Pop started Boris Diaw in Tiago Splitter's place in the second half against the Lakers Wednesday night. On the surface, this wasn't unusual. After all, he did the same thing a week ago against Portland, citing Splitter's foul trouble, and pulled the Brazilian big-man after a minute in third quarters at Chicago and at Cleveland during the team's current winning streak. Maybe he was genuinely displeased with Splitter's defense in the first half. The Lakers did score 57 points in the first 24 minutes, you know.
Or maybe he saw something else that was alarming and he decided to shut it down, away from the prying eyes of a national television broadcast.
The Spurs' nominal starting lineup -- reunited for eight games now that Tony Parker and his "various maladies" have healed up -- has been absolutely destroying people.
The starters played only the opening 6:16 on this night. They've played just 79 minutes total in nine games since the Spurs got all their pieces back. (Pop started Boris against Miami, remember?) You don't have to be a math major to figure out that's less than ten minutes per game. However, in that 6:16, the Spurs went into the timeout with a 22-13 lead over the woeful Lakers, which works out to roughly a 168-100 pace for a full game.
The thing is, you can understand why Pop would be peeved. That is a bad defensive showing for the starters, even in a six minute micro-sample.
Remember, before the streak began, the starters were scoring a miserable 91 points-per-100-possessions and allowing 92. The second number is obviously solid, though not quite as good as last year's league leading 87.7 figure in a 364-minute sample. Critics pointed out that it would be hard for the Spurs to contend for the title as long as Tim Duncan and Splitter struggled to score while playing together.
Well maybe what's happened lately can be classified as simply "returning to the mean," but what the Spurs are doing in March has gone beyond mean to downright cruel. In March the quintet is scoring 114.4-points-per-100 possessions and allowing 83.0. A net rating of 31.4, in a small-but-not-tiny 79 minutes. That's insane. (h/t NBAWowy.com, which might be the best website ever -- sports related or ... not.)
This spurt has raised the overall numbers to a 98.9 offensive rating and a 88.7 defensive rating, a more-than-respectable net rating of 10.1 and an 11 point reversal from the pre-March numbers. For what it's worth, it's the best figure in the league for any lineup that's played over 125 minutes together. Sure, there are some, like Indiana's, that have played over a 1,000 and it's asking a lot for the starters to continue at that breakneck pace, especially with a tougher schedule coming up in April, but they may yet get fairly close to last season's 18.1 net rating by the time we're gearing up for the playoffs.
They might catch up to those lofty numbers if Pop actually, you know, let them play together, but my hunch is that he wants to keep this secret for as long as possible. I mean, remember when "Kawhi can't make threes anymore," was a thing? He's only shot 50 percent from downtown since returning from his broken hand. Danny Green, meanwhile, has made 52 percent of them during the winning streak. When Green and Leonard can both make threes, presto, the starters don't struggle to score so much anymore.
It's true enough that they only played together for six minutes and change, but the starters combined for a season-high 85 points against the Lakers (just besting the 84 they had against Orlando -- also during the streak). In a season that has been eerily reminiscent of 2012, it's been a most welcome sight to see this late return of the 2013 Spurs, where the starters had that defensive steel that was so integral throughout their playoff run.
If they can combine that lockdown defense and overall domination the 2013 starting unit had with the fun-bunch scoring-for-fun magic of the 2012 bench, we might have ourselves a fun few months here.
Well, as long as Bill Simmons and Jalen Rose don't get to call any of the games. Man, that was awful. Knock it off, ESPN.
Standard Pop Quote:
"Probably the only thing I liked is that they hung in there. I thought we played really porous defense. I thought a lot of that was because L.A. was very aggressive. They were in attack mode, and I don't think we adjusted to it until maybe the end of the third quarter. From that point, I thought our defense was very good."
By the Numbers:
18,997: The paid attendance at the Staples Center
0: Jack Nickolson's at the Staples Center. WHY ARE YOU IGNORING THE SPURS, JACK? ARE YOU BIASED AGAINST NON-GLAMOUR TEAMS?
13,843: Days Tim Duncan has been alive
13,841: Regular season rebounds for Duncan (h/t to "The Upgrade")
26-0: The Spurs record when Splitter scores at least seven points (h/t Dan McCarney)
13: Times this season the Spurs have recorded at least 30 assists in a game. Seems low. (h/t @DukeofBexar)
22: Season-high 22 points for Leonard, making him the 9th member of the Spurs in what I like to call "the 22 club."
