Well, that whole Los Angeles thing was rather easy, huh?
It's crazy how fast things change. A mere 18 days ago the thought of facing the Lakers in the playoffs seemed rather terrifying. Kobe Bryant was playing like he was 25 (at least on offense) and LA had finally found some semblance of rhythm between Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol, while the Spurs were sputtering to the regular season finish line on fumes.
Manu Ginobili was still on the injured list with his 47th hamstring ailment of the year and Tony Parker looked like a limping shell of himself as he worked to find his form again. In the words one Gregg Popovich, the team was as "discombobulated" going into the postseason as any during the Tim Duncan era.
Then, Bryant tore his Achilles against the Warriors and the light switch flipped for the Spurs. Ginobili, who was surprisingly sharp despite his long layoff, spearheaded a bench effort that was the difference in two convincing home wins -- which was wholly ironic considering that the reserves were a relative albatross for the team all season. Lakers guards Steve Nash, Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks all got hurt in short order, Ron Artest followed suit in Game 3 and the two games in Los Angeles had a preseason feel at times. Comprehensive was the list of whodats forced into action for the Lakers during the first round of the playoffs.
Not only did the Spurs sweep the series easily, but both Parker and Ginobili looked darn close to 100 percent by the time guys like Patrick Mills, Nando De Colo and Tracy McGrady (oh yeah, that happened, the Spurs somehow have Tracy McGrady now) were wasting possessions Sunday afternoon before the final buzzer mercifully sounded at a near-empty Staples Center.
Perhaps the most stunning development of all was that longtime playoff chokers like Matt Bonner and DeJuan Blair each played the best postseason series of their careers. Even Danny Green showed signs of life before game four had ended. And all this is beside the fact that none other than Cory Joseph (who was anywhere between fourth and seventh on the point guard depth chart for most of the year, depending on how you fudge the books) came out of nowhere to play an incredibly solid series for the team.
Really the only down note when looking back on the quartet of games against the lads in yellow, is that Tiago Splitter, who wasn't having a particularly good run of it anyway, twisted an ankle late in Game 3 and his availability for the second round (at least at full strength) will be in question. However, his sprained ankle isn't considered serious, and Boris Diaw is set to return to the fold from back surgery as well. It's really hard to remember the Spurs, collectively, looking this poised and ready to do damage in the postseason.
So let's quickly look at the guys, one by one...
Tim Duncan: B+
17.5 pts, 7.5 rebs, 1.5 asts, 1.0 blks, 1.5 stls, .517./.833, +33, 32.5 mpg, 21.97 PER
Not very sharp at all in any game except for the third, during which he was unconscious. His work on the boards and meager block totals won't impress anybody, but he had to spend a lot of time away from the rim, guarding Pau on the high post. All things considered, he held up pretty well given all the pounding he took against two All-Star caliber bigs. I rounded up to a B+ just for this...
Duncan should have an easier time of it playing more of his customary role as a help defender/rebounder in the next series without a serious post thread to defend, and he'll probably get to stretch his legs more and run up and down the court as well. It's good that he'll get somewhat of a physical break and won't have to go right from this series to, say, the Grizzlies two days later.
Also, on the "Duncan is a robot with no personality" front, I rather enjoyed a sequence caught by the cameras during the first half of Game 3, where going into time out after a Parker reverse lay-in, Duncan tapped his point guard on the head and said, "Yeah, torch those mothereffers."
Tiago Splitter: C-
5.0 pts, 4.0 rebs, 2.3 asts, 0.67 blks, 0.67 stls, .357./.833, -1, 23.7 mpg, 8.96 PER
Only played into the third quarter of Game 3 before turning his ankle, and Pop announced on Tuesday morning that he's in doubt for the opener of the second round, which is now scheduled for May 6. Splitter's post defense against Howard wasn't spectacular by any means, but he wasn't getting abused either, and it's a comfort of sorts that he won't face a tougher match-up, physically, the rest of the way. What was concerning is that Splitter's touch around the basket has seemed to completely abandon him (really it has all month) and his toughness in that regard continues to rise and wane.
It's up for debate just how much of Splitter we'll see in the second round given his health and the likeliness of the Warriors being the next foe to vanquish. Sure, we made ample use of him against the Thunder playing small because he had the agility to cover Derek Fisher, but I don't think he'd be able to hang on the perimeter against a Harrison Barnes. He might just get the 12 or so minutes that Duncan sits, or maybe even less if Pop uses Boris there as the hub.
It will be very interesting to see just how Pop uses Diaw, Bonner and even Blair in this series, but no matter what he does, I'm sure I'll find something to complain about.
