November basketball, and by extension the November Basketball Blogosphere (comprising Twitter, blogs and the collected basketball commentarati), is a case study in when and how to mitigate the lofty expectations set up in the idyllic fever dream of the offseason. For every player like Anthony Davis, who seems hell bent on making sure everybody slobbering over him this offseason was underestimating, there's a Cleveland Cavaliers, who find themselves staring down a 1-3 record and a starting lineup with only one capable defender (who, yes, is the greatest basketball player on the planet).
I want to talk about the Cleveland Cavaliers for a minute before diving into my thoughts on Wednesday night's Hawks/Spurs game. Last night the Cavs were bullied by a sparky Utah Jazz team. Gordon Hayward, he of the "I'm going to give Kawhi Leonard's agent all the ammo he needs to demand a max contract" fame, chased down a lazily fast-breaking Lebron James and emphatically swatted James' pithy layup attempt. Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors ran roughshod through Kevin Love. Dion Waiters was so Dion Waiters he was relegated to the bench in favor of Shawn Marion, who proceeded to go scoreless yet still managed to be an upgrade.
Things are, as they say... not well in Cleveland.
Meanwhile, I don't think a discerning viewer has seen much to be enthused about in San Antonio. Tim Duncan and Tony Parker look rested and energized, but the rest of the roster is playing basketball as if they expect God to guide their passes and move them around the floor in some celestially predetermined formation. Pop has been lauded as a demi-deity before, and the Spurs offense has been compared to something out of a Kubrick film. But right now most of the Spurs roster is passing as if they're wearing the masks from that crazy scene in Eyes Wide Shut. Narrowly escaping one moderately decent team and one probably very, very good team at home does not a championship contender make.
Why is the basketball world working itself up like this? Every manic screed about how the Sacramento Kings might be a playoff team, or Dallas' Unbeatable Offense, or the Based God Curse at its Zenith in Oklahoma City -- where does it come from, this rush to judgment less than two weeks into a season? It certainly feels worse than in recent years, but then again, people were calling for Erik Spoelstra's head in Miami when the team started 9-8 in 2010. Funny how that played out (and for those who aren't sure, turns out Spoelstra is a fantastic coach). So what then? Should be blame the easy scapegoats, the mass media and the Internet? It would be remiss to avoid mentioning them. They certainly are playing a part in the grand play that is 2014 in Cleveland, Ohio.
But for Spurs fans, I think there's something different at work. What Spurs fans witnessed after Game 7 of the Dallas series last April was the culmination of everything every Spurs fan thought the Spurs could be: a well-oiled offensive machine with pinpoint defensive accuracy and the creativity to match its high basketball-IQ heavy roster. The Championship Run was nothing short of a miracle. So when the Spurs brought everybody back from that miracle, it was easy to sit back and think that this was just going to be the way the Spurs were from now on. As every fan anthropomorphizes their teams, so the Spurs were a living organism that had reached self-actualization; Boris Diaw, Basketball Buddha, if you will (you shouldn't).
Except it's not working out that way so far, is it? Patty Mills is out until February. Tiago Splitter can't seem to shake his chronic calf strain, which might now be connected to problems in his back. Those of us who are familiar with the career paths of tall basketball players don't feel great when back issues are mentioned. Danny Green still can't really dribble, even if his shot is the same as ever; and oh, even though he is a role player, and a valued one, he's going to expect to get paid that Hayward money too next year. For fear of dragging the Neurotic Spurs Fan out of his cave a few months early, we won't go into the non-controversy controversy that is Kawhi Leonard's contract, and what his agent may or may not be doing to sully what seemed to be a perfectly good relationship.
Hey, we haven't even talked about the on-the-court-issues. Take Wednesday night's game. The Spurs got exactly the performances they would want from their top two guys, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. Duncan was a menace on the defensive end; Parker made mincemeat of Jeff Teague. But even as the lead ballooned out to seventeen in the first half against Coach Bud's pesky Hawks, anyone watching the game could see the cracks in the armor starting to widen. Passes gone almost far enough afield to disrupt the offensive flow. Drives into the lane without clear exits, only to have something manifest itself at the last second. The Spurs were gambling on the serendipity they had come to expect during the playoffs.
Only this was a game in November against the Hawks, and serendipity doesn't just show up any time you want her to. The second half saw the passes go far enough afield to result in turnovers. Defensive rotations devolved into lazily walking out to the a three-point shooter as they jacked an attempt (looking at you Kawhi). Drives into the lane presented no clear exit, save DeMarre Carroll or Paul Millsap's waiting hands. The turnovers started to mount. The game slowed to a crawl behind sloppy, foul-laden, tunover-prone play. Carroll, Dennis Schroeder and Mike Scott decided they would be Bud's best three players. The expectation of San Antonio's well-oiled machine was nowhere to be found.
