To think, if the Spurs played that hard and that well without the big three a couple nights ago at Houston as they did in the final few minutes Saturday night, perhaps there wouldn't have been as much of a fuss made over coach Gregg Popovich resting Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili. Duncan, Ginobili and Tony Parker were all very much present physically at the AT&T Center against the upstart New Orleans Pelicans, but their hearts and minds were caught in traffic, most often in the manifestation of wunderkind Anthony Davis, who made just enough plays at both ends of the court to lead the Pellies to a 100-99 road win over San Antonio.
"We haven't beat them since I've been here," said Davis afterward. "They're the defending champs, so this game, and this outcome is definitely huge for us. Playing the Spurs requires a different level of energy, especially playing at their court. They've got great players, great defenders. This is a big team win for us. Just one guy isn't gong to beat the Spurs."
Not only is Davis already sounding positively Duncan-esque in his cliche game, but the 21-year-old decidedly out-performed the 38-year-old legend on the floor as well, with 27 points and 11 boards to Duncan's 11 and 10. The truly difference-making numbers for Davis were his six blocks and four steals, and he and fellow giant Omer Asik made finishing at the rim an impossible chore for the Spurs all night. The Spurs took advantage of that shot-altering aggressiveness to pounce for 17 offensive rebounds, but squandered most of those opportunities as well, coming away with just 14 second-chance points.
Naturally, Duncan felt little solace with the 800th regular season double-double of his career and seemed inclined afterward to agree with Pop's contention that he was among the majority of Spurs who didn't play well, though disputed that a lack of intensity was the problem.
"Early on it just seemed like they made every shot and we couldn't put a string of stops together to feel good about how we were playing," Duncan recounted. "Obviously Tony (Parker) played really well and then that second group came in late and gave us a chance to win the game but a lot us didn't show up, a lot of us didn't play well and just didn't have it going tonight."
After a bit of back-and-forth early on punctuated by 13 points in the first 7:32 from Danny Green, the Pelicans took the lead for good at 13-12 and didn't relinquish it until 12 seconds remained. They led by as many as ten several times and though the Spurs fought back to tie time and again, they could never get over the hump. Parker scored their final 10 points of the half to give him 22 at intermission, but they couldn't even get there tied because Tyreke Evans dribbled through everybody in five seconds and hit a runner at the buzzer.
It was more punch and counter-punch for the first half of the third quarter, but once Duncan and Parker took a seat, the Spurs reserves went ice cold against a group for the Pelicans that still had three starters out there, including Davis. The Spurs didn't make a field goal from the 5:41 mark until Ginobili's reverse layup with four seconds to go, and they couldn't even feel good about that because again Evans got them at the buzzer, this time with a three to make it 81-71 going into the fourth.
The margin stood at ten, 94-84 with 4:41 to go. The defense stiffened at long last but "The Big Three" were a comedy of errors on the other end whether they were turnovers, missed layups or shots rejected by Davis and his springy teammates. Pop waved the white flag, bringing in Cory Joseph for Parker, Green for Ginobili and Aron Baynes for Duncan, basically the same gentlemen responsible for the Pelicans getting out to a cushy lead at the end of the third.
To everyone's shock, the strategy --if it can even be called strategy when Pop was just resting his guys-- worked. A baseline jumper from Kawhi Leonard, a driving layup from Joseph, two crafty drives from Boris Diaw who up to then had hardly shown a pulse and a put-back layup from Leonard gave the Spurs points on five straight trips while New Orleans came up dry on three of their five. Another baseline J from Leonard and Joseph forcing a turnover from Jrue Holiday led to an interesting decision from Pop, down two and under 30 seconds to go, what do you do? Dance with the ones who brung you or go back to the big three?
In came Duncan, Ginobili and Parker and yet it was Green, off sort of a scrambling, broken play who gave the Spurs the lead, hitting all three freebies after being fouled by Eric Gordon. All the Spurs needed was one stop with 12 seconds to go and they'd have pulled off a memorable out-of-nowhere comeback.
It wasn't to be. Curiously Pop benched his big three once more, resorted to the "Big Banger" on Davis and the result was predictable as it was quick. Davis went around him with ease and banked in a layup for the final score. Leonard had a chance to win it at the buzzer, but his baseline floater rolled in and out.
"It felt good, but it just rolled out of the rim, it happens," philosophized Leonard after, adding, "We put a great effort in and we were just trying to get stops on defense, trying to rebound the ball, limit them to one shot, but we all did a good job, keep competing, and it brought us back from being (ten) points down to being up one, but couldn't seal the deal at the end of the game."
Pop, meanwhile played a bit revisionist in the end, forgetting all about why the Spurs trailed by ten going into the fourth quarter in the first place and preferring instead to play up the heroics of Joseph, Baynes, Diaw et al. It begged the question: If he believed in them so much, why bring in the stars for the two offensive possessions? It will have to be a rhetorical question.
"I think that we need to start playing with the same intensity that people bring at us, that want to kick our butt, and that last group brought that intensity that you saw and that's what I'm looking for more than anything," Popovich said.
It's all well and good. The answer is probably a mixture of all of the above. Yes, the veterans are having trouble mustering the inspiration against the likes of the Hawks and the Pelicans when just a few months ago they conquered the Thunder and the Heat. Yes, they are missing Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli and most of all, Tiago Splitter. Yes, Leonard's eye-infection has been a setback and it's curtailed, for the time being, the plans for him to shoulder more of the load in this, his fourth season. (Leonard said his right eye still hasn't recovered and may not for weeks or months. He described it as still cloudy around the edges, with clarity coming and going throughout the day and explained that the team's doctors think he picked up the infection in Germany, where there was an outbreak of conjunctivitis going on with 300 people infected, though he still thinks he got it in Turkey.) And yes, Pop is trying to break in two new assistant coaches, and there are growing pains there as well.
For example, the Spurs seemed to be caught off-guard that the Pelicans defended them much the same way the Mavericks did last April, staying home on shooters and switching the initial pick-and-roll and daring Parker and Ginobili to finish 1-on-1 and taking away their playmaking. The Spurs finished with 15 assists --on 36 field goals-- to 19 turnovers.
All of the above have conspired to reduce the team's margin of error, particularly against good teams, to nil. They don't need much to turn these losses to wins. Reduce the turnovers a bit. Get Leonard 10 percent sharper. Re-discover the three-point stroke. Any of those will do. The next chance comes on Monday against the Clippers and as it happens they're not playing well right now either. At least over-confidence shouldn't be a problem, even for the almighty Baynes.
Your Three Stars:
3) Manu Ginobili (5 pts)
2) Tony Parker (11 pts)
1) Kawhi Leonard (8 pts)