If only the storyline tonight could end with Tim Duncan.
The Spurs' big man finished the game with 12 points, nine rebounds, five assists, three steals and seven blocks in a 106-88 San Antonio blowout over Minnesota, the first time in his career he's had at least seven blocks and three steals in a regular season game. But despite the stellar defensive performance and bounce-back win, the Spurs lost Manu Ginobili to yet another injury. This time a strained left hamstring.
It's a shame, because he was really playing well.
Ginobili had 12 points and five assists in just 12 minutes before pulling up awkwardly on a dribble-drive late in the first half, but in his absence the bench exploded. The Spurs outscored the Timberwolves 51-38 in the second half to push their record to 29-11, and in doing so they held onto third place in the Western Conference. Minnesota had a rough time on the offensive end without their superstar power forward Kevin Love, who is out for the foreseeable future after re-injuring the hand he broke prior to the season. The Wolves shot 37 percent from the floor in his stead, including a combined 0-for-13 from Ricky Rubio (0-for-6) and rookie Alexey Shved (0-for-7).
San Antonio has also been in a bit of an offensive lull, by it's standards. I'm not sure you can classify this as a slump-buster, but the pace picked up in the second half of this game behind an energetic second unit. The Spurs used a ton of dribble-hand-off action around the perimeter, constantly running the Timberwolves' guards in and out of pick-and-roll situations and forcing them to scramble around the three-point line. And despite having yet another poor showing in the turnover department -- San Antonio had 18 again tonight -- it was Minnesota who was most affected by 16 giveaways of its own.
The Spurs scored 22 points off the Timberwolves' turnovers, including 32 fast-break points and 54 points in the paint. But what was more important was the 31 assists on 45 made field goals. And despite another turnover-fest, San Antonio managed to shoot 56 percent and score 106 points. Tony Parker once again led the team in scoring, and he and Duncan never had to take the warm-ups off in the fourth quarter. The final period was the
Northside Ford Gary Neal and Tiago Splitter show.
Neal's 22-footer set off a 12-2 Spurs run early in the frame, and in the span of a little more than three minutes San Antonio had taken a five-point lead and turned it into a 15-point chasm. The Spurs eventually opened up a 19-point lead as Neal and Splitter combined for 18 points in the period and really showed the chemistry they've developed while filming car commercials for a local dealership. (NSFW due to the fact you might die or lose your eyesight or your hearing or control of your face muscles because of the awesome acting.)
"We were able to get the momentum going and (get) the ball moving. At the end of the third quarter we wanted a little cushion, so yeah the bench brought energy," Neal said after scoring 15 points, 10 in the fourth quarter. "I'm just glad we got some distance and won this one."
The Spurs haven't had much rest lately -- they've played nine games in the last 15 days -- but Parker continues to score at as efficient a pace as he has in his career. The San Antonio point guard is the only player in the NBA averaging at least 19 points, seven assists and three rebounds while shooting at least 50 percent from the floor, 40 percent from three and 80 percent from the free-throw line. And this isn't just impressive in the context of this season alone, it's an historic pace. Only one person in the history of the NBA has managed to maintain those numbers, specifically, throughout the course of an NBA season, according to STATS, LLC.
Larry Bird. Not bad company.
But we're only 40 games into the season, so Parker's got a way to go before accomplishing such a feat. Tonight was Duncan's night, as the big man held a block party in lieu of a breakout scoring performance. He's been struggling to put the ball in the hoop lately, and while a 4-for-8 shooting performance is hardly bad, he made a massive impact on the defensive end.
"I don't know, they just kept coming at me," Duncan said, adding that he's trying to set a record for most blocks while never leaving the ground. "I've been in a slump lately and I'm trying to fight my way out of it."
Duncan had hit just 14 of his previous 40 field-goal attempts coming into tonight's game. Given the spectacular season the 36-year-old is having and a recently heavy schedule, it's probably safe to say this bad stretch is only a blip on the screen of the big picture. That's what Duncan's saying, at least.
"This is what you call 'the dog days' right now. Guys are a little tired. Our schedule is a little tough, but we're working through it," he said. "We're winning games. We're fighting. We're not playing as well as we want to, but we're trying to get back to where we feel like we have a good rhythm."
The Spurs have plenty of options on the offensive side of the ball when things are going smoothly, but Duncan's scoring resurgence has been a blessing when things bog down. Still, despite recent struggles, his presence on defense is equally, if not more valuable.
"He's been the base of what we've done defensively for the last 16 years, so I don't think it's a huge surprise," said Gregg Popovich, who was ejected in the fourth quarter after two quick technicals. I think he called the official a not-nice name that rhymes with 'bass pole'. "It's kind of neat that it was seven (blocks), but, I mean, he does that every night. He's been doing it a long time, and tonight he got a few more blocks than usual."
The NBA season has as grueling a schedule as any professional sport, and the Spurs could be feeling it in the cold of early January. As San Antonio continues without the services of its spark-plug Argentine, it'll have to once again rely on the depth and increasingly experienced roster the team has put together. Preliminary reports called Manu's injury a strain, and a more specific prognosis won't be known until tomorrow. Regardless, it's a setback for a guy who had easily been playing his best basketball of the season. If Neal can continue the hot shooting, the Spurs have the ability to once again fill Ginobili's shoes and get the offense back on track.
With the Memphis Grizzlies once again looming on the schedule, let's hope the two days off can help cure what ails the Spurs.
-- The only other time Duncan has reached the seven-block, three-steal plateau in a single game was in Game 1 of the 2003 NBA Finals when he had 32 points, 20 rebounds, six assists, seven blocks and three steals in a 101-89 win over the Nets.