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Game #77 Recap: Spurs find comfort in downing Suns

As has been the case for the past decade, the Spurs could most always find a needed victory when playing the Phoenix Suns. Last post-season aside, all things black & silver heat up when playing the purple and orange squad from Arizona, regardless of degree of difficulty. Phoenix was without Steve Nash, a welcome but unnecessary break for the Spurs. The six game losing streak was bound to end with a healthy and finally free-of-rust Spurs squad playing at home. The bigger questions will remain at least until we see proof that the past two weeks were the aberration they appeared be. Until then, let's enjoy a victory, win number 58 to be precise.

A win is a win is a win. Some variation of that gets muttered by fans, players or coaches a few times during a season. Two weeks ago, some Spurs fans were judging wins by their aesthetic pleasure, margin of victory, rebounding numbers, or amount of minutes played by the Big-3 (too many!) or Tiago (not enough!). The six game losing streak was an excellent reminder to appreciate victory and keep all critique within context. One win, yes, one win only; over a sub-.500 team; missing their best player. But winning streaks must begin somewhere, and for certain they must begin with a win. After the gratuitous giveaways at Portland and Houston, never again take victory for granted, even when the ball is in the hands of the best backcourt in the NBA. Even the best have to execute all the way through.

Quarter 1
Speaking of execution, the Spurs can still do that better than any team. The entire first half had good ball movement and made shots. This game became a double digit mismatch at the 6:05 point of the first quarter, the point when George Hill entered the game for Manu. Over the remaining half quarter, Hill led a sixteen point swing that began as a one point deficit. First a layup assisted by Duncan against the Phoenix zone. He then ran down a defensive rebound instead of allowing it to easily go out of bounds for a Spurs "team rebound." A made floater followed as he cut toward the hoop, assisted again by Timmy. George contested a Grant Hill short jumper into a miss. After five total points from RJ and Tony, Hill made a technical FT, after which a Parker FT was the only interruption, as our Hill went on a personal 11-0 run to finish the quarter. He was certainly awake for the early game, and focused on bringing energy and points from the bench.
One player substitution that many anticipated was in what order the frontcourt bench players would replace starters Duncan and McDyess. Bonner came in for Dyess at the same game point that Hill came off the bench. Over two minutes later, Tiago Splitter came in for Mr. Duncan. Perhaps this moment was Pop wanting to give Tiago an easy bit of run that requires no further reading into. Or, perhaps Pop is making an adjustment in the rotation. Should the latter be true, these final six games would be the time to try out something playoff worthy while having not tipped your hand too soon to opponents' scouts. For the record, I'm glad he did this and hope it becomes the norm. Splitter has earned the opportunity and provides the team with a type of quick-footed paint defense not otherwise seen. Blair will still have opportunities in upcoming games against the Kings, Jazz, and the finale against the Suns, as staying conservative with the minutes of TD and Dyess is still a priority. Blair can also be the "bull in a china shop" energizer that will be needed at various moments in playoff games. He may no longer be one of the main bigs off the bench once the rotation gets trimmed, but he will still have some meaningful moments at least once per playoff series. That matters greatly when trying to make a championship run.

Quarter 2
Various observations I noted during this quarter of play: The 2-3 PHX zone was picked apart with the Spurs scoring at the rim. | Bonner gave effort, rebounding and scoring in the paint; if only he could shot block he'd be the extra big so many want to magically trade for. | Neal passes up an open 3 and passes to an even more open Bonner. Make! | An early &erson sighting and score. He does have a handsome jump shot. He then blocks a Grant Hill short jumper. Just wait for his second season. | Why do we switch so easily on every pick?! It's predictable. Teams run plays to get the switch without any attempt to move toward the rim. I'd love to ask an inebriated Pop why it is he chooses to defend this way. | VInce Carter is awful. I thought Pop and RC were mistaken in getting RJ instead of VC. I was quite wrong. Expect Carter to smile and look tough as he drops 30 on us in the meaningless finale, hitting crazy contested shots over Green and Quinn. | Tiago played ten minutes in the first half, collecting 3 points, 3 rebounds and 1 steal. I like watching his quick feet close down the lane while getting his height to the rim so that he can contest and rebound.

"It's been a clinic on ball movement and floor spacing" - Hubie Brown after halftime.