102: How many points the Spurs had if you just go by the 1st, 3rd and 4th quarters.
666: How many games The Big Three have played together, in the regular season at least. The league's had a hell of a time beating that trio.
16-of-43: A rare off-night from the bench.
44-40: The Lakers bench outscored the Spurs reserves by four, which isn't that shocking when you consider that L.A. has quietly had the second-highest scoring bench in the league.
51-16: The Spurs record through 67 games in 2013-2014.
51-16: The Spurs record through 67 games in 2012-2013.
51-16: The Spurs record through 67 games in 2011-2012 (including game 1 of the playoffs, thanks to a 66-game regular season). Actually, in 2012 and 2014 they had 11-game winning streaks at this point. The good news is this time if they make it 20 straight and then lose four in a row, it won't be a killer this time.
Sequence of the Game:
Ginobili had three highlight passes in the second quarter, the first a hook pass on the baseline around Robert Sacre to find Patty Mills for a lay-in for the Spurs' first bucket of the period, then a dart from the wing to a back-cutting Leonard for another lay-up with 3:47 to go in the second quarter and finally a sweet slinging bounce-pass with 2:37 to go for an and-1 to Green.
Somehow Simmons talked over all three, first gushing at Rose's interview with Pop, then with the usual Game 6 garbage over the second one and finally with important analysis about Ricky Rubio because sure why not. We're left with play-by-play guy Mike Tirico whispering "wow," at these passes while Simmons is yammering on about anything but what's happening on the court.
Tweets of the Night:
I like Gasol as much as the next NBA nerd but I'm kinda annoyed by all these Spurs fans/bloggers lusting after him as a potential free agent acquisition. C'mon, stop it. You're just setting yourselves up for disappointment like with the AK-47 thing all over again. Gasol is going to sign with somebody for way more than just the mid-level exception. Or he'll go to the Knicks. He's not ever gonna be a Spur. That would be like cheating for us. We might go undefeated for a whole season.
Phil Jackson will be named the Eastern Conference Player of the Week.— Russ Bengtson (@russbengtson) March 20, 2014
Well the energy with the team definitely helped the Knicks beat the Pacers, doing a solid for the Spurs there, and according to this New York Times article it's pretty clear that he pulled the plug on a trade that would've sent Iman Shumpert to the Thunder, so as far as I'm concerned you can give him Eastern Conference Player of the Month.
I like to think Magic Johnson got fired for picking the Lakers over Spurs in the first round last year.— Jesse Blanchard (@blanchardJRB) March 20, 2014
Quite a few people picked them, included noted "Spurs fan" Skip Bayless. What was fun about that series (and the Grizzlies one, actually) was that about ten minutes into Game 1 you knew the Spurs would kill those guys and by the end of the first game you thought to yourself, "This could be a sweep."
Bill Simmons: Game 6 was dramatic. I wouldn’t say it was a great game.— Pounding the Rock (@poundingtherock) March 20, 2014
Games 6 and 7 were both train accidents. Both teams were just so beat up and exhausted by then that quality basketball was impossible. The regular season versions of either team would've beaten the Finals versions by 25 points. But that's the mark of an evenly matched Finals between two great teams, when as good as they are, they make each other look like two punch-drunk fighters by the end.
Simmons said that he thought the Spurs wouldn't try at all during the regular season, finish with a five or six seed and then flip the switch for a playoff run. If that's not proof that the man has always misunderstand what the Spurs have been about during the Duncan Era, then I don't know what is.
Wait, did Simmons just say the Spurs weren't prepared to play different styles of basketball in the Finals? Did I hear that right?— Ian Dougherty (@_IanDougherty) March 20, 2014
Yeah, Kawhi looked totally out of his element as a small-ball four that whole series. Just lost out there.
Like Pop is going to light up an ex-player...— Dan McCarney (@danmccarneysaen) March 20, 2014
Adande asks those same questions and he gets a blank stare.— Dan McCarney (@danmccarneysaen) March 20, 2014
THANK YOU. Finally somebody else gets what I've been saying for two years. Pop is very friendly with ex-coaches, pretty engaging with ex-players, polite with women and a total grouch with play-by-play guys/sideline reporters, the ESPN ones in particular.
