11 days into the new year --2014, mind you!-- and it's a FANTASTIC time to be a Spurs fan. What kind of odds would you have gotten on that being a reality back when Tim Duncan was looking like a mummy in the 2009-10 season? 100-to-1? 500-to-1? Admit it, if I told you four years ago that the Spurs would be one game out for the best record in the league come January of 2014, you would've thought the only way such a thing could happen was if Duncan retired in 2011, the team tanked in 2012 and they somehow lucked into the next Duncan in the draft.
(Can you imagine the apoplectic reaction from the league and the blogosphere if the Spurs won another lottery the next time they find themselves in that position?)
What's the story on Jeff Ayres?
Do you ever wonder why Pop is giving minutes to a guy who has so much trouble just catching the ball?
Sure, the team doesn't have a "signature win," yet, 36 games into the season, but what they do have, by hook or by crook, is a 28-8 record, currently the best in the far more competitive Western Conference, while their challengers for that spot are all struggling with injuries and/or slumps.
Portland has gone 5-5 over their past 10 games, dropping games to the T-Pups, Pelicans, Sixers and Kings in that stretch, and they don't even have injuries as an excuse. The Thunder have dropped four of their past six, including a home loss to Brooklyn and at Utah, and apparently Reggie Jackson can't play well against anybody but the Spurs - Serge Ibaka was heard complaining on the bench during the loss at Denver that he has no idea what Jackson is doing in halfcourt sets. Even the Spurs' recent loss to the Knicks doesn't look quite so bad in light of Miami dropping consecutive games to the Knicks and Nets the past couple of nights. The Spurs have lost one game to a sub .500 team and just two games total vs. the Eastern Conference, with one of those being the Pacers. The Heat, by contrast, have lost EIGHT games in the East, seven against non-Pacers scrubs and eight games to sub .500 teams overall.
I wouldn't say the Spurs are peaking, exactly, but they have had a couple of Neo-Ball halves of late, which is encouraging. The first half they played against the Clippers (albeit without Chris Paul) was perhaps their best 24 minutes of the season, and the second half they played against Dallas, on a SEGABABA and without Manu Ginobili and Tiago Splitter, was just a tour-de-force at both ends of the floor. For most teams every game vs. a Western Conference opponent has been a potential landmine, but thus far the Spurs have been excellent at negotiating their way past the Kings, Pelicans and Grizzlies of the world, not to mention the Suns, Wolves and Mavericks.
What's struck me as particularly impressive about this club though, is that once again their focus and resolve seem to improve when one of their best players is out, whether it's due to injury or being rested. Granted, the Spurs haven't quite had the injury issues that the Thunder, Heat and the Warriors have dealt with (or continue to deal with), but Duncan and Tony Parker have missed three games each, Ginobili and Boris Diaw two apiece, Kawhi Leonard one and Splitter has sat for six and will miss a bunch more. That's the six best guys on the team.
Here is the record, without each of those dudes:
Without Parker: 3-0 (@Orlando, @Phoenix, @Golden State)
Without Duncan: 3-0 (@Lakers, @Philadelphia, @Golden State)
Without Ginobili: 2-0 (@Golden State, Dallas)
Without Leonard: 0-1 (Oklahoma City)
Without Splitter: 6-0 (@Toronto, @Milwaukee, Minnesota, @Utah, @Memphis, Dallas)
Without Diaw: 2-0 (Cleveland, Clippers)
13-1 without one or more of their six best guys, compared to 15-7 when everyone is in the lineup. Sure, the schedule has been a lot tougher for the "full squad" Spurs, but I think an argument can be made that a certain apathy or overconfidence sets in when everyone is in the lineup, too much of a "it's okay if I'm not dialed in," kind of mentality. For whatever reason, the Spurs seem to be a lot sharper when they're vulnerable, maybe because they know their margin for error is slimmer, or maybe they're more conscious of their weaknesses.
Whatever it may be, when I see that 13-1 stat it only reinforces what I already thought about Ginobili, who the Spurs have tabbed as "questionable," for Sunday's game against the struggling T-Pups with a balky hammy. I wouldn't take any chances with him, if I'm Pop. I sit Manu for Sunday and the next night at New Orleans too, and make sure he's got a full week off to get that thing 100 percent. At the very least I hold him out of that BABA on Monday, even if he gets through Sunday's game without a hitch. I know Ginobili is a player who relies on rhythm, and a week off the floor is a killer, but you just can't afford to take any chances when guys all around the league are dropping like flies. Russell Westbrook's injury has opened the door for the Spurs to snatch home court advantage in the West, and right now the easiest way for them to blow that chance would be to lose Gino for a month or more. This is right around the time he hurt himself last year --and few remember he was playing terrific at that point too-- so hopefully Pop will take the proper steps to ensure that history doesn't repeat itself. I would be simply livid if that hamstring pops when the club had every chance to be proactive and let it heal properly.
That 13-1 record is nice, but I don't want to tempt fate.