Aaron Stampler: Are you panicking? I'm kinda panicking. Give me a reason not to be on the ledge and make it good. And if you are panicking then tell me why you are and I'll compare it to my panic, hopefully creating a terrifying Voltron of panic.
JRW: I am SO not panicking. And here's why: First, the game was depressing, sure, but it boiled down to a slow start that they couldn't really come back from. In the first half of the first quarter they were doubled up, 18-9. From then on (aside from garbage time) it was an even game. Second, the Spurs had a ton -- and I do mean a TON -- of open outside shots. They just missed. Third, the Rockets shot an insane percentage from both downtown and from the field as a whole, and we were still able to cut their lead to two in the third. Fourth, if the Spurs beat all of their rivals in the regular season, we'd be telling ourselves that it meant nothing until the playoffs begin. So that's what I'm telling myself now.
AS: But you're an optimist by nature. They could be like 5-25 and the big three could all have broken legs and you'd be like "well at least they're not ACLs."
JRW: It's hard to argue with you when you make so much sense. Broken legs are not ACLs.
AS: you know what I mean, smartass.
JRW: I'm being witty and writerly. Isn't this the exchange you wanted?
AS: Be careful what I ask for I guess.
JRW: You ask me if I'm panicking. I tell you why I'm not. And then you tell me I'm only feeling that way because I'm optimistic. Well ... you asked an optimist how he felt about the team. What'd you expect?
AS: Aside from the results, my concerns are as follows:
1) Parker has looked like crap, for him, for most of the season. I addressed this in the quarter pole grades. He looks a step slower to me. His shot is broken. That toughness and aggressiveness from last year is gone. He's lost his mojo. I think of anyone on the team he looks like he has the most Finals hangover, like "I'm never gonna be that good again and we blew it." Or maybe it's the fatigue from off-season basketball or some injury he's playing through, but he's not the same dude who was an MVP candidate for the first two-thirds of last season when he singlehandedly carried the team. Now, except for some fourth quarters against bad teams, he's been mostly crappy.
2) More and more teams seem to have figured out the Spurs offense. They're closing out like crazy on the threes, not letting them take corner threes especially. Green doesn't know what to do with it and even Leonard and Belinelli struggle with it to some degree. At times they over pass. And on defense they're giving up open shots to everybody from mid-range.
3) The free throw thing, where they just don't get to the line anymore, is a problem. They need more easy points.
4) Seriously, WTF is Pop doing starting Belinelli? Put Green back in. The starting five at least gives you good defense. It's the one thing you can depend on.
5) Is Pop gonna go the whole year without playing Duncan-Leonard-Ginobili-Green-Parker? That lineup played a lot in the playoffs, especially the Finals and now he acts like it doesn't exist.
6) And I know Gothic Ginobili and the 48 Minutes of Hell guys will hate this, but as valuable as Splitter is on defense, it's becoming borderline unwatchable watching him on offense. I can't remember the last pick-and-roll he finished when scored on so many of those last year. And his touch around the basket is awful, he can't finish anything without being blocked or stripped or fouled and that hook shot from 5-feet looks like Duncan's jumper from 18, a line drive headed for the front of the rim.
JRW: I agree with you on the free throws (and maybe on Belinelli), but everything else is manageable.
1. To me, Parker's obviously pacing himself. He's ready, able and willing to take over games but he's not doing so to conserve/recoup from last season and the summer's Euroleague.
2. "Seems to have figured out" is right. You know Pop never pulls out all of the stops in the regular season. If he did, then how in the world did the Spurs take the Heat to seven games? There's a level the team plays at during the 82 game grind, and that level is Milton Berle's "just enough to win" more often than not.
3. I'm hoping that this works itself out, but the free throws are a true reason to worry. More on this at a later date.
4. Green, Duncan and Leonard all began the season struggling to a certain extent. Duncan (HOFer that he is) has mostly worked out his kinks, but he's still fiddling with his jumper. You can see he doesn't trust it, but he's still playing fantastic ball. Leonard's shot MUCH better in December, but he too doesn't fully trust himself from three yet. And then there's Green. The Icy/Hot numbers are just what you'd expect, but it look like he's not quite who he was last year yet. These are all issues that need to be dealt with. And yet the team is in an excellent position to deal with them because they're winning every game they're supposed to. What a luxury not to have to deal with a handful of losses to piddly teams. This team is good. The league knows it and we know it. Now we'll see if that can make the jump to GREAT when the time comes.
