It took two minutes before either team scored a bucket, a sign that we were not in for a high scoring affair. Tim Duncan scored the team's first nine points, benefiting from a Cavs defense that lacks rim protection and got completely lost whenever the Spurs moved the ball with purpose. In fact, the first nine Spurs field goals were the result of an assist and 14 of the Spurs' 23 first quarter points came in the paint. But Cleveland has too much talent on the other end to fall behind by much if they are engaged. They also moved the ball and their marksmanship from outside (4-7 in the first quarter) kept them in it.
As the second quarter started the Spurs were forced to rest Boris Diaw, who started the game and played the entire first quarter. Austin Daye took his place next to Baynes and the Spurs' defense collapsed. The Cavs went on a 8-0 run to start quarter as the Spurs missed three pointer after three pointer. Finally one dropped for Danny Green to stop the hemorrhage but the Cavs were now in control of the game.
It took perhaps the best half in Diaw's career in San Antonio to turn things around. Boris exploited every seam in the porous Cleveland D for easy floaters or assists to the open man. His playmaking was sorely needed, as Parker and Ginobili weren't especially good. Defensively the Spurs couldn't contain Kyrie Irving, who hit tough shots en route to a ten point second quarter. But fortunately they closed the half well courtesy of a couple Leonard steals that led to easy layups. At the break, the score was Cavs 47, Spurs 44.
David Blatt clearly wanted Kevin Love, who had only attempted four shots in the entire first half, to be the focal point of the offense to start the third quarter. Love took seven of the Cavs' first eight shots of the half and while he made some, the strategy backfired. Irving and James were marginalized early in the quarter and had to take breaks later on. The Spurs offense, meanwhile, started to click. Diaw continued to make a difference and the bench outplayed its Cavs counterpart. Cory Joseph in particular was great, finishing the frame with eight points. After three quarters, the Spurs were now the ones with a three-point lead.
Unfortunately San Antonio couldn't sustain that offensive production. The turnovers piled on early and the shooting remained absent. For almost eight minutes after an Austin Daye three the Spurs didn't register a field goal and only survived because they were getting to the line. The Cavs pounced on their opportunity to get the lead back by going to Anderson Varejao on the pick-and-roll, a play the Spurs hadn't been able to contain up until that point due to the pristine spacing of the offense. It wasn't looking good.
But the Spurs tightened up their pick-and-roll defense, with Leonard doing a fantastic job of recovering after the screen. Without that go-to tool, the Cavs offense became a bit predictable and reliant on energy and hustle instead of execution.
With 1:39 to go and the Spurs down one, Manu Ginobili found Tim Duncan with good deep position and Love guarding him. Duncan banked in a hook to give San Antonio a one-point lead that Tony Parker stretched to three from the line after a James turnover. LeBron cut it to one and Boris Diaw couldn't score the next trip down. But another James turnover gave the Spurs a chance to get a three-point cushion and the Spurs seized it by running the high-low backdoor play they usually run for Parker but with Ginobili as the target this time.
Poor Joe Harris had no idea what was going on. After that the Cavs tried to get a good look for a three but when it wasn't there, Irving drove to the rim, drew a foul and hit his two free throws. The Spurs inbounded to Ginobili, who was fouled and missed one, opening the door for the Cavs to win it with a three-pointer. But Cleveland was out of time outs, so LeBron James had to dribble the ball up court with seven seconds to go. In his rush, he turned it over, crowning a very sloppy night by his standards. Manu recovered it and dribbled out the clock.
- Boris Diaw was instrumental to this win. It's impossible to overstate how important he was in creating offense and keeping Kevin Love contained. He finished with a supercharged Boris Diaw stat line: 19 points, six rebounds, seven assists and three steals. It was easily his best game of the season. Hopefully he can replicate that type of performance until Tiago Splitter returns.
- One of the reasons why the Spurs needed big games from Diaw and Duncan (19 points, 10 rebounds) was because the back up bigs were a disaster. Pop tried to play Austin Daye and Aron Baynes together in the first half and it went as poorly as it could go. In the second half, he staggered the minutes so that they didn't have to be on the court together. Baynes played next to Diaw and Daye next to Duncan. The results were better, which signals that's the way to go from now on.
- The other reason why the front court had to carry the team is because Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker had quiet scoring nights. They combined to score just 15 points in 14 shots and didn't hit any three pointers. They did get the ball moving, though. Parker finished with just three assists but also logged four secondary or "hockey" assists and Manu had five and two. Both guys are clearly still trying to find their best form.
- Kawhi Leonard was fantastic. He did a great job guarding James (15 points on 17 shots for LeBron) and did a little bit of everything on his way to 12 points, 10 rebounds, four assists (plus four secondary assists) and four steals. The only black mark on an otherwise great night is his four misses on as many shots from outside. The Spurs just can't hit the three consistently this season, for whatever reason. At least Danny Green hit a couple. Baby steps.
- Cory Joseph also hit a three pointer from the corner, which is a great sign. He does most other things really well and seems to be improving as a finisher. If he adds that corner shot, his value increases greatly.
- The Cavs will eventually find a rotation that works. Starting Joe Harris could be a good idea, as the threat of his shooting spreads the floor in a way Shawn Marion can't and he doesn't need the ball to be effective like Dion Waiters. But there is a sense that this team is still missing a piece or two. Can Mike Miller and Brendan Haywood give them some minutes when needed? If not, they will need to make a move. Expect them to be in the mix for every decent wing player on the trading block.
Vine of the night
Since I already showed you Manu's game-winner, let's go with Timmy dunking.
The Spurs, which are now 7-4, will travel to Minnesota to face the Timberwolves on Friday as they start a favorable part of their schedule. The good guys have to be alert so that they don't suffer the same fate as the Knicks.