It was clear from the outset that the starting lineup was not going to break the game open. Matt Bonner and Austin Daye were the forwards for the Spurs' 23rd starting unit of the season and the feel early on was that Pop wanted the bench to come in and make the difference. That's exactly how things went, as the hockey substitution that saw Mills, Joseph, Ginobili, Diaw and Splitter check in proved to be the moment in which San Antonio took control of the game. Manu Ginobili orchestrated things beautifully on offense while Tiago Splitter controlled the paint on both ends early to give the Spurs a four-point lead after the first quarter, 22-18.
The bench can't play the entire game, of course, so the starters minus Daye and Bonner checked back in. Whether the game was going to be a win or a loss depended largely on Duncan, Parker and Green bouncing back from a bad game against the Wizards. All three looked solid but it was Parker who had a fantastic stretch in which he scored or assisted on 14 Spurs points to hold off a Hornets push. A double-digit lead was in place for most of the second quarter, with a fantastic Manu buzzer-beater punctuating a fantastic half from him to set it at 12 at the break, 45-57.
No win can be easy for the Spurs this season, it seems, and this game was no exception. Cory Joseph started in Daye's place in the second half but the lineup wasn't much better for it. A quick run by the Spurs would have essentially secured the result but it never came. The Hornets' defense tightened up, with their athletic perimeter players flying all over the court and Bismack Biyombo owning the paint with four blocked shots in the third quarter. Charlotte trimmed four points off the lead to go into the final period down eight, 76-48.
If you've been paying attention to Spurs games this season -- and the fact that you are reading this indicates you probably have -- you know what happened next. Turnovers leading to fastbreak points; bad execution; second chance points for the Spurs' opponents, all inevitably resulting in a close ending. A three-pointer by P.J. Hairston from the top of the arc put the Hornets within two with 6:58 to go, eliciting memories from previous collapses. Fortunately, Manu Ginobili worked his magic (nine fourth-quarter points) to offset some of his mistakes (three turnovers) and led the team to victory. After some suspenseful final seconds in which the Spurs had trouble inbounding the ball, they got the win, 98-93.
- Manu Ginobili scored 27 points on 14 shots and while he did have four turnovers, he also had two assists and three steals. It was a fantastic performance and if only Manu was able to be on the court for extended minutes, the game probably wouldn't have been that close; he was that much of a difference-maker on Wednesday. Now if he would only stop making cross court passes when the other team is trying to send him to the line late in the game, that would be great.
- Tim Duncan's stat line sneaked up on me. Duncan finished with 14 points, 10 rebounds, three assists, two steals and three blocks. Duncan didn't look particularly good out there, struggling with Biyombo's athleticism at times as much as any other Spur. But he always finds a way to quietly make an impact.
- Tony Parker couldn't buy a mid-range jumper early but got better as the game went on. He still doesn't have his rhythm back, as demonstrated by his tentativeness during long stretches followed by moments in which he pushes things. This time some of those wild shots found the bottom of the net. I'll take 10 points and five assists on just 23 minutes from Tony while he continues to find his groove but the team will need him to go back to being a more dominant offensive force to have a shot at a repeat.
- Danny Green had the type of game Spurs fans would love him to have every time he steps on the court. 18 points in 11 shots, 4-for-7 from outside and a little bit of everything to go with it, including solid defense. Green is playing a career-high 31.4 minutes this season (36 minutes against the Hornets), as the Spurs lean on him in Leonard's absence, and is proving capable of handling the burden. It bodes well for his future, whether it is in San Antonio or elsewhere, that he can be seen as a quality starter that doesn't hurt you even in heavy minutes.
- Boris Diaw and Austin Daye really struggled. Daye was on the court just the first six minutes of the game and rode the pine the rest of the way. It's not his fault that he's asked to start when he should be a deep bench player. Boris missed his five field goals, never finding his touch around the rim to provide the post presence the team needed. He played well on Tuesday against the Wizards so it's probably nothing to worry about.
- Tiago Splitter and Matt Bonner, on the other hand, gave the team quality minutes. Bonner finished with eight points, eight rebounds, three assists and four (!) blocks. Matty understands position defense and remains vertical when challenging shots. This time it worked like a charm, validating Pop's decision to start him with his surprisingly disruptive defense and his usual floor-stretching. Splitter finished with nine points, four rebounds and two assists and worked the pick and roll with Manu Ginobili to perfection. Biyombo's energy and some questionable foul calls bother him but Tiago had a great game in limited minutes.
- The back up point guard duo of Joseph and Mills didn't have it, scoring-wise, combining to go 3-for-18 from the floor. They did contribute seven rebounds and eight assists between the two but didn't make their typical positive impact. Joseph in particular had a couple of plays in which he pushed for no reason, like a two-on-one fastbreak in which he didn't pass ahead to Mills that earned him a reprimand by Manu. They had been so good for the Spurs lately that a down game was due.
- Bismack Biyombo was extremely fun to watch today. He jumps at everything, so he got burn repeatedly by pump fakes. But his swats made the Spurs change shots and his ability to cover ground could make him an elite defender if his basketball IQ ever catches up to his physical tools. In general the Hornets have a bunch of guys who are fun to watch but have one or more crucial flaws. There's talent there but they need a star and for the young guys to develop. They won't win a championship any time soon but they have a better future than most bad teams.
- No Gary Neal tonight, which was a bummer. I really enjoy his chucking now that he doesn't wear a Spurs jersey.
The Spurs remain at the seventh spot in the West with a 24-16 record and will face the Trail Blazers on Friday, the first of eight out the next ten games to be held in the AT&T Center.
For the opponent's perspective, visit At The Hive