I've been a fan of the Spurs since 1989 and as much success as the franchise has enjoyed in all that time I've seen my share of blowouts the other way, where for whatever reason San Antonio just didn't have it on a particular night, the opponents have it all rolling for them and the "good guys" wind up getting their butts kicked. What was unique about the experience this time, however, was seeing the team get thrashed in much the same fashion as they've delivered to the rest of the league these past few years.
Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer spent 18 years at Gregg Popovich's side. He knows Pop's system inside and out. After all, he helped design it. If anything, "Bud" is even more a devotee to the three-pointer than his mentor's ever been. Popovich, 64, played collegiately before three-pointers even existed and has said he prefers the purity of the game without them. His Spurs shoot the three as extensively as they do because he's no dummy. Budenholzer, meanwhile, is 22 years younger and the three is practically all he's ever known. He's fanatical about it, to the point where even his centers shoot it.
As the Hawks prepare for their second season under Budenholzer, you get the sense that the light bulb has started to flicker on for most of their players. The system is starting to become more second nature, the ball is sticking less, more guys are starting to get involved in the "assist" column -- 11 Hawks recorded at least one in their 117-107 spanking of the Spurs at the AT&T Center and six of them had at least three -- and passes are being whipped around the floor at a dizzying, yet familiar rate. The Hawks are starting to resemble the Spurs, more or less, only with garish jerseys and a messy and well-chronicled front office situation.
Budenholzer (the team's acting-General Manager while Danny Ferry continues to be on indefinite suspension after the Luol Deng situation) may have an additional responsibility at the moment that he doesn't want or need, but it's not a bad trade-off considering he's also gotten back the services of his best player, Al Horford, who missed most of last season with a torn pectoral.
Horford's still feeling his way back and had a quiet 10 points, five rebounds and four assists in 27 minutes on Wednesday, but he's certainly noticed the progress his mates have made in his absence. "(It's been) a year of this new system under Coach Bud," he explained. "I missed a lot of it, but all the guys feel much more comfortable. I've been able to fit right in with what we're trying to do, just trying to perfect this system."
If Horford's quote reminds you of another, say, more accomplished big man, that's the idea. The Hawks are very much in the process of trying to become the Spurs East, and while quite a few organizations around the league have paid lip-service to embracing the Spurs philosophy and playbook, Atlanta is the first that actually looks like a mirror image of what we've all watched for lo these many years.
Jeff Teague is a drive-and-kick Tony Parker clone, albeit with a better three-point stroke and a bit worse finishing at the rim. Kyle Korver is their Danny Green, as deadly a marksman as there is in the league. DeMarre Carroll doesn't have Kawhi Leonard's all-around game, but he's starting to build a reputation as a perimeter shutdown guy, freeing Korver to stick to what he does best. Paul Millsap is a versatile, undersized four in the Boris Diaw mold, able to do a little bit of everything, including stretching the floor. Horford is the keystone in the middle, with a skill-set eerily similar to the great Tim Duncan, though lacking in experience and arm length. Mike Scott (19 points on 8-of-8 shooting and four assists in 21 minutes) is their Manu Ginobili, instant offense off the bench.
Consider the actual Ginobili impressed.
"For moments, especially in that third quarter, they were really sharp," the Argentine confirmed. "They penetrated, they kicked, a lot of threes, they executed their plays well, they played a really good game."
He was referring to the 42-point third quarter where the Hawks hit 12-of-18 shots including 4-of-6 from downtown to go with 14-of-16 free throws to turn a 53-48 halftime lead into a 95-74 boat race. Nine of their 12 field goals in the period were assisted.
"They were rolling until Horford got hurt last year," Popovich reminded. "You can tell that they are starting to understand the system and believe in the system. Bud's done a great job with them. The players have responded well. They have added talent. They are going to be a very good team."
The Spurs were one not too long ago and will likely be again at some point, though it's hard to see it happening in the near future. Leonard's freak eye infection has noticeably sucked the wind out of their sails in a preseason where they were planning to lean on him in preparation of his taking a bigger role. Splitter's absence with a calf injury has hurt as well and they're going to miss Patty Mills' scoring off the bench in the early going, particularly with Ginobili not anywhere near ready to contribute as he usually does after taking the summer to recuperate from another stress fracture. The early season slate has games against Dallas and these very same Hawks and roadies at Phoenix, Houston, Golden State and the Clippers. The defending champions may get off to a rough start until their injured guys find their rhythm.
It wasn't all doom and gloom for the Spurs though. Parker had 17 points and seven assists. Duncan hit all three of his shots and pulled down seven boards in 13 minutes before sitting for the second half. Diaw looked more active than he has all preseason and Cory Joseph scored 14 on 6-of-9 from the floor. Most importantly, nobody got hurt.
When asked how he would view the Spurs if he were a reporter, Ginobili joked, "If I were you I'd probably leave the old shooting guard alone and tell him to go rest, eat, sleep, and do his thing," before giving a more serious answer once the laughter subsided.
"(Will our form come back) quickly? I don't know. I think eventually it will. We'll definitely need the guys that are out, back on the court and we all have to play better. Of course when we play in the regular season we're going to play a little more like us and do the things we usually do, we're not going to try so many different things that sometimes you know, Pop throws it in just to see how we'll react, so we'll play more the way we play."
If the players need a reminder of how they play, I'd suggest watching film of the guys in blue. They seem to have it down pretty good.