"Guys, stop sucking at basketball. Please. Don't suck. Do something. Please. Come on." D'Antoni, basically— Quixem Ramirez (@quixem) March 20, 2014
To be fair, all Scott Brooks does is tell his guys to be good at basketball.
I encourage you all to follow that whole conversation thread. Quality stuff.
I don't want to speculate too much, but I just don't think Simmons watches the Spurs very much, guys. During the broadcast he commented that he doesn't like to see Diaw shoot threes, comparing him to Josh Smith in the process. Smith is shooting 24.9 percent from downtown. Diaw is doing a wee bit better. I mean not much, just 44.2 percent, that's all. The Spurs shoot better from three than any team in the league and Diaw only has the highest shooting percentage on the best-shooting team, but other than that Pop really needs to tell him to cool it with those three-pointers.
And tell Tony to not shoot so many lay-ups while you're at it.
Also, during the game I saw a commercial for this. Oh my god. It's a shameless two-hour commercial for the NFL. I mean... there's just no way this won't be one of the top-five worst sports movies ever, right?
Your Three Stars:
3) Tim Duncan (115 pts): To go along with his game-best +28 and 16 boards, we've gotten consecutive games with six dimes for Timmy. It's not Joakim Noah or anything, but he's quietly averaged the second-best assists-per-36 minutes of his career this season, as well as tying for the most rebounds-per-36 minutes. Not too shabby for a 37-year-old. But he doesn't deserve to be on any of the All-NBA teams or anything...
2. Tony Parker (106 pts): I thought Duncan had an insurmountable lead but Parker's really been gaining on him in the YTS standings with a killer March. If/when Pop rests Duncan, Parker's gonna zoom by him. A quiet 25 and 5 for Parker tonight, where he made just 11-of-16 shots. Ho hum.
1. Kawhi Leonard (58 pts): Speaking of quiet, all Leonard did was score a season-high 22, hitting 8-of-12 shots while snatching ten boards and dishing four helpers. He's basically played like an All-Star since returning from his broken hand, averaging around 14 and 7 on 55 percent from the field and 50 percent from downtown. I'm gonna go out on a limb and say if Leonard shoots 50 percent from three in the playoffs the Spurs will win the 'chip.
@Sacramento Kings (24-44), Friday, Mar. 21:
It's kind of amazing the Kings' record is as bad as it is, considering that their scoring differential is only -2.2. It takes a massive amount of choking down the stretch to be 20 games under .500 with such a low differential. Well, that or a lot of blowout wins over crummy teams. Either way, the Kings had lost five of six (with the only win being over the 76ers) before they beat the Wizards at home in overtime Tuesday night. DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay and Isaiah Thomas all scored 24, with Thomas finishing with a triple-double. The Spurs know first hand how competitive the Kings can be, having won two narrow games against them at home this season. They were down double digits in the fourth quarter in the first one, but The Big Three combined for 67 to pull it out and in the second meeting they were without Ginobili, Leonard and Green and barely won to snap a three game losing streak, thanks to Duncan and Diaw's efforts. They were also fortunate that Cousins missed that one with a sprained ankle. I'm actually going to be in the house for this game. I went there last year because I thought it'd be the last ever Kings-Spurs tilt in Sacramento, but then they wound up keeping the franchise instead of losing it to Seattle. Now I'm just going because it's easier to get good seats for a reasonable price than it is for Warriors games and the crowds are less annoying as well. I didn't get to see any of the Big Three in the only other game I've been to this year, so hopefully they'll play in this one. And if they don't then I'll just have to splurge for Warriors tickets on Saturday.
* * *
Also, on a personal note, as I've mentioned a few times throughout the year, I will be moving to San Antonio this summer, mid-July to be specific, to cover the 2014-15 Spurs for PtR. However, I will still need a regular day job to pay the bills and keep the lights on. If you're a business owner in the area or work at a place where you think I'd be a good fit, whether it's an office, a restaurant (I'm a waiter now) or wherever, please don't hesitate to let me know and make the proper inquiries with the proper people. Obviously I'm not looking to get rich or anything, but I need to make a livable income and also have enough flexibility in the job that they won't make me work at night during Spurs home games. That's kind of non-negotiable.
So if you ever thought to yourself, "Hey, Erler kind of seems like a lovable nut, I wonder what he'd be like to work with." here's your chance to find out. Thanks in advance for all your assistance with this.