It's dark right now in San Antonio. Though the 17-10 Spurs are not far from dry land, their current predicament provides the illusion of drifting thousands of miles off shore. Injuries have conspired to weigh down a repeat bid while two guys perilously close to the Big 4-0 are forced to dog paddle furiously in order to keep the team's collective head above water in the unforgiving Western Conference. As luck would have it, one of the two trained as an Olympic swimmer in a previous life. The other is Manu Ginobili, who valiantly fights off bull sharks with his hands while Eurostepping through a maze of jellyfish with his feet. Occasionally, he will step on a barb and the whole team will lurch. As it was two nights prior against the Memphis, on Friday night against the Portland TrailBlazers, the wounds proved fatal.
While these two YMCA refugees do what they do, aided night to night by a rotating cast of characters ranging from Danny Green to Aron Baynes, what we're actually seeing is nothing less than the writing of Kawhi Leonard's MVP candidacy. When The Hand sits - cruelly, in this case, with a hand injury - it severely lessens the ability of San Antonio to disrupt passing lanes and cause opposing shooters discomfort. No, Leonard couldn't have gotten Green's called back 3-pointer off sooner in the first overtime against Portland. Nor could he have alerted the officials to Lamarcus Aldridge's out of bounds violation that eventually completed the four point turnaround from Duncan's called-back shot in the second overtime. It's even possible he wouldn't have been able to do anything about Damian Lillard. But with Leonard in the lineup, we likely aren't talking about any of this. The kinds of things he does not only make it harder for opponents to take and make shots, they give a Tony Parker-less offense a destructive presence that teams don't quite know how to contend with, especially on the fast break:
(2:30 mark is the play you remember, but watch the whole thing to see how much extra time Leonard drains from the the opponent's shot clock just by pestering the ball, and the attention he demands on the low block which leads to shots at the rim for others.)
Not that you'll get much sympathy in this Western Conference. I've never read or seen The Hunger Games (why yes, as a matter of fact I have been living in a cave), but after witnessing the first six weeks of this season in this conference, I'm starting to think I've gotten the gist of the story anyway. Many of the Spurs' opponents during this brutal stretch of schedule is either currently missing a key piece (in Portland's case, it's Robin Lopez and Nic Batum) or have spent considerable time at less than full strength. Still, the Spurs have had it rougher than most, with a constantly changing infirmary that's made it difficult to establish a consistent rotation out of the remaining parts.
With Tiago Splitter back to clowning defenders with his pick-n-roll trigonometry, those remaining parts figure to be up to the task most nights. They can even replicate much of what Leonard (and Parker) bring to the table with scrappy platoons made up of Green, Ginobili, Cory Joseph, and Kyle Anderson. But each time that group is called on to play bigger minutes, or make more shots or, in Ginobili's case, make shots and run the offense, it comes at a cost. Green does a lot of things at a high level. He blocks shots at an elite level for a guard. But the thing he does best, the reason he gets seven-figure checks from Spurs Sports & Entertainment, LLC, is make open catch-and-shoot threes. When the offense is able to rely on Parker's penetration and Leonard's post-ups to draw the opposing defense's acute attention, Verde is able to cash in on more frequent opportunities. But these opportunities dry up once defenses are able to key in on Green, or at least stay close with a lessened fear of allowing easy buckets at the rim.
A similar problem comes when Ginobili has to bring the ball up, while still trying to maintain his usual role of disruptive bench wild card. Joseph was already a good defender and his finishing ability replicates much of Parker's mechanics, if not his level of nuance and ball English. But he's only a serviceable play-runner, which is why Ginobili has been on the tiller when plays really count. This is nothing against Joseph, since Ginobili often handles point duties even when Parker is in the game, but for anyone hoping COJO might blossom into something more than a backup point guard, it is something of a reality check. Then there's the matter of Ginobili being 37 years old, an age at which playing him heavy minutes - for instance, back to back 3OT games - becomes something like endurance racing a Porsche with 200,000 miles. No matter the integrity of the underlying vehicle, the prolonged stress is going to severely degrade performance.
Kyle Anderson, he of the crisp defensive rotations and smooth-jazz deliberate drives to the basket, likely caused some irrational exuberance with his performance recently against the Knicks, and the faint outline of a multi-faceted stat-stuffer is certainly there. By all means, we're free to let our fantasies run amok about Kawhi & Kyle swooping in on unsuspecting ball handlers and running beautiful fast breaks on the other end, but in the present Anderson remains a rookie in a system which even veterans famously take a season or two to master.
In both the present and the near-future, Leonard remains the key to everything. Just like the chronically crowded injured list, this stretch against projected playoff teams will warp our perception of who this team is and just how jeopardized their title bid has seemingly become. Against lesser competition, Kawhi's absence can be managed. Even against a gauntlet of Eastern Conference playoff teams, he's a more exotic weapon than is strictly necessary for a team which boasts the depth of the Spurs' roster. But that stretch of the schedule is far away now, and wasn't particularly fruitful anyway. Against the heavies of the Western Conference, the Spurs need their cornrowed fulcrum. He's the one whose stat lines are always better read backwards, the one Spur who truly changes the game on both ends, night to night, opponent to opponent. He's the difference between the Spurs contending for a championship or flaming out in the first or second round. Not for nothing does the sun set in the West, for when you're there you're never far from the darkness.
In case it's not a foregone conclusion, I'm guessing you can make it out just from the stat line: 43 minutes, 12-24 FGs, 8-9 FTs, 3 assists, 2 steals, 4 blocks (3 in OT), 1 TO, 32 points
Father Time is undefeated, but Tim Duncan just took the 1-on-1 matchup into triple-overtime.
126 - Game minutes (including overtime) the Spurs have played in the past 3 days.
96 - Game minutes (not including overtime) the Spurs will play over the next 3 days.
63 - Years since any NBA team played back-to-back triple-overtime games.
.273 - Dorell Wright's season 3-point percentage entering Friday night (Wright shot 4-5 from deep in the fourth quarter and overtime.)
Quote of the Night
"Timmy in particular was a 'Back to the Future' type of deal. He was amazing."
- Dr. Emmett Popovich, praising his franchise PF while subtly alluding to his own attempts at creating nuclear fusion out of bits of garbage and half-empty beer cans.
Tweet of the Night