The Spurs still aren't quite "beautiful" just yet, but their game --and their record-- continues to get prettier by the day.
Slowly but surely, well maybe not so slowly since they're actually starting to pick up the pace, the Spurs offense is starting to find the ethereal form of last spring that launched a thousand YouTube videos and lord knows how many coaching clinics. Friday night at the AT&T Center against a hot-shooting Kings squad missing their best player in DeMarcus Cousins, who was out with a virus, the Spurs scorched the nets, scoring 61 first half points and connecting on 12 of 24 threes in a 112-104 win that was never a runaway but fairly comfortable throughout.
Again the Spurs were led by assistant coach Ettore Messina, filling in for Gregg Popovich, who's recovering from a minor medical procedure and on track to rejoin the team on their four-game Eastern swing, possibly as early as the first stop at Boston Sunday afternoon. Whereas the Spurs were carried almost entirely by their "big four" in Messina's first win against the Pacers on Wednesday, this time around it was a more balanced effort with eight Spurs contributing at least seven points. Tony Parker led the way with 27 and eight assists and the straggler of the group, Manu Ginobili, also tied his season-high with eight dimes.
In fact, the Spurs 29 assists tied their high water mark they set previously on this homestand against the Nets and their seven turnovers was the lowest they've had all year.
"I think today we were a little different than the games before," noted Ginobili. "We were talking how reliable we were defensively lately, and that our offense was not quite there. Today was the opposite."
A lot of credit must go to the Kings, who had no answers for the Spurs in their own end but refused to run out of the gym even without the unguardable Cousins. Both Rudy Gay and Darren Collison returned from injury and combined for 38 points, with Gay in particular proving to be a handful again with 23 points, eight rebounds and eight assists. If that wasn't enough, little-used veteran center Ryan Hollins, who had seen only 11 minutes of action all season, scored 15 points on 5-of-7 from the floor and 5-of-6 from the line. It was the most he'd scored since Mar. 3, 2012 as a Cavalier and tied for the sixth-highest scoring night of his 443-game career. The Kings also got productive games from emerging Ben McLemore (14 points, 6-of-9 shooting) and Carl Landry (12 points, 10 rebounds).
Afterward however, all Kings coach Mike Malone was interested in was their poor defense, which is a good sign that team-wide expectations are on the rise and there are no moral victories for the Kings, now 9-7.
"If you don't get into these guys and have some physicality, they're going to get wherever they want to go," lamented Malone," adding, "They're the defending champions for a reason. (It) was a marked difference from when we played them last week and beat them at home, when our defense was great and we took care of the basketball and that's why we won."
Indeed, the Spurs have won six straight since dropping the finale of their four-game California road trip at Sacramento and now they will visit the opposite coast. Not only will they likely have Pop with them but also the league's hottest marksman in Parker, who set an NBA record for highest three-point percentage through 15 games at .667 after canning a 30-footer at the first quarter buzzer against the Kings. Ginobili even remarked that teams have started to pay attention to the Frenchman out there, to the point where they're staying closer to home against him when the ball is elsewhere or closing out really aggressively when its swung his way.
"We (tried) to post up Boris (Diaw), and they never doubled," Parker recalled in amazement. "Usually they always double off meat the top and all three times we posted up Boris they didn't come. Off the last play, Hollins came so fast to me in the corner and I penetrated and got a three for Kawhi (Leonard) and he made a big one. They are respecting my three right now, so hopefully I can keep making them. That will definitely open some stuff for my game."
There aren't many players in the league than Parker who make you cringe at the idea of closing against them in desperation, but what are teams to do when he's this hot? He's scored over 20 for the fourth consecutive game, a streak he never pulled off last season (he did it seven straight times from Jan. 18 to Jan. 30 in 2013).
In an ironic twist, Parker who's groused forever at the mention of Jason Kidd after the Spurs courted him in free agency so heavily during the summer of 2003, freely volunteered Kidd's name as someone he's hoping to emulate as a three-point threat now that he's in his thirties.
"As I am getting older, Pop was like 'You need to start working on your three in the corner because as you get older you are going to need to make threes, a little bit like Jason Kidd," Parker explained, while making sure to add that he had knocked down over 40 percent of them from the corners the past two seasons. Now he's trying to extend that range to other spots on the arc.
Parker's found the rhythm that he never quite had last season, but it must also be noted that Leonard is getting closer to the form he showed last June after a rough start to his season. He'd never scored 20 points in three consecutive contests until doing it in Games 3-5 of the Finals to earn MVP honors, but he came within a point of doing it tonight, with 19 after scoring 21 in the previous two games against the Nets and Pacers. Leonard knocked down a season-high four threes and wreaked his usual havoc on defense as well with three steals and a career-high-tying four blocks. Popovich said on media day that the next step in Leonard's development would be to consistent night after night and we are starting to see it happen.
Though the wins still count toward Pop's official record and not his, Messina is unofficially 2-0 as an NBA head coach and seemed well at ease about the likelihood of not adding to that anytime soon.
"We didn't talk about that," he said when asked whether he expected Popovich to be back at the helm at Boston, "But the fact that he was here (at shootaround) this morning speaks for a very, very good development of everything. That's what I assume. He hasn't said anything, but I assume that he is moving in the right direction. I would not be surprised to see him soon."
And we shouldn't be surprised to see Messina with a head coaching gig in this league soon, whether it's in San Antonio or elsewhere.
Your Three Stars
3. Tim Duncan (23 pts)
2. Kawhi Leonard (22 pts)
1. Tony Parker (35 pts)