The Spurs began the game against the Atlanta Hawks with much more defensive intensity than they showed in the first half against the Rockets just two nights prior. It was a good thing because the Spurs would need every point they could muster to overcome a gutty performance by Mike Budenholzer's new team. With Tim Duncan's game-winning jumper, the Spurs found a way to win at the AT&T Center, 102-100.
Coach Bud returned to San Antonio and coached a great game. There were three specific things I thought he had his team do that muddied the Spurs' normally pristine offensive execution. Knowing the Spurs' playbook probably better than anyone currently sitting on the Spurs' bench, he had his guys overplay the passing lanes at opportune times. The Hawks run the same motion that the Spurs do and they used their knowledge of the flow to cheat and jump the passing lanes. Deflections and simply refusing to allow the Spurs to swing the ball served to stagnate the Silver and Black's offensive flow.
Coach Bud also had his defenders invade the personal space of the Spurs' guards when they had the ball. The tough on-ball defense made it difficult for the Spurs to see the back-cuts that were open because of the Hawks overplaying the passing lanes. While the Spurs did find a few layups, there were many opportunities that were missed because of the in-your-face on-ball defensive pressure.
Lastly, Coach Bud had his guys looking to pick off the outlet pass. Normally after a defensive rebound, the Spurs' guards take off for a long outlet to initiate a break. The Hawks covered the long outlets which forced Tim to either bring it up himself or wait for his guards to come back to the ball, thereby negating any semi-breaks that the Spurs normally use to generate some easy points.
These adjustments are part of what allowed the Hawks to make this game so competitive. Atlanta forced the Spurs into committing 19 turnovers for the game, which they turned into 23 points. Also helping the Hawks were the offensive performances by Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard. While Danny was busy missing wide open shots, Leonard simply passed many up resulting in an offensive mess while the two shared the floor. Kawhi made two of his seven attempts while missing both of his 3-point tries. Danny Green made just one of his seven attempts, as the two starters combined for just seven points on three of 14 shooting.
The first half was hard-fought and neither team was able to create any separation. The Spurs' largest lead was four points while the Hawks briefly led by three. The run that most have come to expect from the Spurs was never allowed to develop by the Hawks, and they kept it close throughout. At the end of the second quarter, the Spurs led 50-49.
Helping the Spurs overcome Coach Bud's forced 19 turnovers and the play of Kawhi and Green were Tim Duncan and Marco Belinelli. Duncan dominated on both ends of the floor finishing with a classic 23 points, 21 rebounds, two assists, two blocks and one steal for the game. Meanwhile, Belinelli continued his hot shooting making six of his nine shots for 13 points.
Manu Ginobili followed up his 11 assist performance against the Rockets with seven assists tonight. Unlike Leonard, Ginobili didn't allow his shot to take him out of it offensively. In addition to the assists, Manu earned six free-throws, connecting on five of them. The difference between Kawhi and Ginobili tonight was that Manu stayed aggressive, but also took what the defense offered. Kawhi passed on shots but didn't improve the Spurs' situation off the dribble, whereas Ginobili got to the line or created a better opportunity for a teammate. It's just a learning process. Thankfully, Kawhi has some great mentors on the team.
In the third quarter, the Spurs nearly lost control of the game several times. Coach Bud's team took advantage of the Spurs' turnovers and nearly ran away with the game. For the Hawks, I thought all of their starters played fairly well. Each hit double digits in scoring and as we've gone over, they played the Spurs extremely tough. Jeff Teague's jumper was falling which nearly made him unguardable. Al Horford is just pretty good at everything and he never allowed the Spurs to relax. Overall, I think the Hawks could best be described as relentless tonight; it's a sign of a good coach.
The Hawks managed to build an eight point lead over the Spurs late in the third as the home crowd fell silent. However, Bili MiNelli had just checked in and with the assistance of Boris Diaw and Tiago Splitter, they closed the quarter on a 10-0 run to lead 73-71 going into the fourth. Bili MiNelli with Diaw is just a potent offensive squad. If they hit their first jumper, look out. It doesn't take much of a spark for them to catch fire.
The Spurs rode their Bili MiNelli momentum into the fourth, building their lead to eight. It seemed as if the Hawks were about to lose control, but Coach Bud's new squad was not about to give up. The Spurs went cold, (Green missed two more wide open threes in a row), and the Hawks put seven quick points on the board to cut the lead to one and force a Spurs' timeout.
The Spurs' responded with a heavy dose of Tony and Tim to score six quick points for a 91-87 lead. This set the stage for Danny Green to make his first and only shot of the game as the shot clock expired.
Now up seven points with under three minutes remaining, this game was definitely over -- nope. The scrappy Hawks once again clawed their way back into the game. Jeff Teague made two 3-pointers in the final two minutes of the game, the last of which tied it at 100 with just four seconds remaining.
The chess match between these two head coaches climaxed on this last play, and Pop finished with an impressive checkmate. Given how Bud's players defended that last four seconds, it was clear they were completely focused on stopping Manu and Tony. Belinelli inbounded the ball to Ginobili at the top of the key. Parker circled the court along the baseline, as he often does, getting screens from Duncan and Kawhi in the process. Meanwhile Belinelli ran down and screened Duncan's man.
Belinelli's defender, DeMarre Carrol, more concerned with Tony, briefly watched Parker circle around, which caused him to be late on his contest of Tim's shot. Tim rolled around Marco's pick beautifully. He set his feet and put perfect arc on the ball. It didn't touch the rim as it went through and that was the ball game.
- Tiago Splitter played very well. He finished with 11 points, five rebounds, three assists, two blocks and a steal in 24 minutes. He's playing with extreme confidence on both ends of the floor. I wish Pop played him more minutes, but it's completely understandable he didn't given the next mention.
- Boris Diaw, playing with a dislocated middle finger on his non-shooting hand, hit seven of his nine shots to finish with 16 points. He continued to play with aggression on the offensive end. At the beginning of the season, he simply was taking open shots, which was a huge improvement from last year. Now he's driving in and using his offensive creativity to find more opportunities. The Land Walrus is playing incredibly well.
- Tony Parker had a fine game, but was roughed up a bit by the Hawks. Coach Bud had his players harassing Tony all over the court. Tony had to earn each of his 15 points tonight.
- Even though Danny and Kawhi struggled offensively, their defense helped to keep the Spurs in the game. They contested shots and although Green may have lost a few players for open threes, their tenacity established the Spurs' identity throughout the game.
- I find myself appreciating Tim Duncan more and more with every passing year. It's unbelievable that in his 17th season, Tim is still capable of such a dominating performance. 23 and 21 with the game-winner. This really isn't supposed to be possible. His knees were supposed to end him years ago. I've been in a state of awe for 17 straight years. Spurs fans, we are a lucky bunch.
Please visit SBNation's Peach Tree Hoops for Atlanta's perspective.