Al Jefferson, knowing that Tiago Splitter was out, attacked Tim Duncan relentlessly in the post to start the game. The Bobcats seemed to smell blood and were ready to take advantage of the size disparity by being extra aggressive on defense and attacking mismatches on offense. It worked, as the Spurs' offense started out sluggish and turnover prone, and their defense seemed defanged without Splitter.
But once Pop had Boris Diaw guard Jefferson, San Antonio started finding its footing on D. Diaw's outside shot was on as well, which helped the spacing immensely. With some timely contributions by Parker and good overall play from the bench, the Spurs survived the initial onslaught and settled in for a tight game.
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Patty Mills finished the first quarter (and started the second) on one of those stretches where he can't seem to miss. It was a fantastic instance of foreshadowing, but without the benefit of foresight, the Spurs' over-reliance on outside shots didn't seem like a recipe for success. The Bobcats held on by virtue of their energetic play and went into the break up 42-41.
The parity sustained in the third quarter. Whenever the Spurs found a crack on the Bobcats' armor inside, the 'Cats answered with a close shot of their own. With Jefferson and Henderson doing most of the damage, Charlotte found itself with a small lead. But once again the bench play, spearheaded by the three backup point guards, closed the gap. With neither defense establishing itself, both teams put up a good scoring quarters to go into the final frame with Charlotte still leading by one after a buzzer-beating runner by Kemba Walker.
With Parker clearly not fully healthy and the Bobcats unable to get the easy points that had fueled their offense in the first half, it seemed that the winner would have to tough this one out. Neither team was giving an inch and things got a bit chippy to start the fourth. But while the Spurs were clearly over-matched physically, their sneakiness and toughness kept them in it. The bench unit of Joseph-Mills-De Colo-Bonner-Ayres was particularly effective in the first half of the 4th, frustrating the Bobcats with their unselfishness and unpredictability.
And Pop was wise enough to stick with what was working. The subs stayed in for most of the final period and proved to be good enough to close the game out. Great individual performances aside, what kick-started the Spurs' offense was the constant drive and kick options that the subs were creating. The upside to playing three point guards is that moving the ball after beating their guy and drawing a secondary defender comes naturally to them.
Tim Duncan subbed in late in the quarter, but Tony Parker never returned after leaving the court late in the third due to concerns about his back. That left the role of hero to Patty Mills, who sealed the win with an amazing 18 fourth quarter points. But it wasn't just Patty. This W came courtesy of the bench as a whole. And that's just what an injury-ravaged team needs in the dog days of February.
- Patty Mills' performance really deserves its own paragraph. Mills scored 32 points on 13 shots! That is absurd. Only eight other players have achieved that this season. Going beyond the numbers, Mills' ability to hit jumpers after ball screens has been huge for the shorthanded Spurs, as unassisted buckets have been hard to find when defenses tighten up. A simply phenomenal game by Patty.
- With Tony Parker struggling with his stiff back, the Spurs needed someone else to pick up the scoring slack. No only did Patty came close to eclipsing his career high but Nando De Colo and Cory Joseph stepped up and contributed a combined 28 points, six boards and four assists. Just a terrific showing for the Spurs' back-up guards.
- Tim Duncan has spoiled me. A 16 point, 13 rebound, three block performance seems tainted by his early turnovers and his inability to stop Al Jefferson consistently. Duncan is so productive that unless I'm careful, I'll start taking excellence for granted from him. [Editor's note: Or maybe that's already happened? -jrw]
- Boris Diaw was fantastic in the first half and Jeff Ayres was great in the second half, especially in the fourth quarter. With Tiago Splitter out, those two provided just the boost the Spurs needed, exactly when they needed it.
- Danny Green tried to do a little too much. He is a spot up shooter, and for the most part he plays like one. But when too many players are missing, he tries to make things happen on offense and it simply doesn't work. As the Spurs' overall health improves, Danny's value will become more evident.
- I'm really rooting for the Bobcats. They play tough team defense despite not having a lot of great individual defenders, and their tendency to just dump the ball in to the post reminds me of the times when "Four Down" was a staple of the Spurs' offense. They obviously need more talent to become a serious threat but they are at least on their way to leaving their laughingstock days behind. No one will instantly mark a W on their calendar when their team faces the Bobcats next season.
The Spurs will take on the Pistons on Monday and then the Celtics on Wednesday. After that, the All-Star break should allow them to get some much-needed rest. It's possible either Kawhi or Manu will return by then. The good guys need to keep fighting like they have so far until they are healthy again.
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