Kawhi Leonard: B
12.3 pts, 7.3 rebs, 1.3 asts, 1.5 stls, 0.75 blks, .553/.286/1.000, +45, 33.5 mpg, 18.80 PER
I was a bit surprised he didn't get more shots up in the series — especially once Artest was rendered useless — but Leonard was content to blend into the scenery in the half court while Parker and Duncan went to work. I thought at times his focus flagged just because there wasn't much for him to do on defense. His three-ball was also wonky.
What I liked about Leonard's game was his willingness to help out on the boards, where the Lakers probably thought they'd make hay on second chances. He also looked to push the ball hard on the break, even though that didn't necessarily work out for him.
While Leonard's matchups against Denver would be complicated (Wilson Chandler? Andre Iguodala?), against the Warriors he'll likely be dueling with Barnes, and it will be critical for him to come out on top there. I just don't see Barnes, who's a bit slight, as someone who should be able to guard Leonard. Given the open court nature of that potential series, there's no reason Leonard should average less than 16 points a game, and I'd be a bit concerned if he doesn't top that number. There will be a TON of threes launched in this one, and both he and Green have to shoot at a respectable clip.
Danny Green: C-
7.0 pts, 4.0 rebs, 2.0 asts, 0.75 stls, .50 blks, .414/.333/NA, +12, 23.3 mpg, 13.10 PER
It says something that Green was so woeful in the first two games that he had to work himself up to a C- with solid efforts in LA. However, it's to his credit that he didn't get down on himself and kept coming, which wasn't the case last year.
Green's prolific shooting during the regular season certainly had the Lakers' attention on defense and they seemed unwilling to yield him many open looks, especially from the corners, and chose instead to let guys like Bonner have looks from the wings or Duncan from the high post. I don't think the Warriors will be nearly as diligent against him, but we'll see.
What's interesting to me is that I don't recall seeing Green and Ginobili play together at all during the Lakers series. It was pretty much a straight substitution every time. But in a small-ball series against the Warriors, that likely won't be the case. So I wonder about the chemistry there. It sure looks to me like it'll be a three-man shuffle at the wing spots, with those two and Gary Neal absorbing the 96 minutes. Almost by necessity we're looking for 35+ minutes out of Green there, so he can't suck.
Tony Parker: A-
22.3 pts, 6.5 asts, 3.3 rebs, 1.25 stls, 0.25 blks, .493/.200/.818, +48, 31.8 mpg, 28.91 PER
Perhaps the best news coming out of the first round was the rapid (no pun intended) progress Parker made from a gimptastic Game 1 to Game 4, where he was back to his spinning, slashing self, attacking and finishing acrobatically around the rim and demonstrating once more his savant-like ability to make layups from all manner of angles and body contortions. By the time he finished dismantling the Lakers fourth- and fifth-stringers, he had, from a PER standpoint, one of the best series of his career. He seemed particularly spurred on by a hard bump Howard laid to him on a loose ball, during which Howard blatantly chose to put his full weight on Parker as they tangled on the floor. After that, Parker went off.
The wee Frenchman's jumper is looking better as well and I'm sure he's excited about facing the Warriors. Unlike the Nuggets, Golden State lacks a bona fide shot-blocker (Bogut is good, not great), and that matchup against Stephen Curry in the second round looks fantastic on paper. Bonus points to Parker, when asked Tuesday if he'll be watching Warriors-Nuggets Game 5, he said, "Yes, I watch all the games, I'm a student of the game and you can learn something from all of them."
What about Hawks-Pacers, he was asked. "Except that one," Parker replied.
Right there with you, Tony.
Manu Ginobili: B+
11.3 pts, 4.8 asts, 3.0 rebs, 1.75 stls, .50 blks, .467/.500/.714, +57, 19.5 mpg, 28.47 PER
The only reason it's not a higher grade is because Manu played so few minutes in the series and only put up 17 shots, total, in the last three games. The driving dunk he had in Game 4 was encouraging to see (you'll note that it came shortly after Howard's hard elbow to Joseph's head), but still I have some reservations just because Manu's playing time never trickled over the 20 minute mark. I know the last two games were blowouts, but it would've been nice to see it trickle up into the 22, 23 range, just to see a subtle bump there.
Ginobili will have a week to practice and build his stamina, but practices aren't games, and I just don't know if we can win in the next round, especially in a small ball series, without him playing 28-30 minutes. Can he spike from 20 to 28 in such a short time and be productive? It sounds unlikely. I totally understand's Pop caution, but I'm just saying I'd have gone 20-22-24-26 in the four games for his playing time in that past series, regardless of score. Have him run up and down the floor in garbage time, even if he's not involved in the plays. Better that then to give garbage time minutes to De Colo or Mills.
