Everybody can take a deep sigh of relief. The preseason is over. We made it. And we made it without any injuries or backup small forwards to speak of, in true anti-climactic Spurs preseason fashion. Thursday night's preseason capper against the Dwight Howard-ified Houston Rockets was less a test of rotation savvy than a stopgap game leading to the bigger dance ahead; a poor man's 83rd game, if you will.
So when Pop announced about an hour before the game that The Hand himself, Kawhi Leonard, would be sitting out the final game of the non-season, it set the tone for how unimportant this game was for establishing rhythm going into next week's home opener versus the Memphis Grizzlies. That Manu Ginobili donned a suit as well just served as the cherry on top.
But what kept the game interesting was how well the Spurs lineups featuring two or more point guards handled Houston's regular rotation. Setting aside the absences of two of the best four Spurs, Houston came out with a will to win that the still-stuck-in-preseason Spurs never came close to matching. Patrick Beverley and Jeremy Lin played with headlong spring, Beverley particularly bothered Tony Parker and Cory Joseph throughout the game with his Eric Bledsoe-like ballhawking. Parker never seemed like he was trying to get more than a few of his trademark high-elbow jumpers off pick n' rolls.
Tim Duncan was for the most part a non-factor on the offensive end, bricking most of his jumpers on his way to 2-12 shooting, six points, four turnovers and four fouls. Where Duncan was a pure delight to watch was on the defensive end. Again shedding weight in the offseason, Timmeh proved that it's not just mass that makes a great post defender. Duncan was all over Howard on Dwight's repeated attempts to post up, many times leading to a failed entry pass or a strip as Howard made his first turn into the lane. Howard's jawing in the first round of last year's playoffs seems to have ignited a bit of a pleasurable nuisance streak in Tim. Every time he defended Dwight it looked as if he was actively trying to enrage the Rocket's new center. What's more, most of the time he succeeded. This being the preseason and all, I wouldn't say that bodes well for Dwight's mental maturity on the court.
The other notable alteration to Pop's Preseason Chemistry Set was Nando de Colo, who got a long look at the 2nd/3rd string point guard. Eschewing the effervescent Patty Mills until garbage time, Pop gave Nando the keys to the offense against rotation level Rockets players, and Nando did nothing to right himself from the tailspin he's been in since this onset of last year's playoffs. He frequently got caught in the air trying to make miracle plays, and while his box score doesn't tell the story, it felt like Nando was more disruptive to the offense than he was helpful. He really does possess a chaotic, Manu-esque spirit, but Nando thus far has been completely unable to capture the beauty behind Manu's madness. While Cory Joesph continues to prove himself a competent -- if somewhat milquetoast -- backup, Nando keeps trying for transcendence and failing. With a second unit that will simultaneously feature the madness of Manu Ginobili, Marco Bellinelli and Boris Diaw, Joseph's stabilizing presence just might cinch his place as the BPG (backup point guard) that's been discussed so often through this preseason.
Two players doing best to impress were the Spurs end-of-the-bench bigs, Jeff Ayres and Aron Baynes. Ayres got an early call in the first half, he seemed about as ill-suited to playing major NBA rotation minutes as a late-period Dejuan Blair. Ayres has a nasty tendency to think immediately posting hard in the low block early in the shot clock is a good idea, but he and Baynes work well together in minute-eating roles, especially with a crazed energy man like Patty Mills feeding them. Ayres was the recipient of a perfectly timed Mills alley-oop (take that, Deadspin!) in the fourth quarter that roused the ready-to-leave crowd, and Baynes was an active offensive force as long as he got a head of steam rolling off a pick. While both had their bonehead moments (Ayres' post-ups, Baynes' twelve-footers early in the shot clock combined with regularly being out of position on the defensive glass) they showed potential to be able to eat regular season minutes when Pop sees fit to rest Tim, Tiago or Boris. The fact that the team has two decent frontcourt options going into the season is a win.
And so the gaze of all turns, officially, to the 2013-14 season and a home opener versus the Memphis Grizzlies. While the Spurs didn't really show it in their play against the Rockets, the AT&T Center crowd seemed properly amped for the return of their Western Conference Champs, and the arrival of the Road to Redemption that this season will hopefully be.
Be sure to read Bruno Passos's recap of the game if you haven't already.
