Well, shoot. Russell Westbrook has returned to the Thunder, who romped all over the Knicks last night, and as a result, a potential Spurs-Kings playoffs tilt seems to be in jeopardy before we can even start speculating about it. Not that Friday night's game, a 112-104 Spurs win, would have been an accurate preview, given that DeMarcus Cousins sat out with a
turkey coma stomach virus. (Seriously, though, how much would you not want to be in line behind Cousins for Thanksgiving dinner?) Back in action for Sacramento were Rudy Gay and Darren Collison, who'd both missed the previous two games. Not back in action for the Spurs was Gregg Popovich, meaning Ettore Messina got more sideline burn and Becky Hammon got a seat in the front row. So everything felt a little bizzaro. The fourth quarter felt a little like garbage time, even though a Spurs lead that wavered between 7 and 12 meant that it really wasn't, but things were entertaining nonetheless.
The presumably temporary fall of the Thunder provided an ephemeral playoff spot which up 'til now has made the Kings look a bit more postseason legit than they actually are. You'll have to forgive the deluded, since Cousins is having the type of year which makes you think he could just drag them there single-handed; there seems little doubt he's headed for his first All-Star game, and he deserves whatever MVP consideration he manages to steal from LeBron and The Brow. He currently leads the NBA in rebounds and possesses one of the more impressive sub-Davis PERs over the season's first four weeks. With Ryan Hollins manning the paint in Cousins' stead, the Spurs predictably got what they were looking for inside. Tony Parker posted up Collison repeatedly and scored 3 of the Spurs first 4 baskets on his way to 11 first quarter points. (Note to Carl Landry: you have to guard Parker at the 3 point line now, too.) Cousins' athleticism and his ability to come over from the weak side covers what is, Jason Thompson aside, a roster of minus defenders.
On the other end of the floor, Cousins forces teams to send multiple defenders to guard his forays to the rim, and he opens up room for Collison, Gay, and Omri Casspi to create. With their offense more reliant on Gay, the Kings become far too predictable, which leads to a plethora of blocks and steals against a team full of webslingers like Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green (6 blocks and 4 steals between them, to go along with 7-9 shooting from deep.) Only Sacramento's own hot shooting allowed the score to remain as respectable as it was.
As for the Spurs, don't look now but they're 11-4, winners of 5 in a row and 8 of 9 since falling to Davis' Pelicans way back on November 8th. Their offensive production and point differential aren't quite elite yet, not in this Western Conference, but the win keeps the Spurs a mere 2.5 games behind Memphis for the catbird seat.
Last night didn't have the feel of a revenge game, but the team was surely mindful that a 94-91 loss in Sacramento was their only black mark over the past three weeks. That game was a bit bizzaro as well, with the winning team making not a single three pointer. The Kings did not repeat that performance in San Antonio, shooting 6-10 from beyond the arc. This would've been a pretty solid four-quarter effort, had the Spurs not equaled it by the 4:00 mark of the first half on their way to shooting 12-24 from three. Predictably, the amount of attention required by Parker in the lane opened up some air space for Verde and the gang. After Sacramento threatened late in the game, Kawhi added "back-breaking three" to his repertoire of steals and behind the back open court dribbles, sinking a triple with under a minute left to push the lead back to double-digits. Parker starting games and Leonard finishing them: welcome to the New Good 'ol Days.
Without DeMarcus Cousins, the Kings are high-quality lottery team, good enough to not get blown out by a title contender, but not deep or versatile enough to create any match-up problems or take anything away defensively. With Cousins, they're a balanced and entertaining team who - in Mark Cuban's world, at least - would be a shoo-in for the bottom half of the playoff bracket, where they'd no doubt put a real scare into someone. Should the Thunder start to ascend over the next couple of months, it will further muck up the logjam for the 5-8 playoff spots in the Western Conference. So we may never get that Spurs-Kings showdown which on paper seems so promising. After facing each other twice in November, these two teams don't play again until February 27th. Let's hope that game gives us a better taste of what could be.
Tony Parker - 27 points, 8 assists, 10-17 shooting, 8-14 shooting on contested shots, 6-6 free throws, 1-1 three pointers. Tony even had his own Claw moment with a strip of Collison and a layup on the other end. He's picking his spots well, especially with regard to the three pointers. Many, if not most, would give in to the temptation to milk Parker's insane percentage for all its worth, hastening the regression to the mean. While Tony is taking more threes this year by design, his refusal to force-feed the triple has sustained his otherworldly percentage. I mean, check this out:
METAL. \m/ RT"@spurs: Tony Parker is 66.6% from beyond the arc this season, making him the NBA all-time leader in 3FG% through 15 games."— Pancho Villa (@dead2fall) November 29, 2014
+16 - Points in the paint, in favor of the Spurs
+15 - Uncontested field goals, in favor of the Spurs
- 8 - Turnovers, in favor of the Spurs
38:13, 32:22, 38:09 - Minutes played by Kawhi Leonard, Tim Duncan, and Tony Parker
0:00 - Minutes played by Austin Daye and Kyle Anderson
2.83 - Distance in miles run by Tony Parker during last night's game
0 - Distance run by your humble author the day after Thankgiving
Quotes of the Night
"We're still going to run our stuff. It's just a different voice. But I think in the locker room, we have a lot of respect for Messina. The European players, we all know what he did and what he accomplished. He's definitely big time."
- Parker on Messina
"I don't think he likes being at home watching on TV."
- Messina on Pop
"Quote" of the Week
"The Spurs are so admired, so precious, they don't just come in normal people colors. They're more like furnishings out of an upscale, fancy catalogue; they're walnut and pearl, burnt sienna, and chestnut."
- Frank Deford on NPR