We have Spurs basketball back! Well, sort of. Not only was it just a pre-season game but they also faced a team that is not in the NBA. The league decided the Spurs would be one of the teams that would travel to Europe to give the fans there a chance to see their heroes and help continue to grow the popularity of the sport. So they went up against Alba Berlin in Germany in their first game back after the championship and will play Fenerbahce on their second pre-season game on Saturday.
The great thing about playing non-NBA teams in pre-season is that it helps put things in perspective. These games don't matter. They don't count for the standings and teams are either trying new things or shaking off the rust of the off-season. With exhibitions such as this one the point is to get some reps, sure. But more than anything the goal is to entertain the fans. And boy were those fans entertained today!
I'm not going to lie, I was expecting a blowout. So when the Spurs quickly run out to a first quarter double digit lead, I was sure this was going to turn into a rout sooner rather than later. But Alba stuck around thanks to bringing more consistent effort and committing fewer mistakes. The German team is already competing in their domestic league and there was a sharpness to them that the Spurs just didn't have. Turnovers plagued San Antonio all game long and paved the way for the slow crawl back from Alba in the second quarter.
After the starters, with Parker leading the way, put some distance between the two teams, the bench squandered it with their sloppy play. Ginobili looked discombobulated out there, giving me flashbacks of the 2012/13 season, and Bryce Cotton seemed overmatched. The ball-movement that characterized the Spurs' championship run just wasn't there as everyone hesitated before passing or settled for bad shots before even exploring other options.
Against an equally rusty rival the Spurs would have been able to survive those lapses in judgment unscathed because no one in the NBA is at their bet shape yet and teams don't go all out in pre-season. But Alba clearly wanted the win, the recognition that comes from beating the NBA champions. Their focus was high throughout the game and every time the Spurs opened a small gap they chipped away at in until it disappeared. As cliché as it sounds, they clearly wanted more and it wasn't even close.
When some of his experiments didn't work (playing Cotton, going small with Diaw at center), Pop decided to surprise everyone who was expecting rest for the stars and went with the guys he knows he can rely on. The starters played heavy minutes and the rotation truly resembled the one the team featured in the playoffs. With their best players on the court the Spurs upped their effort level and took control of the game but couldn't break it open.
Alba's resolution and the Spurs' sloppiness combined to give the fans a close game. The score was tied with two minutes to go before Parker sealed off his man like we've seen him do many times and scored off a Duncan high-low feed. Alba couldn't respond and after a couple empty possessions, two Parker free throws gave the Spurs a four-point lead with 25 seconds to go. Manu stole the ball on the ensuing possession and Parker was sent to the line with the chance to ice it but missed both. The Spurs were still on the driver's seat but they didn't guard the three point line well and the lead was cut to one with five seconds to go.
The Spurs had the ball and were getting ready to inbound it. And then this happened:
It was a great finish to a game I'm sure the fans and the Alba players will never forget. Alba got the reward they deserved after bringing it all game long. And the Spurs learned a valuable lesson: everyone will be gunning for them all season long, just like this German team did on an exhibition game, so they better be ready.
- It's really hard to truly take much away from such a meaningless game in which the team played so poorly. But I have to mention how great Tony Parker looked out there. Yes, he missed those last two free throws but I'm not nearly as interested in the result of the game as I was in seeing a fully healthy Parker again and he didn't disappoint. Tony finished with 28 points on 13 shots and for stretches he looked unstoppable. A great sign for the Spurs' chances of repeating as champions.
- Tim Duncan had great numbers (a double-double with two assists, two steals and a block to boot) but was surprisingly sloppy on defense. He also contributed to the team-wide turnover issues with four of his own. But he looked spry and that's all that matters, I guess.
- All those comments about Manu Ginobili being a crazy competitor on par with Kobe and MJ? All true. Manu played terrible for most of the game but he was diving for loose balls, arguing with refs and chastising teammates after mistakes like it was a playoff game. Take it easy, Manu. There will be meaningful games to worry about soon enough.
- No one played particularly well off the bench and Pop tightened the rotation as a result. It was really weird seeing the king of minute management having his stars out there for over 30 minutes on an exhibition match but the game might have not been close had he kept Jeff Ayres, Bryce Cotton or Cory Joseph in longer. Everyone needs to step up so that the Big Three won't have to be on the court in the fourth quarter on Saturday.
- Speaking of Pop, I still can't decide if he loved or hated this game. On the one hand, he now has a shiny example that illustrates how if you don't play hard and smart, any team can beat you. If he wants to prevent players from resting on their laurels, he only has to show them this game. But on the other the team lost and he really couldn't try anything new. Is a teachable moment more valuable to Pop than the possibility to experiment with things that could come in handy during the season? I can't tell. Let me know what you think in the comments.
Congrats to Alba Berlin and its fans and good luck in the Euroleague!
The Spurs will now travel to Turkey where they will face Fenerbahce Ulker on Saturday. I know I said these games don't count like ten times in this recap but a win would be nice.