The Warriors would be a great match-up for him. I can see him doing a lot of damage in the lane there, but at the same time, Klay Thompson won't be a picnic on the other end either. Should be fun. A lot more so than Andre Igoudala and Corey Brewer, anyway.
Matt Bonner: A-
7.8 pts, 3.8 rebs, 0.3 asts, 0.75 blks, 1.00 stls, .556/.750/.714, +61, 25.5 mpg, 16.01 PER
Eight points and four boards a night in 25 minutes doesn't sound too impressive, but considering that,A) it's Bonner, B) it's the playoffs, and C) that he was facing the lengthy Lakers, this was a tour de force performance from the Red Mamba, who, ironically, was a lot more effective against Howard than he was defending the smaller Pau Gasol. He succeeded in annoying and frustrating Dwight, regardless of whether he was fronting him or on his back. Bonner's marksmanship was great, but I'm just happy that the guy competed more than anything else.
It's hard to figure what kind of role he'll have in the next round. Maybe he'll be Leonard's backup and play just 12 minutes a night, subbing in whenever Barnes checks out, or maybe the Warriors will surprise by using Landry a lot and Bonner will play more. Not sure I like that match-up at all, but Landry is hardly accustomed to guarding people that far out. Obviously Bonner's strong play has earned him a rotation spot, but the leash won't be long. He's another guy, I imagine, who wouldn't be upset about the Nugs being eliminated.
Gary Neal: C-
7.8 pts, 2.3 rebs, 1.0 asts, 0.50 stls, 0.00 blks, .355/.250/1.000, +32, 19.3 mpg, 10.45 PER
The shooting numbers are horrific, but I thought Neal's shot selection and defense both improved as the series went on, and I wasn't too dissatisfied with his play in the games at L.A. I think getting to play just shooting guard is a relief for him, even though it necessitates that we play awfully small, in a three-guard lineup with Ginobili.
I do worry, however, about him against the Warriors. There's really nobody there I feel he's comfortable guarding. Neal doesn't do a good job of navigating screens and he keeps getting sucked into the paint and letting guys shoot open threes. He got away with it -- somewhat -- against a bricklaying Lakers squad, but it won't do against the Dubs. Even worse, it's not like we can magically drop him from the rotation, because everything points to him having to play, unless Pop decides to go back to De Colo out of nowhere or really throws us for a loop with McGrady. Basically, Neal has to surprise us as much next round as Bonner did in round one.
Cory Joseph: A
4.5 pts, 3.0 asts, 2.8 rebs, 0.75 stls, 0.50 blks, .529/.000/NA, +23, 14.3 mpg, 18.72 PER
Speaking of surprising us, I had a sneaking suspicion about Joseph, so I dug around on some game logs to confirm it. And true enough, unless you want to count Manu, Joseph had the best playoff series for a Spurs backup point since Speedy Claxton in the '02-03 Finals. Seriously, look it up if you don't believe me. The JV, puddin' soft Beno Udrih, Nick Van Excrement, none of them came close to Joseph's performance over a whole series. CJ was more than "solid" in Spurs parlance, he was a downright asset, and I'm excited to see what he can do going forward.
Two things really impressed me about Joseph's game more than anything: His toughness and his court vision. He shook off that elbow Howard threw at him and wasn't fazed or intimidated at all. It's like he didn't even register it. And the way he spun into the lane at full speed late in that game and dished to Blair for an assist was very sweet. Don't be surprised if you see Pop play some with Parker and Joseph in the same backcourt against Golden State.
DeJuan Blair: A-
6.5 pts, 3.3 rebs, 1.0 asts, .25 blks, .50 stls, .706/.500, +42, 11.3 mpg, 30.10 PER
Yet another reserve who had an outstanding time of it was Blair, who killed Howard's spirit one floater at a time. Blair's accuracy from the field was a sight to behold and the big lug found plenty of ways to score, which was all the more impressive because he really wasn't jumping all that well. I'm no medical expert, but it continues to confound me how his leaping ability comes and (mostly) goes.
Blair's defense was hit-or-miss, but considering the guys he had to guard and his height disadvantage, I thought he was OK there, and the plus/minus speaks for itself. Also, it's kind of impossible to ignore the chemistry he has with Manu. Blair's a guy I can actually see playing some versus the Warriors in certain spots. Really, it's tough to completely discount anyone on the roster except for Mills at this point.
But, you never know with Pop, right?