At current calculation, it will take 47 wins to get into the Western Conference Playoffs. This means a number of things, but the two worth talking about here are thus:
1) The Western Conference Is a Gauntlet
2) There are no games off
The first axiom is one you've heard before, by me, in this very space. It's obvious. But the second is slightly more nuanced, yet goes hand in hand with the first. In a conference containing the Warriors, Clippers, Thunder, Grizzlies, Rockets, Mavericks, Trailblazers, Kings, Suns and Pelicans, wins against quality teams are incredibly important, and play a vital role is determining how advantageous a playoff spot the Spurs can get. But while head to head match-ups are crucial, it's also important to note that because there are arguably 11 playoff worthy teams in the West, the margin for error when not playing against those teams is just as razor thin.
For instance, let's work off a hypothetical. The Spurs beat the Grizzlies 106-101 on Friday night in Memphis, sending a statement around the league that yes, even without two of our eight best players, the Spurs are still the force to be reckoned with in the West. Then, the night after, Gregg Popovich sits Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili and severely limits Tim Duncan's playing time, and the Spurs are edged by a plucky, young Minnesota team 102-101.
You, or I, might feel justifiably fine with the breakdown of that 1-1 stretch. Schedule losses are schedule losses, you have to accept them sometimes. But looking at the cold math, 1-1 is still a .500 record, and doesn't get you close to sniffing the playoffs. Quality wins mean little if those are the only wins you're getting.
Which is why I urge you not to overlook the Spurs trouncing a plucky, young Minnesota team 123-101 at home on Friday. Ask the Oklahoma City Thunder how important winning two games in a row would be, no matter who they're facing. They need to go 41-22 to close this season just to sniff the eighth seed in the playoffs. As heartening as Thursday's controlled outplaying of the Grizzlies was (and it most definitely was under control), the precision in the face of road weariness and emotional comedown was almost as heartening.
The Minnesota Timberwolves are not a very good team. They're missing their three best players (Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic, and Kevin Martin) but they have pieces in place to be an excellent midrange Western Conference Team going forward, and some of those pieces were on display tonight. Even though Flip Saunders rightly pointed out that first overall pick Andrew Wiggins "got his a** kicked" by Kawhi Leonard, other Timberwolves picks Zach LaVine, Shabazz Muhammed and Gorgui Dieng gave the Spurs brief fits by playing long, athletic and inspired basketball. A few years ago, this is exactly a team the Spurs would've had trouble beating after coming off a win as solid as a road victory in Memphis.
But this is a different Spurs team. The loss of Tiago Splitter and Patty Mills leaves the bench units Pop cobbles together slightly stunted and awkward, and Kyle Anderson continues to be the worst shooting qualified player in the NBA this season by a relatively wide margin. But ever so gradually the reserve bench guys like Cory Joseph and Aron Baynes are grasping what it means to play meaningful minutes with the big boys. Baynes, in particular, looks like he's out for blood when on the offensive end of the floor. He's developed Tiago's neat reverse layup under the basket, and his midrange shot, while not something to be relied on constantly, is already better than Tiago's or Jeff Ayres'. He will never be Tiago; Baynes hasn't shown the innate vision for understanding individual and team defense that makes Tiago a world class defender, but having this version of Baynes around to mitigate Tiago's health problems will pay dividends in the playoffs.
Which is obviously what this is all about. Even now the playoffs loom large over every Western Conference team's head. Start slow, or get a rash of injuries, and the goal of a Top 2 Playoff seed can disappear. Again, ask the Thunder. Every game is a must win when only 8 of 11 qualified teams can make the playoffs. Toss out your crazy, and sometimes not so crazy, ideas about how to fix conference imbalance all you want, but make sure to notice that NBA teams are still playing NBA basketball today, in the current system. The reality of the NBA doesn't have time for theories. It doesn't have time for games off. It doesn't have a ton of time to give Pop to rest his Big Three, even though he'll take as much as he can get. But the Warriors are running roughshod through the league right now. At one point the top eight teams in the Western Conference were on a combined 35 game winning streak. Life in the Western Conference is not about rest.
So when you get a first half from Marco Belinelli like this Spurs did tonight, or an attacking Cory Joseph in the face of gargantuan point guard defender LaVine, you take everything you can get and you hope for the best. Lucky, precise, planned, chaotic... all those words eventually boil down into a simple metric of wins and losses that determines whether a team is qualified enough to play for a title. The Spurs went 2-0 over the last two nights of games contributing to that metric.
In the grand scheme of things, does either win mean anything more than the other? In the Western Conference, leave the emotional victories, schedule losses, valiant efforts and quality/easy wins out of the equation. Wins are wins, and the Spurs need a lot of them.
He would have to beat me up to get into the lineup tonight...
- Gregg Popovich, who appeared unbruised, despite Tim Duncan playing.
It's BACK! Regular night at the office for the Coyote, but for a little sleight of hand that I appreciated. In the first half, the Coyote went about recruiting courtsiders for behind the back halfcourt shots, one of my favorite between timeout games. Towards the end he selected an obviously planted cotton candy vendor, who I naturally assumed was planted there in costume and was preternaturally good at shooting these shots.
