It's December eighth, we are nineteen games into the NBA season, and the San Antonio Spurs are not a bad basketball team.
To many, this appears obvious. The Spurs are coming off their best start in franchise history, have already strung together a ten game winning streak (albeit against inferior competition), and are getting meaningful production from players one through ten on their depth chart. There have been some early season struggles (Tim's cold shooting, Kawhi's stunted next step, Danny Green forgetting how to shoot threes), but in large part those weaknesses have nothing to do with the Spurs system, and everything to do with the ebb and flow of the early part of a basketball season. Yes, it would be torture to have to watch Danny Green in the playoffs if he was playing like this, but there is zero evidence that, in a playoff situation, Danny Green would brick his three-point attempts and get lost in defensive rotations. Let us all remember that, unless he is the Second Coming of
I feel like this needs to be said because after the euphoria of our best ever start, the Spurs have sputtered, somewhat. They're two and three over their last five, with the wins coming against the Orlando Magic and Atlanta Hawks, and the losses coming from contenders Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets and, after tonight, the Indiana Pacers. The losses have come in frustrating fashion. The Thunder loss aside, the Spurs faced greater than twenty-point deficits against both the Rockets and Pacers. As one might expect with deficits that large, at times the Spurs looked sluggish, slow, weak, outgunned, out-hustled, out-pretty much any word that's synonymous with effort.
Tonight's loss to the Pacers was particularly malaise-inducing, however, because for about 15.5 minutes, the Spurs seemed to have every part of the Pacers under control. The first quarter saw a viciously-effective Spurs starting five in a way that hasn't been seen all season. Tim hit his first shot from outside, Kawhi hit a corner three (!!!!!) and everything seemed to be working itself out on the offensive side of the ball, especially considering Indiana up to this point has boasted an unreal 93.6 Defensive Rating up the this point in the season. Manu Ginobili subbed in for Danny Green midway through the first quarter, and had one of those games that reminds you exactly how fun "I'm going to make all those crazy threes I always take" Manu can be.
Wait, we're talking about a loss? Yes we are, because once Manu Ginobili sat down in the second quarter and yielded control of the offense to Marco Belinelli, Patty Mills, and the rest of the Foreign Legion, the wheels fell off. Indiana's defense was given new life through a combination of increased effort and not having to worry about Manu or Tony guiding the offense. The Foreign Legion's excellence was betrayed tonight; Manu Ginobili ties this group together. We would see this at points last season when Pop would use Gary Neal as a backup point guard, and things haven't changed with Marco around. The Spurs struggle to get into their offense when both Tony and Manu are sitting. Against a heady Pacers defense, that can be the ease-off-of-the-gas-pedal moment that players like Paul George and David West need to get going offensively.
They sure did get going. We'll get to the exacting, bloody details lower in the post, but the Pacer offense began to feed off it's stingy defense in a way that great teams often do. Make no mistake, the Indiana Pacers are a great team. Paul George makes a stirring argument night in and night out, that he's the third best player in the league behind Lebron and Kevin Durant. His 4-of-4 mark from three, most of them on little jab steps or in transition, was the attack from which the Spurs defense never recovered. The Spurs previously had been doing a great job of over-protecting on George and forcing him to pass out of difficult situations, and going forward that seems like the wisest thing to do with this team, which, despite my love for George Hill, is still slightly point guard-less.
The other linchpin? David West and the lack of Tiago Splitter. Coming back from halftime up by four, the Pacers recognized that with Tiago being shut down for the rest of the game with calf soreness, the Spurs had one effective big man (Tim Duncan) with which to guard two of the headiest bangers in the game (Roy Hibbert and West). Wisely they started driving the ball into West, generating open looks from West's abuse of Matt Bonner and Pop's, unfortunately mandatory decision to double West when Bonner was on him. Bonner was the logical choice to field in the third; he's the only one of Diaw, Ayres and Baynes that can adequately tax the Pacers on the offensive end (Diaw was throwing up bricks tonight). But on the defensive end, Bonner was overmatched, and Frank Vogel got the entire Pacers lineup open shots because of it.
I find it hard to put much stock in this loss with Splitter out. Splitter has been our best big man the entire season, and his post defense has been pristine. Against the heavy front line of Indiana, Splitter is a necessary banger, and losing him cripples the Spurs' ability to effectively defend such a talented team. George, Lance Stephenson, and George Hill all had field days feasting on uncharacteristically bad defensive rotations by the Spurs. Seven Pacers scoring at least twelve points attest to that - the ball zipped around Indiana's side of the floor tonight.
