There's a weird, largely disproven axiom that rears its ugly head around playoff time, but because the Western Conference is outrageous this year, muffled whispers have been uttering this phrase in the madcap, roller coaster-esque emotional ride of Pounding the Rock Twitter mentions: the team who has the best player on the court in crunch time probably wins.
Tonight that happened, but not in the way you'd expect. Tonight's game featured Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic, and a smattering of other players whose supernova night could make them the best player on the floor. But none of them stepped up. Bledsoe and Dragic performed admirably, akin to their season numbers. Manu took the second half off after back spasms reared their ugly head again. Tony Parker, fully available for the first time since his Lost December, appeared to not have his full legs behind him on jumpers, constantly found the wrong place to throw passes, and didn't appear in the fourth quarter. Tim Duncan was flummoxed by the gargantuan Alex Len on offense, and as solid as he was on defense also didn't see time in the fourth quarter. But the best player isn't always the person you expect. Sometimes it's the player you deserve.
Yes, everyone, I just related Cory Joseph to Batman.
Cory Joseph has taken some major strides the past few months; we knew that we were going to see him either sink or swim going into the season with Patty Mills sidelined by shoulder surgery. But since Tony Parker has been summarily robbed of any illusions of remaining healthy through a season, Joseph has been asked to be the starting point guard for a defending champion. That might be easy in the era of Tim Duncan putting up >25.00 PER numbers or Manu Ginobili turning into the stringy-haired Eurostepper of every opponent's nightmares, but this Spurs team is different. Duncan can only be the primary option for so long, and as mentioned tonight he's starting to get rattled by defenders that can reach his awkward leaning runner by virtue of their sheer height. Manu Ginobili has sparks of brilliance, but those are mitigated by four minute stretches where he's the cause of all the Spurs' woes. Kawhi Leonard would be nice, but since his hand doesn't work, Joseph has been robbed of even that.
Yet there was Cory Joseph, trotting into the lineup in the fourth quarter of a game that bore more than a overt, striking resemblance to the Detroit catastrophe Tuesday night. His cohorts were a ragtag bunch of Spur scrubs: Jeff Ayres, Matt Bonner, Kyle Anderson and Danny Green (the hot hand who prevented Pop from going with Austin Daye). Green should take as much as he can from this win - his stroke was on and his drives to the lane were frequently exactly what the team needed. But if you watched closely in the fourth quarter, you could see something in Cory Joseph's movements that was more than just a little bit of Tony Parker. The tenacity getting into the lane. Keeping his head up under the basket so as to find open shooters off of collapsing defenders, epitomized by his beautiful kick out to Boris Diaw for an above the break three. The tenacious, but not overbearing defense.
Most of all, though, is the confidence. With the exception of the tide-turning posterization of Serge Ibaka in the waning minutes of Game 4 of the 2014 Western Conference Finals, Cory has exhibited an ability to clam up and get tentative when he's in the big show. He knows what Pop (and everybody else) says about him - that he's not the most talented guy. So, in an effort to fit in, Cory Joseph serves the most talented guy. These past few games, and in particular the fourth quarter of this one, saw Joseph's eyes look up, survey his surroundings and make the decision that he was the best player on the court, and dammit he was going to act like it. Tonight it won the Spurs a game, and as we're all becoming keenly aware, wins are precious in the Western Conference.
As I sat, ready to contemplate another loss to a mediocre team after jumping out to what seemed like a commanding lead, I began to think about readjusting my expectations of this Spurs team. The Western Conference is a strange place right now, and it's questionable that the Spurs can possibly survive it until they get a full bill of health. The win tonight put the Spurs in solid control of 7th place in the conference, a place the Spurs haven't been particularly familiar with at this midway point in the season for a few years now. Such is the way of the injury plagued team, and I am certainly not one of the people parading around the madcap emotional roller coaster that is the Pounding The Rock Mentions page on Twitter wailing about tanking for Jahlil Okafor.
The Spurs might not win 50 games this year. They might not get to home court advantage in any round of the playoffs, effectively dooming them from contention for a championship. Yes, I know, the Western Conference this year is impossible to relate to any other conference, and thus we may have a situation where teams in the lower half of the bracket are just as good as the upper half. But the simple fact remains that no team in the last 11 years has made the Finals from a lower than fourth seed. Small sample size, yes, but significant enough to mention. It doesn't happen. That's not to say the Spurs can't do it; just saying that it's highly unlikely. To that end, many around the twittersphere who maintain an aura of positivity about the Spurs continue to harp on "when we get healthy," as if getting healthy were some mythic place from whence the Spurs shall never depart. Depressing then to remind everyone that injuries happen, sometimes twice in a season. There's no guarantee that Kawhi Leonard will be fine this year. Or Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Cory Joseph or anyone. Just because you got injured early doesn't mean the NBA pokes your "injured" card and you're fine for the rest of the season. The Spurs are a fragile team, and expecting full health come April is a tall ask.
Finally, everyone in the Western Conference is adding pieces. Dion Waiters just hit a game-sealing three for the Thunder. Jeff Green might be exactly what the Grizzlies need at forward. Rajon Rondo certainly seems to be fitting in well with the Mavericks. Brendan Wright is yet another long, athletic body for Jeff Hornacek to mold into an effective pick n roll partner with Goran Dragic. The Spurs are probably the best team of the lot when healthy, but I don't think I have to recite the diatribe I just gave you up above. Rarely do the best case scenarios happen. When they do, and you notice that, and you capitalize as a team? You win championships. When you don't? You don't.