Not much from the no-pants wonder mascot tonight, although he did don a particularly egregious suit for a spot with Craig Sager, King of Sartorial Ephemera. Sager, however, was in a relatively muted sky blue blazer, which for him might be constituted as preseason wear. Throw in a mini-bike ride here and a photo bomb of the kissing contest there, and it was a subtle night from the Coyote.
Pop Quote of the Day
Aron Baynes - 16 points, 6 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, 2 blocks, 8-13 shooting
Baynes at times looked hopeless on the defensive glass, completely unable to utilize his considerable shoulders to any sort of advantage. But otherwise he is becoming a decent third string big. Some of his dives off screens are enough to recall memories of Fabricio Oberto, but that's probably more of a wish than anything else. He threw down a monster put back slam as the last score of the game. It's unlikely he'll ever be more than a situational big man, but the situations in which he can be useful are growing as quickly as his confidence. Many Spurs fans have a bit of a give him more minutes! crush on Baynsie, and I can't say I argue that point to heavily. But the moments when Baynes looks like he could earn minutes on both ends of the floor are against scrubs, and he still frequently finds himself out-maneuvered when playing with the big boys. Baynes is in that tenuous spot between being a benchwarmer and a reliable backup player, and it will be up to him to prove he can make that transition.
Nando De Colo - 3 points, 1 rebound, 0 assists, 0 steals, 0 blocks, 1 turnover, 0-1 shooting
Perhaps because this is preseason and Nando functions best in a well-oiled machine where his particular brand of crazy can be offset by pinpoint accuracy, De Colo continues to look like the odd duck of the Spurs offense. The only problem with that formula is that the Spurs already have a guy like that, one Manu Ginobili. De Colo isn't making the most of any opportunity he's getting, and while his box score tonight rivals that of Cory Joseph's (who didn't score but had three assists), Joseph's assured play is striking, while De Colo seems to be out there trying to prove a point. He should ask Dejuan Blair how that dynamic plays with Pop.
By The Numbers
- 5 - As in 5 of 19, the shooting stats for the Spurs starting frontcourt of Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter. Gotta say, when the Rockets play Howard and Asik together, they're going to be an interior defensive force.
- -19 - Marco Bellinelli's +/- numbers for the game. The New Neal had a better game than this number suggested, but he was absolutely torched by James Harden in the Rockets' showoff third quarter.
- 37 - Speaking of, that's how many points the Rockets scored in the third quarter. The defense... it is not in midseason form.
- At least 98 - Times Boris Diaw and Nando De Colo got caught trying to pass while in the air. The passing... it is not in midseason form.
- 5 - the number of above-the-break three pointers Tiago Splitter made in pregame warmups. #preseason
- 7 - the number of above the break three pointers that Jeff Ayres made in pregame warmups. #PRESEASON
Bird is The Word
Bonner said he'd get Red Mamba on hood of Impala if Duncan gave him discount at shop. Duncan said he'd do it for free. Your move Bonner.— Dan McCarney (@danmccarneysaen) October 24, 2013
Every time Tim and Dwight get together I'll never not think of this http://t.co/HVEhRkFz6e and @cjzero— Ben Hunt (@benhunted) October 25, 2013
If David Robinson could ever be convinced to do a Carlton dance, it would be the biggest moment in Spurs' Lighthouse video board history.
— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) October 25, 2013
Odds and Ends
- Jeff McDonalad wasn't really kidding about the Carlton dance being a big hit; when it came on during the fourth quarter 8-minute break Tony Parker very clearly watched it instead of the huddle. To be fair, Pop was cracking a joke in that huddle, so I can't blame him.
- Ime Udoka is a fantastic dresser. Well-fit, beige suit with a burgundy shirt. Snappy
- The AT&T Center has begun playing Kanye West's "Runaway" as the visiting team's entrance music. It's foreboding, sure... but isn't it too great of a song for that?
- Tim Duncan, after getting a steal off of Howard and trying to summon Tim Duncan The Seven-Foot Fast Break before getting the balled poked from him, received a stern "calm down" from Tony Parker as the two headed up court. That might have been the first time in Tim's career anybody has told him to calm down.
- During the 5-minute break in the fourth quarter, Tim stood out in the paint with Pop and the Assistants, drawing up plays for the rest of the guys. We all know he'll never be a coach, but seeing Timmy working with Pop like a coach gave me a few feels.
...Appreciate that we've got our health going into a new season. Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, No Injuries. Bring on the Grizz. Bring on 13-14.