It might have surprised some people that the Spurs won their home opener against Dallas the other night. I was among them. It even surprised Pop, who said multiple times that he expected to lose by 30. After all, not only were the Spurs missing Kawhi Leonard (who some feel is San Antonio's best player, although I disagree), but also top defensive big Tiago Splitter and bench sparkplug Patty Mills. If all that wasn't enough, they were also coming off a thoroughly uninspiring preseason where a number of their players, most notably Manu Ginobili, struggled to find any rhythm.
In retrospect, it feels foolish to have counted them out. And I think, as cheesy as it is, the ring ceremony gives you a clue why. Watch it again with me, won't you?
Did you notice what they did?
The first person to get a ring was assistant Jim Boylen, not trainer Will Sevening. A little unusual, okay, but then came... General Manager R.C. Buford? Huh? What's going on here? And then back to Chip Engelland. Then Chad Forcier.
And you realize they're just going alphabetical for the coaching staff and front office. The order got to Pop eventually, but -- and this is important -- he wasn't the final one. From him it went to Sevening and finally to Ime Udoka. None placed in any order of hierarchy or salary or importance.
Then came the players and the only question in my mind was whether Ginobili or Tony Parker would have the penultimate position ahead of Tim Duncan. I figured Leonard would be fourth-to-last in the traditional worst-to-best pecking order and I was just curious who would be second and third. The line started off with Jeff Ayres when I thought it would be Austin Daye but then when Marco Belinelli was the second one up, I realized it was the same alphabetical order for the players too, with Duncan getting his fifth ring after Boris Diaw and before Ginobili. For the record, Tiago Splitter got the final ring.
That's the reason the Spurs win games when they're missing players. Because they're all treated as equal cogs in the machine, none more vital than the other. Sure, it's obvious that that's not really the case, but Pop wants every last guy on the roster to feel important because you never know when he'll be needed to contribute. Belinelli barely played in the playoffs but here he was starting the season opener and fully expected to guard Chandler Parsons. Aron Baynes was re-signed late in the summer only after all other options were exhausted, but he provided 18 solid minutes off the bench against Dallas' bigs in Splitter's absence. Joseph didn't look at all out of place playing alongside Ginobili, and knocked down 3-of-4 shots and finished +6 in 17 minutes.
Some Game 1 observations...
Ginobili ended an 0-for-21 three-pointer drought when he threw in a prayer at the end of an expiring shot clock midway through the third quarter, but I think it's a stretch to say that was the shot that got him going. At that point, he already had 10 points and four assists, was playing aggressively, had gotten to the line, and was already looking miles better than he had in the preseason. The only thing he hadn't done was make a three, and then he got that out of the way. Most surprising of all was that Pop played him 28 minutes.
I thought Belinelli played quite well for the most part. After getting screened off on an early defensive possession where Parsons blew by him for a dunk, the Italian went right back at him on the other end for a driving layup. He stuck on Parsons pretty well for the better part of three quarters and the Mavs had other guys who were going so eventually they stopped looking for that match-up. Offensively, Belinelli hit a couple of tough, contested threes, moved the ball well and had an open-court steal. It went badly for him midway through the fourth quarter when he was paired on Devin Harris, who lost him for a couple of threes, but that was a difficult match-up for Marco.
Danny Green on the other hand had a rough night. He salvaged it by shooting well but he had three ugly turnovers and I wasn't the least bit impressed by his defense against Monta Ellis -- in Danny's defense, that's a tough size and quickness matchup. He had a lot of difficulty negotiating screens and didn't get much help from his bigs showing on those, especially Baynes. The Big Banger hung Green out to dry more than once.
Duncan wasn't too aggressive in the first half against Tyson Chandler but once Chandler got into foul trouble in the third quarter, Tim got himself going against Brandan Wright and carried it over against Chandler. Duncan's defensive positioning was superb in the second half.
I don't understand why Dirk Nowitzki was so tentative for the first three quarters. Maybe he wanted Parsons to feel welcome and it's true that Ellis was feeling it, but Matt Bonner had no chance against Nowitzki and Diaw wasn't faring any better. Nowitzki looked to take over once the Mavs found themselves down 89-81 in the fourth, but he only took three shots in 14:26 during the second and third quarters.
The key stretch for the Spurs was the 15-2 run they had early in the third quarter with their starters where they scored three points on five of six possessions, and finding some funky ways to do it:
1. A Parker and-1 floater
2. Green finding Belinelli for a three
3. Belinelli finding Green for a three
4. Duncan drawing a loose ball foul on Chandler trying to rebound a Parker miss, which led to a technical on Chandler. Belinelli made that freebie and then Parker drove for a layup.
5. Another technical, this time from Nowitzki after he was whistled for elbowing Duncan in the mug. Belinelli made that one too and then Duncan got a layup.
A nice way to start the year and now I'm looking forward to watching Leonard at Phoenix against all their penetrating guards. Duncan and Diaw should have an advantage over an undersized Suns front line.