All this would seem depressing, if not for two simple facts: a) the Spurs won, and b) the point really isn't the win. Sure, a win is a win is a win is a win is -- but the simple fact is for playoff teams like the Spurs, November games are about attrition, learning ... and the work. Basketball teams aren't a singular living organism, and even if they were, they would still be prone to entropy and atrophy. These Spurs are atrophied from June, and not a single member of the team would tell you differently.
So, in what will I'm sure become a well worn mantra as we go along this season pre-All-Star Break... try not to think so much about the results of games. Look at the work. Tonight, the work the Spurs did was subpar. It'll take more than that come playoff time, but we're a long way away from there. Between then and now I have a feeling the Cleveland Cavaliers are going to become very good, the Sacramento Kings will again be quite bad, the Dallas Mavericks will remain pretty scary, and Oklahoma City will continue as the boogeyman they always have been.
The first quarter of last night's game saw the Spurs shooting close to 60% from the field and the Hawks shooting 29%. Were we to extrapolate from there, it would've been a massacre. But things have a way of coming back to the mean, returning to a place of normalcy, fitting neatly into the month of basketball we're in. It's November. Relax on your predictions. Just focus on the work.
Tim Duncan - 17 points, 13 rebounds, 4 assists, 6 blocks, 3 steals, 0 turnovers.
Get real. This guy's 38. Whatever God or Flying Spaghetti Monster you believe in, thank him for Tim Duncan today.
Tweets of the Night
Sixers started last season a disastrous 3-0. They're off to a much better 0-5 start this year.— SportsPickle (@sportspickle) November 6, 2014
Jumping over Manu's nose is no easy task.— Jesse Blanchard (@blanchardJRB) November 6, 2014
RT FAV RT @netw3rk: Clyde Frazier currently talking about the effect of the full moon on human violence— Paul Flannery (@Pflanns) November 6, 2014
Welcome to the World of Matt Bonner: He says he no longer wears jeans, because he's sick of them.— Dan McCarney (@danmccarneysaen) November 6, 2014
Diaw is French for "Just faked out Kyle Korver so bad" #spurs— Jeff Garcia PS (@JeffGarciaPS) November 6, 2014
Rooting for the most absurd-yet-plausible Cavs outcome: They win as many games as Love won last year and make the Finals anyway— Ethan Strauss (@SherwoodStrauss) November 6, 2014
If I was a Spurs wing right now, I'd put on a cup during the next timeout.— 48 Minutes of Hell (@48MoH) November 6, 2014
MEIN GOT SCHRODER— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) November 6, 2014
Confused Ricky. pic.twitter.com/2KWDG7YotY— RandBall (@RandBall) November 6, 2014
Run the Numbers
- 799 - Number of double-doubles the GOATPUFF now has. I'm not going to be at the next two games, so my chances of missing 800 are likely. This makes me so sad.
- 19 - Turnovers listed in the box score for the Spurs. The Spurs Jumbotron had 22 by the end of the game. Not sure who's right, but both numbers are very, very ugly.
- 19-1 - Pop's record against his acolytes. Think maybe he has an ulterior motive for sending all his assistants out to be head coaches?
- 79 - Games until the games start to matter.
- Matt Moore's tweet nicely sums it up, but I am ALL IN on Dennis Schroeder. He is undersized, but freakishly fast and understands a lot about how to run Atlanta's schemes already. My Atlanta friend Matt is fond of hating on Jeff Teague, and after seeing Schroeder I think he's got a bit more ammo. Kid is for real.
- Boris Diaw has grown what I can only describe as the most fantastic mustache I've seen in ages.
- Mike Budenholzer is a freakishly talented coach. He has engrained in his big men the desire and proclivity to shoot threes, even if they are only marginally good at making them. This means Atlanta is far more apt to stay in games, just by virtue of four or five of their guys being able to score three points instead of two on every possession. Compound this with Bud's motion offense that heavily relies on some seriously complex screening action, and you have the makings of a dynamic and powerful offense. Had the Hawks not whiffed on Chris Bosh this offseason... damn. Now I'm sad.
- Cory Joseph continues to have the one major problem most backup point guards thrust into a role they're not ready for have - he's far too nervous when he's out on the court. Gregg Popovich has made it his mission to make the "calm down" hand signal at Cory once every two minutes or so while Cory's out on the floor, and there's good reason for it. The kid can't stop moving to save his life, and when he sees a potential sticking point in the offense, he clams up and forgets what to do. Cory Joseph is very talented, and I think he can stick in the league. I'm becoming increasingly unsure whether he will stick with the Spurs, given that our offense does not play to his strengths.
- As noted in the tweet above, Manu Ginobili, Marco Bellinelli and Danny Green all got shots to the junk during the game. Manu's looked especially painful, most notably when he grimaced going back down the court on defense as Pop blithely ignored his pains. Here's hoping Marco has a speedy recovery from his groin strain. And here's to not having a job where I could get hit in the junk at any moment!