted for his self-imposed team lockout to end. I think it's been somewhat apropos the last three games.
I look at the Celtics and what they've done the last three years, and they're more of a bully than a respectful squad. Their swagger is at levels unknown, and they've used it to the hilt to abuse their opponents both verbally and physically. Sure, it has produced a ring but I don't think I can stand to watch that kind of basketball. But that's just me.
And then you have the Spurs, led by our own Big Three. This team isn't lacking for self-belief, but their silence and unassuming ways are one of the manifestations of their respect for the team on the other side of the court. Apart from that, these Spurs know how much of a force they can be this season. There's a tendency to relax because they know that their superb three-point shooting can bail them out of games, or that Manu will always be there to save the day, or Timmy to summon his sleeping, dominant self when needed the most. But just like in this game, the lack of appropriate fear punished our players to play longer, tougher minutes instead.
This team isn't inadequate in the least bit, as it has proven it can win in any shape or form possible. But if it gets its offense AND defense consistently right? They can be downright scary, and the Spurs should be scared of themselves. Because if they don't use their strengths properly and collectively, the season can get as long as the past three games have been.
Your Three Stars
3 -- Richard Jefferson. 12 points, 9 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, 4 TOs. Could've switched him for Timmy because of Rage's stupid plays towards the end (missed oop and stepping out of bounds 45 feet away from the basket). But he did redeem himself by grabbing all-important rebounds down the stretch, and didn't check out mentally despite foul trouble. Another thing I like about 2.0 is that he's developed that mentality of being a "next possession" guy. That whatever happens, positive or no, forget about it and make good on the next one.
2 -- Manu Ginobili. 15 points, 9 assists, 3 rebounds, 1 steal, 2 TOs. Seemed like a quiet night for him, but he let his passing speak for his game today.
1 -- Tony Parker. 37 points (15-21 FGs), 9 assists, 2 rebounds, 1 steal, 2 TOs, 6-10 FTs. The missed freebies are a pretty sore stat, but everything else was perfect. I forget sometimes that we have three okay players who can score 30 at any given night (four if you want to count Peanut) , and this one was definitely Parker's night.
Up Next: The new-look Phoenix Suns come to the AT&T, and we are all hoping that they still have chemistry issues from the trade. Also, Nash took a shot at the back of the neck and didn't return in their last game versus Dallas, so that might work for us as well.