Second Half
I found myself thinking how if only our guards had been smart in their play during the final minute of two recent games, we'd be on a four losses in six games stretch. Considering the circumstances, not bad at all, and no panic. All from things within the control of our players. Can you tell that our guys are up big? Yes, a game high 31 point lead, with an RJ banked in 3-pointer and a stolen inbounds pass; we may have forced the most turnovers on opponents inbounds plays in a game this season. Manu very astutely responds to the over-aggressive Grant Hill defense by running off a pick and flashing to the rim for a dunk, then moments later a layup on a back-cut. Nice, the team playing smart ball again. TD is making his bank shot; we're being fundamental again. The players are patiently creating and making wide open 3s; we're executing again.
All was normal in Spurs world and Pop wisely sat TD, Manu and Dyess. It was during this time that things got sloppy. The Spurs missed 14 consecutive shots with Blair and Anderson on the floor, going 1 of 19 during this drought. The Suns had a 10-0 run yet it took over five minutes to make that scoreboard dent. A 3-pointer by Bonner finally ended the slow run. I like that Pop kept Duncan and Splitter on the bench during this time, as Blair needs the work. He was in a hurry, so much so that he gets his shot blocked by players of equal height. It's as though he shoots into the block. There was more good, with Bonner finding an open Neal, who later returns the favor with a clever feed to a wide open Bonner up top. Resting the Big-3 for the final quarter an a half meant the final margin was 17 instead of 30+. This is a good thing. One huge blowout win would not repair the mistakes from the past two weeks so it's better to not create such an illusion. What does matter is winning, playing well while winning, and managing the minutes of the older players. It also helps the younger players to see competitive minutes. The sloppiness and reduced lead in the final quarter and-a-half of this game mirrored in many ways the prior six games. A season-long huge lead over every team was reduced due to injuries, strategy and poor play, but in the end the Spurs wound up on top. Like today. Remember that my fellow Spurs fans, as both the season and playoffs are a long haul that require perspective and patience. Hopefully our guys have seen rock bottom, survived it, and looked up to realize they are still on top. Let's now get back to pounding that rock until it breaks in June.

Did you know?
Later this same day, the Dallas Mavericks lost in Portland which clinched the Southwest division for the Spurs. While it is true that Spurs supporters and the team itself only celebrate goals that far exceed a regular season championship banner, unlike those ponies to the north, it is worth appreciating this accomplishment. One season after winningly only 50 games and being the #7-seed in the West, the Spurs have guaranteed themselves no worse than the #2-seed while clinching the best division in the NBA and possibly the deepest in professional sports. This is a division that will send four teams to the playoffs and is almost assured that all five will finish with an above .500 record. Since its creation in 2005, there has only been one successive division winner in the hyper competitive Southwest (Spurs: 2005, 2006).

Of note
The Spurs' victory over the Suns officially eliminated Phoenix from playoff contention. This was a guaranteed eventuality, but still a nice small consolation for a Spurs team that was swept by the Suns last post-season. This win also clinched the season series over the Suns, as the Spurs lead 3-0 with one road game remaining. The Spurs were 1-6 against Phoenix last season.

Your Three Stars
- 3) RJ: 12-PTS 7-REB 0-AST 2-STL. Raje continued his season-long excellence when playing the Suns, something that first appeared in the initial match-up of the season when he led a 4Q comeback from 3-point land. I like to think this is in response to his poor spacing and shooting in this match during the last post-season. Today he was 4/4 on 3s and helped boost the lead early, then once more late.
- 2) Bonner: 16-PTS 11-REB 4-AST 1-STL. It's so easy to root for this guy, and even easier to appreciate him once you understand his role and accept both his limitations and skill set. Today he hustled after offensive rebounds, stood stout for defensive boards, made his final three 3-point attempts, had an and-1 at the rim, and joined his bench counterpart Hill in bringing energy and effort to an early game.
- 1) Hill: 29-PTS 1-REB 4-AST 1-STL. His halftime total of 24 points would've been game worthy, and the low second half total was more about reduced minutes than bad play. His early shooting broke open the game and his 5-0 scoring burst at the end of the 3Q kept the lead at twenty points. He did what you want your 6th man to do, and he helped lead a bench that outscored the starters 73-41 while allowing those starters to rest having just played a back-to-back set, with one more upcoming.

Up Next
On to the ATL. The Spurs lost an OT game late last season at the "Highlight Factory" that very much mirrored their recent giveaway in Houston. They had won there the previous three seasons. A win would set the Spurs up for a very attainable four game win streak heading to LA for a game that could then have zero meaning.