5. Playoff rotations will be seen when they're needed. I fully believe this.
6. Splitter's defense is (and I don't think I'm overstating this) All-World level. He's so elite that any offense we get from him is gravy. His touch will come and go because he's not that great on offense. But we really don't need him to be too good if Leonard, Green and Duncan take the rest of the season to get straightened out.
AS: It just seems to me that the good teams are forcing the Spurs to take shots they don't want far more than the shots they would want and that the Spurs aren't nearly doing the vice versa to them at the same rate. Again, no stats to back it up, but doesn't that feel true?
JRW: It absolutely does. And I think it's entirely possible that the Spurs are actually experiencing the Finals Hangover that everyone predicted. But the issue is that the team is so good that this is what its hangover looks like: 22-7 with a 7.1 point scoring differential and an elite Defensive Rating. Just think what they'll be playing like when last season's four playoff series bender wears off.
AS: I'm probably in the minority, but I don't necessarily feel that the Spurs hit another gear in the playoffs last year. I think they played, more or less, at the same level they played before Parker got hurt against Sacramento. They just rationed the minutes a bit more for the top seven guys. But it was a dream draw against a crap Lakers team without Kobe Bryant and a limited Pau Gasol, a Warriors team that had definite weaknesses, a Grizzlies squad that had no offense at the wings and then the Heat where they struggle with size and quick point guards, two things the Spurs have. I will admit that Leonard and Green both kicked it up a notch through that series and that enabled it to get to Game 7 and almost a win in six. But I don't think overall they played so above their heads or anything like that. I don't think last year's Heat team was a juggernaut by any means. They had the best player, sure, but after that a very ordinary team. I think the '07 or '05 Spurs would've swept them.
Okay, maybe that's an exaggeration. But all things considered, with Dwyane Wade limited I think the '05 Pistons are still the best finals opponent the Spurs have had. With a healthy Wade then maybe it's an argument.
My point is through three rounds the Spurs got a miracle draw.
JRW: I don't agree with you, but for the sake of argument let's say that I do. Tell me what it says about this team that they can make it so deep into the Finals, great matchups or not, without hitting another gear? What does it say that they've amassed the record they currently have, without a single letdown against an inferior opponent, while working Duncan through his slump, and dealing with the struggles of Leonard and Green? What does it say that the mainstay five-man unit the Spurs used to punish teams in last year's playoffs hasn't even sniffed the court? Doesn't that show you that there's another gear?
AS: Hey, you're talking to a fella that picked them to win it all, so yes, I believe there is another gear. I'm just saying that gear happened last year and we haven't seen evidence of it returning, against top teams, and until we do it's a fair question to wonder if it can. The point I was making was that last year's team, and certainly past Spurs champions, never believed in that whole "turn the light switch on when it matters," philosophy. Usually they turned it on by the rodeo road trip and just started crushing people the second half of the season. I mean, in '05 I knew they were gonna win when they kept winning games easily without Duncan, with Ginobili and Parker taking over. In '07 I knew they had a great chance because they wiped out everybody that second half except for Dallas. Last year they were really rolling for a while, but then Tony got hurt and they kinda took the last 20 games off. But when Parker and Duncan were healthy, they were really good, even without Manu in the lineup or severely compromised.
And while we're on the topic, since you're talking to a truly morbid individual, the "letdown vs an inferior opponent" thing is contextual. They've had plenty of bad quarters or halves vs bad teams, it's just that they're so bad that the Spurs can play only a good half or one dominant quarter and pull out wins. I mean, the Atlanta, Toronto and Minnesota games, to name three, were no beauties. Against good teams, one good half isn't enough. You need at least three good quarters, or one good half with one dominant quarter.
JRW: Speaking of three good quarters, that's what we're headed into now isn't it? We're just past the first quarter of the season, and it's the next three-fourths that'll let us know what we have with the 2013-14 Spurs.
AS: three quarters if you mean a 108 game season, which I'd be okay with, but would be really stressful.
AS: Actually 116, which I'm pretty sure is impossible.
JRW: Yeah, we don't want that
AS: I'd be happy with like... 105.
JRW: Sounds like a good number.