Early on in the season Cory Joseph was getting some well-deserved plaudits for his play in the injured Patty Mills' stead as Tony Parker's understudy, but lately the unsung hero has been Mills' countryman Aron Baynes, who's filled in nicely for Tiago Splitter, who's missed the virtually the whole season so far himself with a calf issue.
In his last four games Baynes has averaged 10.0 points (on 58.6 percent shooting) and 7.3 rebounds in 18.5 minutes per outing and on the season his averages are 6.4 points and 4.8 rebounds in 16.5 minutes, a rate that works out to a very solid 14.0 points and 10.6 boards over 36 minutes. Baynes' PER of 14.7 is easily the best of his career so far and right near the league average. He's even been more active on the defensive end, already with one more steal and just one fewer blocked shot than he had in all of last season.
His teammates have definitely noticed Baynes improvement and the surging confidence in his game to try new things. The deft bounce pass in the post he dished to a cutting Kawhi Leonard off an in-bounds play produced a dunk and a roar from the crowd. Not too bad for a guy who at times isn't allowed to practice because he's too physical.
"He for sure (has) caught me (with screens in practice)," recalled Leonard. "I'm always guarding the ball, and he's a good screener. We try to leave him out of practice a little bit so he won't hurt nobody."
Manu Ginobili shared his own practice lowlight involving the dude Spurs play-by-play man Bill Land calls "The Big Banger," saying "I remember one time I tried to take a charge (against Baynes) and it was the worst idea I had the last 12 years, so it's not happening again anytime soon."
Playing steady minutes with Baynes might be a bigger adjustment for Ginobili than anyone because he's so reliant on those screens from bigs and always looking for them on rolls to the basket.
"We are starting to get used to each other," Ginobili confirmed. "We haven't played together that much and usually I have that with Tiago because he's the one I play with on the second units, so he's the one that's replacing Tiago so I need him and I'm pretty sure he needs me too, so it's a matter of adding minutes together and getting to understand each other better, from how I throw passes, how I want him to set screens and roll, and the usual things you have to get down when you haven't played together that much."
Ginobili also explained the difference between Splitter's picks, which he's said on numerous occasions are the best of anyone's on the team, and those from Baynes, which still wind up in turnovers all too often.
"Tiago, maybe his picks aren't as hard, but he's more experienced, he knows to use his feet better," Ginobili said. "'Baynesie' is just big and wide so he... hurts (opponents) whenever he sets screens and sometimes that becomes a moving screen. He's not easy to avoid because he has that wide base so for sure the more time he plays the more familiar he'll get and the better he'll play."
At the least, Baynes has helped the team survive with Splitter out. His defensive rating of 99.5 isn't great by any means, but opponents aren't scoring at will against the Spurs when Tim Duncan sits, and it's helped the team have an overall defensive rating of 95.1, a pace that would've led the league last season and is currently third.
Not too many people were expecting the Spurs to be able to lock down opponents like this, especially with Splitter out and the players are surprised as everyone else.
"We usually are solid defensively but not at the beginning," Ginobili said. "It takes us 30, 40 games to get there, but it's the reason why we still have a good record, that we're playing good ‘D' so of course we're very happy with that part of our game. If we can maintain it and keep improving slowly then we're in a good situation because we know that offensively we're not rolling but eventually we're going to get everybody back and we'll start making a few more shots and things are going to go well, but if our defense sustains like this, we're good."
Meanwhile, on the other end of the floor, the Spurs are slowly starting to regain their offensive rhythm after starting poorly on that end. They're still turning it over too much, but their three-point shots are starting to fall and they've recorded over 25 assists in each game of their four-game winning streak.
Leonard has certainly played a big part in that improvement, and similar to Baynes he is also continuing to get steadily better, albeit in a much bigger role. "The Claw" is averaging a career-high 13.6 points-per-game and taking almost two more shots per game (11.6) than he did last season (9.8) while also getting to the free throw line almost twice as often as well, 3.4 attempts per game so far this year compared to 1.9 attempts last season.
"I have license to do down there in the post if I can, if I have the opportunity, and I'm just trying to be more aggressive," Leonard said.
The Big Three are all looking more for Leonard within the flow of the offense and feeding him the ball, regardless of whether there's a play called for him or not, and Leonard is using more possessions on his own, especially if there's a match-up he feels he can exploit. Opponents continue to give him that open mid-range jumper, because it beats having to deal with Parker driving to the rim or an open three from someone like Danny Green. It's the lesser of evils and Leonard is trying to take advantage, in his prep for life after Duncan and Ginobili.
Leonard's not looking that far ahead for now and his biggest problem at the moment is he can't look at much of anything all that clearly with his right eye, where the conjunctivitis that's troubled him since training camp still hasn't gone away completely.
"I'm still seeing blurry out of my right eye, but I'm used to it now," he said. "It does have some effect but I just try not to tell myself that and try to think positive and keep moving."
Leonard estimated that it would take one or two more weeks for his eye to clear up and said he's trying to not think about it and make it a "mind over matter," issue.
The Spurs have dealt with a lot over the first 13 games and will continue to have a lot of obstacles to overcome, but all they have to do to feel fortunate is take a gander at their next opponent, the Indiana Pacers, who'll visit San Antonio on Wednesday. Since losing in six games to Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals the Pacers lost starting shooting guard Lance Stephenson to free agency, star Paul George to a freakish broken leg during suffered during a scrimmage with Team USA and haven't had the services of starters David West or George Hill yet this season either. It's a wonder the Pacers have won any games this season let alone five of them, but the Spurs are catching them at the right time and are in the midst of a soft portion of a schedule after an opening ten games that saw them play quite a few playoff teams and most of those on the road. They can't afford to feel sorry for anyone, not with teams like Memphis, Dallas and Houston all in their division off to such strong starts.
A 9-4 record, wins in seven of their past eight games and still fourth place in Southwest Division. That's the Western Conference for you.