We should start with the understanding that all preseason games are always, always, ALWAYS meaningless, under all circumstances and that the only way to ever take away anything from any of them is if someone gets injured. Everyone agrees on those two hard and fast rules, right? Yes? We're clear on this? Good.
But still though...
It'd be silly in the extreme to suggest that the Spurs "needed" to win a preseason game. Silly and patently wrong. The score is the absolute last thing that matters here. However, it couldn't have hurt for certain individuals to mix in a solid performance after a string of sloppy ones or for others to reinforce past strong showings with yet another one. The Spurs closing quintet of Jeff Ayres, Austin Daye, Kyle Anderson, Bryce Cotton and Marco Belinelli checked off their respective boxes and outplayed the Sacramento starting lineup led by DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay and Darren Collison in San Antonio's 106-99 win at the AT&T Center Monday night.
What was interesting about the win is this is precisely the kind of game the Spurs are notorious for winning in the regular season, resting their stars against the dregs of the league like the hapless Kings. Tim Duncan sat this one out, Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter and Patty Mills continue to be out injured and Manu Ginobili is still shaking off a summer's worth of rust. He shot 1-of-11 and his one make was a goaltend that had no prayer of going in. Tony Parker, meanwhile, was so-so in his 28 minutes, never getting out of second gear, and regulars such as Boris Diaw and Danny Green saw 30 minutes of "action" between them. The above list of names comprises the eight individuals most responsible for delivering a fifth championship to the Spurs last spring, and they combined for 23 of the Spurs' 106 points.
Yet it was Anderson, the 30th pick out of UCLA, who looked perfectly comfortable for the second consecutive game down the stretch, and filling the box score with 14 points, five boards, a couple of assists, and three steals. A number of Anderson's played stood out, from his slick underneath pass while driving to a wide open Aron Baynes at the rim for a dunk to the effortless way he backed down and shot over the smaller Ramon Sessions for a mid-range bucket to his swat of Collison at the rim. My two favorites though were Leonard-esque open floor steals of first Sessions and later Gay. Both guys tried to cross over the rookie, but Anderson, who's not fast but is quicker than he appears and long, swiped the ball off both guys trying to embarrass him and took off down the floor with the ball. it took him a while to get there but the first play culminated in a dunk while the second was an "and-1" that gave the Spurs a late 100-93 lead. The skinny New Jersey native will be overmatched at the post plenty, but otherwise the weaknesses in his game are few and far between and he's already got a far more sophisticated understanding of the game and offensive repertoire than Leonard did as a rookie.
"I like being in there at the end of the game and getting game reps under my belt," said Anderson. "I use it as practice these preseason games, so that in the end of the games, if the opportunity does come in the regular season maybe I'll know what to do."
When Anderson wasn't exploiting the Kings, it was the similarly-framed Daye doing the damage. He scored 11 of his 13 in the second half and hit 3-of-6 from downtown, while chipping in with eight boards. It's a stretch to suggest Daye needed to come up big to hold off hard-charging rookie JaMychal Green, considering that the former has a guaranteed contract and the latter does not, but it's getting more and more difficult to ignore the springy Green's efforts on the floor. In 12:44 he scored a dozen points, had four boards, two steals, a block and made a pair of next-level passes to fellow bigs within the offense. Green canned a pair of mid-range jumpers, which wasn't supposed to be a club in his bag and continues to look like anything but a neophyte in his understanding of the offense. Defense, however, is a different story, as it is with most anyone mentioned here. Even Cotton, coming off a disastrous showing Saturday night against Miami where he fouled out in little over 12 minutes, was far more solid tonight with nine points and three assists.
Of everyone though I think the most impressive was Jeff Ayres, the much-maligned, fumble-thumbed journeyman at the end of the bench. He scored 11 of his team-leading 15 in the second half and had far more success (that is to read less outright failure) than any Spur in trying to defend the ridiculous Cousins. Ayres, giving up inches and pounds to the fellow they call "Boogie," battled Cousins at the rim, drew some fouls and scored on the other end. Twice he found rolling guards, first Cotton and then Belinelli in the fourth quarter for "and-1" layups, the second of which clinched the game.
You want to root for JaMychal Green, you do, but there's no point in it. There are 16 NBA players on the Spurs and the rules dictate that only 15 can make the team. 15 happen to have guaranteed contracts. The math is cold and simple.
"That is part of the league," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich confirmed. "You never know when you are going to get your opportunity. A lot of guys bounce around before they get it right. Danny Green is a good example of that. Back in the day Avery Johnson was a good example of that. Do your work, do what coach is asking you to do, fit in and try to get better."
The Spurs got better on Monday, even if nobody will realize it months from now. They finally kept their turnovers in the teens, finishing with 18 to Sacramento's 23. Aside from the sloppy second period, they only had nine giveaways in the other three quarters. Mostly though they beat a Kings team close to full strength. When the opponent's play-by-play guys and the talking heads wonder incredulously how a Spurs team can beat whoever when the big three are being rested, it's because of preseason games like this, when their third and fourth string are playing down the stretch and out-executing an opponent whose in-over-his-head coach is needlessly playing his starters.
Mike Malone couldn't understand afterward how his team lost when Cousins scored 32 on 10-of-12 shooting and his team enjoyed advantages in paint scoring, free throw attempts, transition points and field goal percentage. He couldn't process that it was because he relied too much and too long on his starters that they would let him down in the end, as they often do for the Kings. Many coaches in the NBA don't understand the concept of diminishing returns but it's one that Pop figured out long ago. The best way to develop a team full of good players is to treat them all like they are.