The Spurs clearly wanted this one. After only 13 seconds and a quick foul on Melo, Pop pulled Leonard to talk to him, then sent him back in the next play. It wouldn't be the last time Pop would pull one of his guys aside during a stoppage to have a talk. From first to last, the Spurs were engaged.
The first quarter was a battle of defenses. The Spurs were doing a solid job in the half court but the Knicks survived off offensive boards (nine first half second chance points) while their disruptive defense prevented the Spurs from finding any rhythm. Leonard did a good job on Carmelo Anthony despite the Knicks' star finishing with nine first quarter points, while Tyson Chandler, like always, guarded Duncan well and was relentless on the offensive glass. With 2:57 to go in the first, Stephen Jackson sprained his ankle and didn't come back. At the end of the first quarter, the Knicks led 22-19 in a low scoring affair.
A trend that developed at the end of the first continued in the second quarter, with the Spurs giving up some early open threes. Both teams were trying to limit inside shots and that led to open looks behind the arc, but the Knicks were hitting them while the Spurs missed. Green and Neal combined for 2-7 from behind the arc in the first half and the Spurs as a team went 5-18 for 28%, while the Knicks converted 8-17 for a very good 47%.
And yet, like most games in which they don't start well, the Spurs managed to go into the break with a manageable deficit, only down two despite clearly sub par play. How did they do it? By going the unorthodox way. They went with a small lineup of Mills-Parker-Ginobili-Leonard-Duncan. Mills pressured the ball handler, they went to a zone for a little while and then switched to man. It threw the Knicks off their game and allowed the Spurs to crawl back and finish the half trailing 42-40, despite untimely turnovers and terrible shooting.
Duncan started the third quarter more active and Splitter earned trips to the charity stripe. It looked the Spurs were going to get the offensive boost inside they were lacking. Some silly mistakes on defense by the good guys kept the Knicks leading, but the Spurs' defense started doing a better job of chasing guys off the three point line and into mid range shots, where the Knicks were missing. Unfortunately, there are some very good offensive players wearing blue and orange right now and they adjusted. Prigioni, Smith and Anthony simply froze the second line of defense with a hesitation move instead of pulling up and either found a cutter or attacked the rim.
When it looked the Knicks were about to pull away, after getting a ten-point lead off some terrible play by the Spurs' reserves, a couple of Ginobili free throws and a Green three pointer reduced the lead to a manageable five points. Stoudemire hit a couple of freebies and the score going into the final quarter was 67-60.
At this point in the night, I actually found myself thanking the FSM that I have the world's worst internet service provider where I'm at right now because what followed looked brutal on the play by play: a 10-0 run by the Knicks to start the fourth quarter that put the final nail in the coffin. When my connection came back, Pop had already pulled the starters and I was treated to a healthy dose of Mills and De Colo garbage time magic. When the dust had settled, the final score was 100-83, Knicks.
- The "should Gary Neal play point guard?" debate ranks just below Blair vs. Bonner in the list of tired, annoying Spurs fans' arguments, but games like this one just make it inescapable. Forget the bad shooting; it looked like Neal had never heard of Prigioni before. The scouting report on the Argentine reserve PG can't be that long: he wants to drive to his right and dish, he can cut off the ball and he always tries to steal inbounds. Yet, Gary seemed flabbergasted by Prigioni's effective but limited skills. Meanwhile, Nando De Colo was comfortably watching from the bench.
- Bottom line is, this game came down to shooting and the Spurs just couldn't sink enough shots. Neal, Ginobili, Leonard and Green combined to shoot 6 - 21 from three. In garbage time, Matt Bonner went 0-5. The Spurs just could not hit threes on Thursday.
- On the inside the Spurs were not much better, which is why those missed outside shots killed them. They scored on only 26.7% in just 15 attempts at the rim, which is ridiculously below their season average of 61%. Ginobili, in particular, had some easy shots that didn't fall and an overall performance that was reminiscent of the early season version of Manu; the one that lacked the touch around the rim to finish. There will be an article on Ginobili's evolution throughout the season posted soon, in which I was about to declare he was back. I might need to revise it.
- The Knicks' stars have the gaudy numbers but it was the role players that won this one for them. Novak, Prigioni and even Brewer in limited minutes all contributed while, as mentioned, the Spurs couldn't find anyone who could shift the momentum of the game for them. Parker (11 points, six assists) and Duncan (11 points, six rebounds) were solid but no one else really stepped up.
- I liked Leonard's defense on Anthony. Melo had 23 points but it took him 20 shots to get there, had a couple of turnovers and only went to the line twice. Leonard was playing physical D on him all night and it bothered Anthony. Carmelo will always score because that's what he does, but I liked what I saw from Kawhi.
There's no point in dwelling too much on this loss. Our shots weren't going in, theirs were. They are a talented team, playing at home. The Spurs were on a FOGAFINI. There's no shame in this loss, regardless of how ugly it might have been. Even great teams drop some games. On to Philadelphia to get the W and stay near the top of the West while hoping Jackson gets better soon. This team has not come near to reaching its ceiling yet and I like it that way. Let's peak near the playoffs again.
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Stats courtesy of NBA.com/Stats