But back to the sky and how it's not falling right now, because it's December. Let's take a look at the Spurs last four years, through the nineteen game mark:
- 2010: 16-3 (Losses Against: New Orleans Hornets, Los Angeles Clippers, eventual champion Dallas Mavericks)
- 2011: 12-7 (Losses Against: Houston Rockets x 2, Oklahoma City Thunder, Milwaukee Bucks, Minnesota Timberwolves, Sacramento Kings, eventual champion Miami Heat)
- 2012 : 15-4 (Losses Against: Los Angeles Clippers x 2, New York Knicks, eventual champion Miami Heat)
- 2013: 15-4 (Losses Against: Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trailblazers, Houston Rockets, Indiana Pacers)
So there. The best Spurs start coincides with the worst Spurs playoff performance in the Old Man Duncan era. About the only disconcerting thing is that in each of the last four years the Spurs have lost in the first 19 games to the eventual NBA Champion. I'm going to chalk that up to a strange fit in a small-sample size theater, but it bears watching this year since the Spurs have only lost to the NBA's cream of the crop.
Most of all, when you're playing the NBA's cream of the crop, regardless of whether we might consider the Spurs objectively better than any of those teams, the chances of winning or losing even out to about a coin flip. Great teams going up against great teams generates results that are often unpredictable. The Spurs have not been their best selves in the four games against the NBA's quality opponents, and this certainly bears mentioning going forward when things start to matter. But for now, it's December, and the Indiana Pacers played a better basketball game than the San Antonio Spurs. Let's leave it at that.
Bizarre night from the Spurs PA system in general, which is usually on point with its awful mix of Ke$ha, metal and @spursdj drops. The music was consistently going in and out, segments would step over each other at random, and the Kiss Me Cam appeared twice. The Coyote intersects here as, in his first segment, the pants-less wonder began to grind on the security guard stationed below the away team basket, only to have Rush's "Tom Sawyer" interrupt his seduction music. Strange, incongruous, and frankly a whole lot funnier than most things the Coyote normally does.
Manu Ginobili - 16 points, 2 rebounds, 3 assists, 0 turnovers on 6-9 shooting in 19 minutes.
Watching Manu when everything is going well is unreal, given that it elicits just as much panic as it does elation. We've been trained as Spurs fans to expect Manu to take a crazy three point shot every now and again or to feel totally comfortable heat-checking himself into oblivion. So, every time one of Manu's six threes went up tonight, that awful moment of panic would wash over my brain, only to be replaced by utter euphoria when the shot would go down.
Also, this pass. Because any NBA fan should be so lucky to see this pass live.
Honorable Mention goes to Kawhi Leonard, for being active and aggressive on the offensive end, taking his opportunities where he could get them, and generally looking a lot more enthused to battle against Paul George than he does against lesser wings. We may be seeing a phenomenon where Leonard performs at his best when being challenged by a superior player. It's something to monitor. Plus, we got a Kawhi Three! All is right, even though we lost.
Danny Green - 2 points, 3 rebounds on 1-4 shooting in 17 minutes.
Sigh. I know I just ranted for a bit about the value (or lack thereof) of reacting to Danny's recent ice cold streak. The three pointers bother me, as they should anybody, because on the face of it nothing looks wrong with Danny's shots. They just aren't going in. This is a problem that will probably disappear and resurface seventeen thousand times over the course of this season, but safe to say it's frustrating to see the Spurs offense sputter because Danny Green is starting to lose trust in his stroke.
More disconcerting, however, is the defense. There isn't one play to specifically highlight here, and I think on the whole if you looked at Danny's stats, he's probably still a plus defender. But tonight, Danny showed off some of the highly-regrettable things that he does on defense that get Pop so steamed. He still has a tendency to swipe at driving wings too much, a problem that has resurfaced after disappearing late last season. While it's not getting him into foul trouble, good teams are starting to notice that Danny cheats for steals, and are passing to the open man. We all know that Danny can close quickly, but against a well-oiled machine like the Indiana Pacers, Danny's flying-through-the-air-to-block-your-shot routine causes more problems than it provides help. For two seconds, if the defender doesn't shoot, the Spurs are playing with four defenders. That's never going to win you a basketball game when Paul George is one of the guys you have to guard.
By The Numbers
- 24,002 - Tim Duncan's career point total, becoming, appropriately, the 21st NBA player to surpass 24,000 points. He tied the mark on a pair of free throws, which was anti-climactic, BUT STILL. Hats off to ya, GOATPUFF.
- 17 and 40 - The former, the number of possessions, stretching between the second and third quarter, that the Pacers consecutively scored on. The latter, the number of points they scored. That is insane. No matter what way you slice it, that's unbeatable.
- 26-of-28 - Indiana's free throw shooting tonight.
