When you watch the Spurs, you come to appreciate the two or three times per season where they play without any of their "Big Three," but still manage to win anyway thanks everyone else stepping up and playing as a team. I've long suspected that these are Gregg Popovich's favorite games to coach because it really enforces the principles he's trying to instill within the group, to work together, trust one another, play for one another. It's a fine line between wanting guys to not be selfish and having that "I gotta get mine," mentality, but not wanting them to be lazy or unaccountable either, thinking, "Well, they don't need me."
Popovich's teams have excelled at straddling that line the past few seasons, ever since he started sprinkling rest days into the unrelenting schedule, league executives be damned. It's hard to argue with Pop's approach considering not only the success his teams have had overall, but specifically in those "skeleton crew" games, where they keep finding ways to prevail against seemingly long odds against much more talented competition.
What transpired at the AT&T Center Wednesday night does not qualify as one of those games.
Oh, the Spurs held up their end of the bargain, to be sure, and somehow they scored 94 points through three quarters despite missing not only Tim Duncan (rest), Manu Ginobili (rest), Tony Parker (left hamstring) but also Kawhi Leonard, who hurt his hand in a collision at Utah Tuesday night, and Patty Mills, who's still rehabbing from shoulder surgery. That's five of their top six scorers from last season. Still, they had more than enough to throttle the woebegone Knicks, who came into the game sporting a 4-19 record and who were without a couple of big guns of their own with Carmelo Anthony (knee) and J.R. Smith (heel) sitting this one out with bum wheels.
The Knicks are a depressing, decrepit mess, with players openly feuding with one another, still struggling to pick up an offense that's no longer relevant and already counting down the days until they get some bad contracts off their cap. Most of them, such as Tim Hardaway Jr., by far their best player on this night, are stuck here due to circumstances out of their control. Hardaway's a talented young scorer who needs to find the right coach and right cast of veterans to get the best out of him. Guys like Samuel Dalembert and Jose Calderon were traded out of a great situation in Dallas to this miserable one, expendable fodder because Anthony couldn't get along with Tyson Chandler. Jason Smith is a decent big, but he too was shaken loose by the Pelicans once they got to trade for the defensively superior Omer Asik. Amar'e Stoudemire's promising career was derailed by bad knees. He's doing the best he can with what he has left and still scoring efficiently, even though he gives it all back (and then some) on the other end.
Anthony, however, has no one to blame for the mess he's in but himself. He had a chance to escape this hell and go to contenders in Houston or Chicago. He passed on both for the extra dollars, though to be fair to him, supposedly his family wanted to stay in New York too. He's got a bad knee of his own and maybe the best thing for him and the team would be to shut it down completely, tank for the best pick possible and to sign the best guy they can once Stoudemire's deal comes off the books.
Then there's first time coach Derek Fisher, who took the job knowing that he wasn't Phil Jackson's first or even second choice. He's installed an offense designed to get long twos and take up most of the shot clock when the entire league is striving to do just the opposite -- to play fast and take 20-footers only as a last resort. Either using the triangle offense was a prerequisite that Knicks president Phil Jackson forced upon him as a condition of getting the job or, more likely, Fisher is a disciple of his own volition, which bodes poorly for his coaching future. Meanwhile, on the opposite coast, Steve Kerr is smiling at his good fortune.
Speaking of good fortune, Popovich has had plenty of his own, and it must be a great comfort to know before tip-off that effort is not going to be an issue after a surprising loss at Utah the night before. "I haven't been this pleased in a while," confirmed Pop afterward, a man famous for haranguing reporters for asking him constantly to gauge his happiness.
"After a night like we had last night, it was good for them to come back and basically show the starters that you have to bring it, both execution-wise and competitively."
Kyle Anderson started for the first time in his nascent career and made one more shot (4) than he had up to this point, hitting 4-of-5, including his first three-pointer, after starting the season an ugly 3-of-27. Jeff Ayres paced the club with six boards and had a season-high 11 points, making all five of this shots. Marco Belinelli led the team with a season-high 22 and ended all the suspense in this one with a trio of threes late in the third quarter. His season (and career) high last season? 32 points against the Knicks at home. The Spurs had seven scorers in double figures in all and two more with nine. Seven guys had between 3-6 rebounds in between 3-6 assists. The bench scored a season-high 58 points, which is something considering that a) their ringmaster Ginobili didn't play and b) that four of the five starters are nominally reserves.
Ironically, one of Wednesday's benchwarmers was a fellow who's used to starting. That's right, Tiago Splitter suited up for the first time since playing 10 minutes on Nov. 5 against Atlanta, a stretch of 18 games. He saw eight minutes and change worth of second half action against New York, playing three short in-and-out "shifts" like a hockey player and had three points and a pair of blocks.
"I had a couple of good plays in the game and I'm happy with that, and I'm just happy that I don't feel pain, that's the most (important thing)," Splitter said. The Brazilian big man even took a pretty good charge while he was in there, which drew a clap of appreciation from Pop, either for the effort or perhaps relief that Splitter had no ill effects after the collision. If Splitter can start playing regularly, it will not only give Popovich the freedom to rest Duncan even more but also go a long way towards the impossible dream of the Spurs having their #fullsquad.
For the time being, they have to make do with whoever is able-bodied enough to play. Cory Joseph, starting in Parker's place, led the team with six assists and played a game-high 35:23 after logging 30 the night before has gotten used to the constant shuffling of roles as much as anyone. "We have a pretty good system here," he said. "I play with these guys every day. The lineup may be a little different but we practice together so we just went out and tried to keep the pace."
Keeping pace in the absurd Western Conference pretty much means having to win almost every game, so getting the Knicks at home was welcome relief, especially in the middle of December that has them playing 18 games. The Spurs aren't in position to feel sorry for anyone. The truth is they probably won this game as soon as the final buzzer sounded at Utah. The only question is whether they could've done it against a quality opponent, one that doesn't foul Danny Green on three-pointers. Twice.
Your Three Stars:
3) Jeff Ayres (1)
2) Kyle Anderson (3)
3) Marco Belinelli (9)