All this might sound pessimistic, but I don't really see it that way. Realism has the unfortunate bedfellow of pessimism because so often our circumstances can seem dire when not viewed through an especially objective lens. I'm not sure how the Spurs are going to finish this season. I sure as hell hope they get/stay healthy, maybe make a deal for a wing at the deadline who can spell Leonard and doesn't muck up the gears (more on that in a moment), and roll into the playoffs in the three or four seed and make a go of it against this Gauntlet. But that's hope. Realistic optimism doesn't have a lot of room for hope like that.
So instead I choose to turn to Cory Joseph, the best third string point guard in the NBA, who was the best player on the floor tonight, saw his opportunity, and brought the team a win. That's realistic optimism.
The Coyote dressed up as a Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader tonight. I feel the need to mention this to you because it was deeply weird, scarring, funny, gross and inexplicable. Which, I suppose, is exactly what a human running around in a giant furry animal costume should be.
I do wonder what Zach Lowe thought of it, though...
Bird is The Word
Watching Tim Duncan out-energy everyone when he’s 38 freaking years old will never stop being enjoyable.— Quixem Ramirez (@quixem) January 10, 2015
Even though Len did yeoman's work on Duncan, Timmy did spring loose and unleash some pretty moves and a couple of relatively monster dunks. Boris also found him for what might be classified as the most land-bound alley-oop ever.
Is Beverley much better than Joseph? I'm not sure. And Joseph is just 23. It will be interesting to see what kind of money he gets in FA.— Jesus Gomez (@JejeGomez_PtR) January 10, 2015
I bring this up to bring up a side note to this: realistically the Spurs are going to be faced with a choice of Cory Joseph, Danny Green or Kawhi Leonard. All are playing their way into giant contracts, the latter two probably commanding the max given their age, position and skill set. I don't think anyone would argue about keeping Leonard... but factoring in the colossal sums of money it will take to retain both Danny and Kawhi... do you think the Spurs should try to retain Cory? Will they?
That is one of the most amazing things I've ever seen.
I also think Gerald would be a solid backup for Danny or Kawhi.— 48 Minutes of Hell (@48MoH) January 10, 2015
Absolutely not. Gerald Green has come a long way since being a glorified dunking mascot, but he still has a freakish ability to shoot the ball whenever he has it. Whenever he found the ball with less than 15 seconds on the shot clock on offense, more than likely Gerald Green took that shot. He took 18 shots, scored 16 points. I don't want that as my backup SF.
Playing "I Believe I Can Fly" after Patty flies into the third row.— Alicia Nicole (@alicia_nicole15) January 10, 2015
I was two rows behind this amazing event, and Patty Mills could not have been a more apologetic player to the man he essentially bear-hugged with extreme prejudice while hurtling through the air.
Wouldn't it be a riot if both the thunder and the Spurs missed the playoffs?— Michael Erler (@MichaelErlerSBN) January 10, 2015
Do you one better... Miami and Indiana are on the verge of both missing the playoffs as well. It would have to be the first time in history that all four teams from the previous year's Conference Finals didn't make the playoffs. Would be very interesting.
I know man. I know.
My goodness, @poundingtherock's mentions. I guess Spurs fans have rarely experienced that thing where being without your best players hurts.— Seth Partnow (@SethPartnow) January 10, 2015
This is the subtitle for my book "On Being a Spurs Fan and Spoiled."
This about the Spurs. I gotta say, with the massive hill OKC has to climb just to avoid Golden State in the first round... I aagree with this. There's no team (other than possibly Houston) that scares the living daylights out of me in a seven game series, provided OKC missing the playoffs.
Players improve, especially in good systems. But Spurs players accelerate to 90 like a bullet. It’s nuts.— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) January 10, 2015
This one's more to emphasize again that Matt Moore doesn't hate the Spurs. He just holds them to a higher standard. And for good reason.
- Jeff Ayres continued his strong play, providing 14 solid minutes and ending with a +15. He looks more confident with his playing time than he did in the early going of the season when he lost his roster spot. I don't know that he's earned a spot ahead of Aron Baynes yet, but he's doing very well to establish himself in the platoon with Matt Bonner and Aron.
- Although he DID airball a 5 foot floater and get completely ended by Miles Plumlee while trying to throw down a vicious dunk. JANC (Jeff Ayres NBA Champion) gonna JANC.
- Matt Bonner and Patty Mills were crucial tonight. Mills is still working his way back from injury, but by the fourth quarter both he and Bonner were fully prepped to work their butts off on both ends and start playing good Spurs basketball. It's what got the crowd back into the game and pushed the cruising Suns back on their heels, a position they wouldn't recover from.
- It remains to be seen how this Spurs lineup is going to function as Tony gets back to full strength. At the moment we have a very tenuous offensive situation. Our two main offensive initiators, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, are coming back from a nagging injury and nursing a variety of maladies, respectively. Marco Belinelli, Danny Green, Patty Mills, Cory Joseph and Boris Diaw are all excellent players, and can carry at team when fate bestows that gift upon them on rare occasions. But relying them to be offensive captains is asking too much, and the Spurs are seeing breaking points in the offense because Tony, Manu and Kawhi aren't 100% there yet.
- Watching Gerald Green dunk is unbelievable in person. Makes me want to see an All-Star game.