What a difference a game makes. With their win over the Suns, the Spurs could be in a four-game winning streak heading to Minnesota on Saturday to meet one of the worse teams in the league. Instead, a terrible second half against the Detroit Pistons made Friday's match as close to a must-win as it gets in January. The Spurs responded with a performance that does not inspire confidence but gives them much-needed relief as they continue to wait for Kawhi Leonard to return.
Everyone was looking sharp to start, with Tiago Splitter shining on defense and on the boards for the first time since returning from injury. Pop mentioned before the game that it would be a good test for the Spurs' defense and the team delivered early, holding Phoenix to 18 first-quarter points on just 37.5 percent shooting. Duncan carried the scoring load, with eight first-quarter points, but it was truly a team effort. The ball zipped through the court in tune to 10 assists on 13 field goals. The Spurs went ten deep and the only player to see the floor and not score was Tony Parker. Things were looking up for San Antonio.
The game would have been over after two quarters against half the teams in the league but the Suns are relentless. Eric Bledsoe, Gerald Green and Goran Dragic took turns punishing every little mistake the Spurs made with a bucket. Phoenix was setting the pace and the hectic back-and-forth didn't benefit the Spurs. Fortunately, Tony Parker had a few minutes in which he showed how brilliant he can be and Danny Green continued his stretch of good games by making his presence felt on both ends when the Spurs needed him the most. After withstanding the Suns' first push, the Spurs were up six at the half, 49-43.
Third quarter collapses are nothing new for the Spurs. They have actually been outscored by 21 points in that period this season while they have come up ahead in the other three quarters. For some reason it's still always strange to see them give away 12 minutes after the break. The effort wasn't there for San Antonio while the Suns came out smelling blood and taking advantage of a loosely called game to cause turnovers with their physicality, another staple of poorly played Spurs games. The Suns were the aggressor and without Manu Ginobili, who didn't return to the game due to back spasms, the Spurs had a hard time shifting the momentum. The Suns won the quarter 26-10 and led by 10 points going into the final quarter, 69-59.
Just as it looked like another heart-breaking loss was in the horizon, the Spurs pulled off one of those bench-led comebacks they usually deliver once or twice per season. Ginobili and Parker didn't play in the fourth quarter and Duncan only played seven seconds. A Mills-Green-Anderson-Bonner-Ayres lineup chipped away at the Suns lead. Joseph and Splitter checked in for Slowmo and Ayres and the team kept on rolling.
The defense tightened as the Suns seemed baffled by a zone the Spurs threw out there, but it was the offense that won the game. Patty Mills found his shooting stroke, going 3-4 from beyond the arc while Cory Joseph and Danny Green combined for 18 points in the frame. The Spurs killed the Suns with the type of perimeter-based attack Phoenix usually hurts teams with. The result was a 41-point fourth quarter that allowed San Antonio to get back to the winning track and hold on to the seventh seed.
Any injury to Manu Ginobili should have Spurs fans worried. Fortunately, it seems like there is not hamstring injury this time, just back spasms. Those can be painful and I expect Manu to miss a few games but the schedule really helps the Spurs here. Manu could take three days off and only miss two games before returning against the Hornets. Let's hope there's nothing else going on.
- Tony Parker had his moments in this one, particularly in the second quarter, but he's clearly not all the way back yet. It will take him a few games to get in shape.
Fortunately, the Spurs have two other point guards that can give the team quality minutes. Patty Mills finally found his shooting touch and his three three-pointers were huge for the team in the final quarter. Cory Joseph continues to impress, prompting Gregg Popovich to say after the game: "He's not blessed with the most talent in the world but I don't think there's anyone on the planet who gets more out of what he's got." That's weirdly high praise coming from Pop. The two back up point guards combined for 26 points and seven assists.
- Tiago Splitter matched a career-high 14 rebounds. Splitter hasn't been as good on defense as he was last season but continues to find ways to contribute.
Tim Duncan had 12 points, seven rebounds and five assists in just 24 minutes on the court. Timmy always puts quietly great stat lines and does all the little things to make the team better. The starting lineup often goes through rough stretches but it's never Duncan's fault.
- Danny Green had 20 points, two steals and two blocks. Green is having his best season as a pro and will get a substantial raise as a result. His three point shooting has become a weapon even as defenders are close to him, which didn't use to be the case even last season.
Jeff Ayres is doing a fantastic job filling in for Aron Baynes, who is out with a neck injury. As Pop said in his post-game remarks, Ayres is playing under control and it shows. He's catching passes he would have fumbled in the past and is playing the typically decent defense he's been know for and grabbing rebounds.
Boris Diaw and Marco Belinelli didn't have great games. Bobo turned the ball over four times and Marco missed his four three-pointers. Diaw did score nine points and dished out five assists but Belinelli didn't have any kind of positive impact on the game.
Matt Bonner was +12 in under 10 minutes only to remind everyone that he's the king of plus minus.
- The Suns would be a dark horse contender to make the finals if they played in the East. The addition of Brandan Wright will only make them more dangerous. I was ready to count them out of the playoffs, since the Thunder seemed like a lock to make a push but right now I'm not sure they can unseat Phoenix.
The Spurs will visit the Timberwolves on Saturday, looking to get their 23rd win of the season.
For the opponent's perspective, visit Bright Side Of The Sun