The San Antonio Spurs managed to out-shoot the Orlando Magic in a match-up of high octane offenses to move to 28-13 on the Western conference. The Magic put up a fantastic fight in spite of having gone to overtime the night before and facing distracting rumors surrounding franchise center Dwight Howard, but couldn't keep up as a team with the Spurs depth and Tony Parker's amazing crunch time play. The French point guard led all players with 31 points to go with his 12 assists, while Jameer Nelson added 25 for the Magic's losing effort. Dwight Howard scored 22 points and grabbed 12 boards in what many think will be his last game in an Orlando Magic jersey.
Coming into a game where they didn't know if they were going to face the Magic at full strength, the Spurs started slow, playing very passive defense and allowing the Magic to run their offense to perfection. Dwight Howard punished the Spurs' suspect interior defense early for 10 first quarter points and the Magic shooters led by Jameer Nelson (5-7 from 3), took advantage of lazy close outs to give the visitors the early lead.
The Spurs starters, as has been the case most of this season, had a hard time getting anything going early on offense with Danny Green being too passive (only two field goal attempts at the half) and Richard Jefferson struggling from the floor (0-3 in the half). DeJuan Blair played just over 2 minutes in the whole first half after being ineffective and bumping knees in the first quarter with a Magic player, leaving Tim Duncan and Tony Parker to do most of the heavy-lifting early on. Fortunately for the Spurs, the two thirds of the Big Three on the starting lineup answered the call contributing a combined 30 points, 8 rebounds and 9 assists through two quarters. Parker's and Duncan's great first half, plus solid play from the bench (especially Kawhi Leonard and Manu Ginobili), allowed the Spurs to enter the break up by one, despite allowing Howard to have his way in the paint (I remember seeing three and-1s before losing count as I banged my head on the desk repeatedly every time Dwight got fouled and scored) and leaving Jameer Nelson free to hit 4-4 from 3.
The unlikeliest of heroes emerged for the Spurs in the 3rd quarter. After a bad first half that I assume led to many a tirade from Spurs fans about Richard Jefferson's ineptitude, RJ was everything we want from him but learned not to expect. After missing a 3 early, Jefferson got himself going by pump-faking, driving and drawing a foul instead of settling for the outside shot two consecutive times. With his confidence back, he hit a 3 and then assisted Blair for an open layup and Green for an open 3-pointer after drawing the attention of the defense. RJ also did a great job on Ryan Anderson down the stretch as Popovich went with a small lineup that featured him at the 4 spot. Jefferson's play gave the Spurs the momentum they needed to keep the game close after Howard continued to overpower the Spurs bigs for cheap fouls. Fortunately for the Spurs, the one part of Howard's game that hasn't seemed to get any better is his free throw shooting (4-10 for the night). After improving his footwork by working in the off season with Hakeem Olajuwon, maybe it's time for Dwight to give Mark Price a call come May.
Manu Ginobili also stepped up his game in the third with back-to-back threes and a dunk(!) in the quarter, which leads this Spurs fan to believe that he was held back in the second half against the Wizards simply to protect him. Manu appears to be back (knocks frantically on wood), and the Spurs are a whole different animal with The Sickness (irony noted) healthy.
While it was teamwork what got the Spurs the lead, in the fourth quarter Tony Parker took over like he has been doing this whole season. The Wee Frenchman scored 16 of his 31 points in this quarter on an array of layups and jumpers to build the Spurs' lead and then keep the Magic at arm's length through the end of the game. Parker got the best of Nelson at the end and the Spurs rode a great team effort (6 players in double figures; the bench outscoring the Magic's 47-22) en route to their 16th home win of the season.
