The banner has been hung, the glamor shots taken, memories relived, and Tim Duncan has already added ring #5 to his homeowners' insurance policy. The Spurs' season has finally begun. Tuesday night against Dallas, the Big 3 combined for 57. Tonight, against the Suns and their Jack-o-lantern orange uniforms, they combined for 37. Kawhi Leonard was back, however, which should theoretically compensate.
The other addition to the starting lineup besides Leonard was Austin Daye, who entered the lineup in place of Matt Bonner, who was the injured Tiago Splitter's replacement against the Mavs.
Kawhi's first few offensive possessions (travel, blocked low post shot, reckless drive) were not inspiring. The Suns were collapsing on Duncan and forcing indecision on the pick and roll. Parker, Duncan, and Leonard combined for three traveling violations, and CoJo was baited into a bad shooting foul by Isiah Thomas, yet the Spurs led 24-11 and had 18 rebounds at the end of the first quarter.
In the second quarter, turnovers continued to be a problem, compounded with cold shooting from a lineup of Ginobili-Baynes-Belinelli-Joseph-Diaw. Small, quick guards, continue to be a problem for the boys in black, and Phoenix's roster just so happens to be loaded with them. A quick jumper by Thomas and a drive and alley-oop from Eric Bledsoe to Alex Len had the score tied at 30 and Pop calling time.
The Spurs have a quick - though not young - guard of their own, and Parker quickly restored order. All throughout the first half, Tony moved in rhythm and forced nothing, even rattling in a corner 3 to keep him perfect beyond the arc in October. Kawhi's aggressiveness was a continuation of what we saw over the last three games of last years' Finals, and it earned him four free throws in the first half, which comprised his only points. With Duncan and Leonard back in the game, the Spurs' paint defense and rebounding returned to its previously dominant levels, which allowed the offense to go on a quick 8-0 run on the way to a 45-36 halftime lead.
A brief scare occurred late in the second period when Len crashed into Duncan's left ankle in a scrum. Tim, who was a marble pillar in the lane on defense in the first half, came up holding the ankle, but eventually walked it off and made both free throws.
Two Goran Dragic free throws and a Markieff Morris baseline floater quickly halved the Spurs lead during the opening minutes of the third quarter. A give-and-go fast break between Tony and Kawhi earned the latter two more free throws, which were followed by Danny Green's only basket of the game, a corner 3 with 8:00 to go in the third quarter.
Late in the third, with the Spurs nursing a five point lead, Joseph, having learned from his mistake earlier, refused to be bated on a Thomas three point attempt, then received a patented Timmy outlet pass and scored over Anthony Tolliver on the other end for an and-1. While he'll never be the shooter Patty Mills is, Cory is capable of impacting the game on both ends thanks to his pesky defense and touch around the rim.
With both teams going to their benches late in the third, Thomas put on a show from the inside and the outside and had Phoenix within two before a Boris Diaw fast break lay-up (you read that right) gave the Spurs a 71-67 lead going into the final frame.
Three pointers by Parker, Gerald Green, and Belinelli started off the fourth before the turnover curse once again bedeviled he offense. A Parker-CoJo-Diaw-Belinelli-Baynes lineup surrendered back-to-back Thomas floaters deep in the lane before Pop went Serbian and called time with the Spurs up 77-74. Two right wing threes from Marco allowed the Spurs to keep the lead up before CoJo pulled off another tricky and-1. On D, the Spurs started showing help harder on Thomas' drives, and got the Suns pressing a bit with rushed jumpers. The hill was getting taller and harder to climb for Phoenix.
But the Spurs kept giving their opponent life. Green committed another turnover when Bledsoe stole a routine inbound pass, which was followed by yet another Thomas layup in the teeth of the defense. Daye answered with his second three of the night. By the 4:30 mark of the fourth, Joseph's basket was the only Spurs make which wasn't a three pointer. Phoenix's interior duo of Morris and Len shut off the lane, and the Thomas-Bledsoe-Dragic mini-hydra keyed a 10-3 run to give the Suns their first lead of the game. Tim missed two free throws (the Spurs' second and third misses of the quarter) and the Suns had all crowd engaged for the first time since tip-off.
Morris took the ball on a post-up and was hacked by Diaw, allowing the Suns to extend their lead to 90-87. With the clock going under a minute, the Spurs offense abandoned them, while their defense failed to secure the rebound on a Morris fadeaway, giving up a dunk to Morris moments later on a pass from Alex Len.
Instant replay gave the Spurs a chance to score three the easy way by proving a Dragic foul on a Manu attempt. Ginobili made 2 of 3, stopping a 10-0 Phoenix run. On the other end, Bledsoe ran out the clock before bricking a 21 footer from the keyhole which was rebounded by Len (his 11th of the game) with 36 seconds left. This set up the stop the Spurs needed to stay alive in a game they once led by 15. Isiah Thomas missed for what seemed like the first time in three weeks, and the Spurs called time out with 6.5 seconds left, down a triple and riding an 0 for 6 shooting slump.
They wouldn't get a chance to break it. The Suns switched, mucking up the inbound play, and Diaw was called for a five second violation. Bledsoe free throws put the game out of reach, rendering Green's three point attempt at the buzzer superfluous. The Spurs were outscored 27-18 in the fourth quarter, and got 11 points combined from Leonard, Green, and Ginobili. Instead of leaving Phoenix with a well-fought victory, the Spurs will end this Halloween haunted by visions of Isiah Thomas jumpers and Alex Len rebounds. The season has started, and the Championship honeymoon is over.