- 5-of-6 - San Antonio's free throw shooting tonight. This seems like a pretty good place to start when analyzing which team gave the superlative effort in an NBA game. The Pacers naturally play a more physical style of basketball, and the refs were cognizant of that and gave them the benefit of the doubt. However, only six attempts for the Spurs is indicative of what might be an ongoing concern for this team. The Spurs are not drawing fouls at the rate they should be. Whether this is a function of a decreasing number of baskets generated by Tony and Manu darting in the paint, or whether the Spurs are just not drawing the right kind of contact, I'll leave you to decide. Still, worth noting for the future.
Bird is the Word
David West's "CARPE DIEM" calf tats are the most underrated bad tattoos in the NBA.— Caleb Saenz (@calebjsaenz) December 8, 2013
It is such an incredible relief when P.J. Carlesimo fills in on the Spurs broadcast.— Rob Mahoney (@RobMahoney) December 8, 2013
Scoring against Tim Duncan at the rim is a pretty good hurdle for burgeoning elite players to show what they can do.— Alex D. (@DewNO) December 8, 2013
MATT BONNER BROKE DAVID WESTS ANKLES— Tyler Remmert (@TylerGotSports) December 8, 2013
Tweet o' the night. RT @HabsfanAU can someone find a generator?— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) December 8, 2013
When a Manu trey put the Spurs up 13, the Pacers were in deep trouble...so they did this over the next ~29 mins pic.twitter.com/EUb8C6o4uc— Tim Donahue (@TimDonahue8p9s) December 8, 2013
NBA logic: In December, losing to another good team says more than losing to a second-tier team.
— Bethlehem Shoals (@freedarko) December 8, 2013
Odds and Ends
- One of the great parts about getting to games early is getting to see which players from opposing sides interact with each other. What was so special about tonight's game was that the Spurs and Pacers have a titanic amount of amicable connections, to the point that the early warmups looked like the prelude to a friendly scrimmage, not an NBA game. Ian Mahinmi and Tony Parker, French teammates, shared a lengthy aside near the Pacers warmup area. Mahinmi then sought out Spurs assistant, and former Spur, Ime Udoka, which reminded me that the two were teammates. George "OOEY POOEY" Hill got some well-deserved love from all of the Spurs, as did Jeff Ayres from the Pacers.
- Finally, and this deserves it's own bullet, Luis Scola and Manu Ginobili spent a good 10 minutes at the scorers table during warmups just chatting. Then, in one of the pregame's most sublime moments, Manu's wife brought over their two sons to hang out with Luis and Manu. Not only did the kids seem familiar with Luis, Luis basically became Everybody's Favorite Funny Uncle to the kids, making silly faces and playing with them. A cuter moment was not to be had on the floor for the rest of the night.
- Boris Diaw had a bad night tonight. He was caught being lazy on a number of possessions (one in particular when he completely forgot to cover David West, who was left wide open for a lay-in), and he became something of a shot chucker when the Spurs offense started faltering. I don't begrudge Boris taking shots; he has proven that he's effective enough this season to look for his own shot. But what's interesting is when Boris decides to call his own play and doesn't get the shot he wants. Tonight, whenever the Spurs offensive set faltered for even a split second, even early in the shot clock, Boris took that to mean that the set was broken and he would have to create for himself. More often than not, against this superlative Pacer defense, that was a bad idea.
- So although we focus on the terrible second and third quarters, we should point out that the last five minutes of this game were hilariously fun. With both scrub units on the floor, the Spurs generated a few open looks and began to slowly notch the lead down into the respectable high teens. At this point the end of the bench from the Pacers began stuttering and making rushed decisions which, against the eccentric Patty Mills, can lead to turnovers and shots at the other end. While the end of the game was never really in doubt, Mills, Aron Baynes, Belinelli, Matt Bonner and Cory Joseph made things interesting and fun for the remaining die-hard AT&T Center fans. The one play that's most worth noting was the last gasp of the wild hope of a comeback. With exactly a minute left and down 10, Patty Mills swiped the ball from an unsuspecting Luis Scola, and seeking to do his best Reggie Miller impression, darted down the court and pulled up for an above the break three (a play that, I should point out, he had been practicing during warmups). The crowd, amped-up that the deficit had been brought so low, audibly rose, then faded as the shot clanged. Again, the game was never really in doubt, but Patty Mills' NCAA-like chaos should be commended for giving the die-hards a reward for sticking around.
@ Toronto Raptors (6-12), Tuesday December 10 at 6:00pm CST: After a moderately hard two weeks of games (and nearly being burned in an arena fire), the Spurs have a chance to get back on track with four favorable teams in the coming week. First up is the Raptors, who were at one point leading the Titanic Division with an under-.500 record. Let's reflect on that for a second. Afterwards we visit Gary Neal and the dramatically underperforming Milwaukee Bucks, then home for Minnesota, a game that hopefully won't be postponed because of smoke. Finally we close it out against the ascendant Trey Burke and the plucky Utah Jazz. Should be a resurgent week for the Spurs.
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