- Short rant alert: I get it, I really do. Richard Jefferson is infuriating at times. He's passive and doesn't seem to bring that much to the table when his shot is not falling. He's the living embodiment that PATFO aren't infallible. He plays the same position as the best Spurs rookie since Manu (sorry Georgie). But the continual griping about him has to stop. Face it, he's not going to get traded, and we'll have to "suffer him" through the rest of this season. He'll very likely get amnestied next season and Kawhi Leonard will get a chance to show how amazing he really is after having a full season under his belt. That means Jefferson is extremely important for this team's playoffs hopes because of his 3-point shooting. Yes, despite Leonard's surprising competence as a shooter, he's nowhere near close to RJ's level in that department. I'm not saying RJ shouldn't be criticized when he screws up, but let's all stop waiting for him to do something bad so we can pile on him for not being Bruce Bowen. If you are going for a reverse Mojo thing by trying to snap him out of his funk with hate, disregard all of the above :) Oh, and even before he started hitting his shots tonight, he was playing much better D than Danny Green ::waits for the JRW-and-Fred Silva-wielded banhammer::
- The other Spur small forward is pretty good. Kawhi Leonard's BBIQ and confidence is off the charts. His shooting might be a mirage (coming into the game he's hitting 23.8% from 10-15 feet, 28.0% from 16-23 feet and .351% from 3, all of which are below league average) but he still manages to score thanks to his work off the ball, especially with straightaway cuts, as SBNation's Rowan Cruyff expertly pointed out. His man defense continues to improve, with those long arms bothering ball handlers and getting a lot of deflections, and his team D is coming along as well, if less rapidly.
- As I mentioned in the recap, Pop went small for long stretches of the game, which resulted in limited minutes for Blair and Bonner (30 minutes combined). Blair in particular faced a tough match-up since he's too slow to close out on Anderson and too short to guard Howard effectively. But against OKC on Friday, BLBO (BLair and BOnner) will certainly be needed.
- Tiago Splitter and Tim Duncan did a good job on the offensive glass, gathering four offensive boards each. They also made Howard work for his points. While they couldn't match the Magic's center physicality on D; they more than made up for it on offense, though, with Duncan basically matching Howard's production and Splitter getting 12 very efficient points.
- Pop ran plays for RJ in the second quarter. I remember a 1-3 pick and roll, followed by a 1-5 with Splitter as the screener drawing in the defense to free up RJ and an attempt to run the alley oop play we all know and love, with neither play yielding results. Apparently it was quite obvious that RJ needed to get himself out of his slump on tonight.
- Instead of writing about Howard trade rumors I'll just note that the Magic might have stumbled into a fantastic player in Ryan Anderson. The sharpshooting big was a throw-in for the Vince Carter trade and could end up being an All-Star one day if he keeps playing alongside a dominant post scorer. He's the quintessential "stretch-4", but with better rebounding, kind of like a poor man's Love -- Kevin, that is.
Three Five Stars
3 - Manu Ginobili-Richard Jefferson-Kawhi Leonard.
Forgive me for taking the easy way out, but I just can't decide. Kawhi was the spark on the first half and Manu and RJ in the second.
2 - Tim Duncan. 21 points, 13 rebound (4 offensive)
Timmy almost matched Howard in points but did it in a much more efficient fashion. Duncan went 7-10 from the line and only needed 12 shots to get his 21 points to Howard's 16 to get to 22. Oh, and the old man grabbed one more rebound than the best big in the league, too. I guess all that noise about him having his best rebounding year of his career is for real.
1- Tony Parker. 31 points, 12 assists and only 3 turnovers
I almost hesitated to put Tony here, since it's getting boring. Tonight was the first time I heard the crowd at the AT&T center chanting M-V-P! for Tony and, while he has about zero chance of getting the award, it's refreshing to hear Tony getting the recognition he deserves from the home crowd. Another fantastic all around game for Tony, despite making some mistakes on defense in the first half.
Up next, the Thunder on Friday. A good game to gauge how good the Spurs are when healthy and how effective Leonard could be on Kevin Durant in the playoffs.
For the opponent's perspective and a whole lot of Dwight Howard trade rumors (poor guys), visit Orlando Pinstriped Post.