No. Instead, the Coyote seized the opportunity to take the massive haul of cotton candy the vendor had put down and throw them to the screaming audience. It was a nice, fun bit of trickery, and something that the Coyote should do as much of as possible. He's best when he's a winning goofball trickster.
Cory Joseph - 18 points, 4 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 steal, 0 turnovers on 7-10 shooting in 33 minutes.
I've tried to watch Cory Joseph closely every time he's on the floor this season, for a number of reasons that extend beyond his put upon presence as our de facto backup PG. One of the pronounced things I noticed early in the season is Cory's ability to get ultra-nervous and jumpy if his game doesn't start perfectly with a sunk jumper or a good assist. It's something that's plagued him his whole career; an apparent jumpiness and insecurity on the floor with the big boys.
Well, it was gone tonight. He didn't get a very good start, and being guarded by the pushing 6-6 Zach LaVine wasn't helping. But Joseph shook off the unfamiliar circumstances and turned his game into an ultra-aggressive not-so poor man's interpretation of Tony Parker. We've known for a while that Cory's outside jumper is strong. What I saw tonight was a willingness and desire to aggressively take the ball inside, draw contact and get a shot at the rim, something Cory has hardly ever done with regularity. If he can continue to attack, keep his smooth midrange stroke and provide competent PG defense... well, all the better when Spurs have three usable point guard options when the games start to count in groups of seven rather than 82.
Honorable Mentions: Kawhi Leonard (who would've had this had he completed one of the most vicious looking tomahawk dunks I've ever seen in the third quarter off of a perfectly thrown Cory Joseph touchdown-style outlet pass... but alas), Marco Belinelli (because it's really nice to have him back to Invincibility Star form every now and again).
Bird is the Word
Being a bad team in the west is so ridiculous.— Patrick Fenelon (@Patrick_Fenelon) December 7, 2014
Oh god I can't even imagine.
Haha, Spurs gave Marco Belinelli a perfect bench celebration. https://t.co/CfGNoLL7ZP— Caleb Saenz (@calebjsaenz) December 7, 2014
Austin Daye aggressively rubbing his belly is so bizarre.
WHAT. IS. THIS.
So... this Sixers won again. And they did that above to the Pistons. I don't think I can accurately grasp how awful it must be to be a Pistons fan right now. Yikes.
Which player would you rather have: Klay Thompson or Jimmy Butler?— RealGM (@RealGM) December 7, 2014
The answer is obviously "Kawhi Leonard," but in all seriousness this is intriguing. Butler has had a phenomenal start to the season.
Tiago Splitter looks like Jaws from Moonraker— Patrick Fenelon (@Patrick_Fenelon) December 7, 2014
Guys, follow Patrick. Seriously.
Run the Numbers
- 30 - Assists for the Spurs, the first time they've passed that barrier this season. Things are looking up folks.
- 53 - Spurs bench points. Spurs are 7-1 when scoring more than 40 off their bench.
- 57 - Timberwolves starter points. OOF.
- 3-27 - Kyle Anderson's career shooting stats, by far the worst in the league so far. I'm not super concerned about the guy, because his scoring ability was not what we were getting him for. Still, it's disheartening to see a guy struggle so.
- 22/20 - Pau Gasol's points/rebounds numbers for the Bulls on Saturday. I hate belaboring this point, but watching him play on the Bulls makes me so sad that we couldn't have somehow stolen him. It really would've been a thing of beauty to watch Pau and Boris working together.
- Andrew Wiggins had a pretty bad game - 6 points, 1 rebound, 2 turnovers on 3-13 shooting. We knew that his offensive game was going to be a work in progress, and right now he's getting worked by Jabari Parker in the Rookie of the Year race. But watching Wiggins in person gives you a very different perspective. The kid is lightning quick, and was getting past Kawhi on a number of occasions, even if he couldn't translate those occasions to points. He was outshone by LaVine, Shabazz Muhammed and even Anthony Bennett, but Wiggins is going to be a special player when he starts to hone his freakish natural gifts.
- Speaking of LaVine, he had a fantastic game. 22 points, 10 assists and 0 turnovers is nothing to sneeze at, no matter who is defending you. Rubio is the Timberwolves future (unless there's another blowup coming), but the Wolves could to a lot worse than a core of Rubio/LaVine/Wiggins/Thaddeus Young/Pekovic with Muhammed/Dieng/Bennett off the bench.
- In yet another segue, I feel so bad for Thaddeus Young you guys. The guys has been a part of some pretty ignominious years in both Philadelphia and now Minnesota, and it feels like he just deserves to be the first or second best bench player on a true contender. I know the Clippers would kill for him. The Rockets probably would make a call. And, personally, I really wouldn't mind RC testing the waters to see what could be done about getting Thaddeus Young in the Silver and Black.
- Tiago Splitter and Ime Udoka wore matching suits tonight. If the internet was made for anything, it is finding that picture. Get on it, kids.