None of the Spurs will ever admit it, on the record or off, but it's pretty obvious when an NBA team is bored.
After a murderous December schedule that saw the Spurs not only play the best the rest of the league had to throw at them but also staggered the games so that many of them came on consecutive nights, January has by and large been the antithesis of that, a series of match-ups against low-wattage, starless competition, with plenty of off days in between to stiffen the muscles and for apathy to set in. If you thought at Portland, vs. Memphis, vs. Portland, at Dallas, vs. Oklahoma City, at New Orleans, vs. Houston and at Memphis was a brutal stretch, that's nothing compared to the Kobe-less Lakers, the Bucks and the Hornets all at home. It's amazing the guys didn't fall asleep on the bench during the game.
Then again, they kind of did. After a fantastic opening half in which they roared out to a 55-38 lead, out-shot the Hornets 57.1 percent to 40.5 percent, made all 10 of their free throws and 5-of-13 threes (38.5 percent) while not allowing even one three-ball to Charlotte, the Spurs were surely feeling that the result was well in hand. Tony Parker looked quick and agile, spinning around the hapless Brian Roberts (who was in over his head as the understudy for the injured Kemba Walker) and scoring 15 points in 14:50 of playing time. Danny Green and Patty Mills each hit a pair of bombs. Tim Duncan and Aron Baynes --Gregg Popovich gave the struggling Tiago Splitter the night off, hinting that it was more of a pure benching than anything physical-- held Al Jefferson in check. Boris Diaw even showed some juice against his old club after being lifeless in San Antonio's visit to Charlotte earlier in the month.
"It was probably one of the better performances we've had since maybe the Portland game (a 110-96 rout on Jan. 16, Kawhi Leonard's first game back from a hand injury that cost him 15 games)," said Green afterward of the opening 24 minutes, and it was hard to argue with him.
However, it all turned to pot anyway, because nothing comes easy for the 2014-15 San Antonio Spurs. They shot 4-of-21 in the third quarter, missing their final 12 attempts of the period and 14 consecutive in all (Manu Ginobili contributed five to that effort), overlapping the third and fourth quarters, while getting outscored 26-14. In fact, Matt Bonner had both the last field goal before the streak began, with 7:18 to go in the third, and also the one that ended it, with 10:56 to go in the fourth, and they were both threes, which I suppose is to be expected.
Popovich played Cory Joseph for 13:08 consecutively also overlapping the third and fourth quarters, and almost entirely at the two, with either Mills or Parker at lead guard. For the second straight game Joseph had virtually no impact on the box score, yet he was the main recipient of Pop's affection --such as it is-- after the game.
"I think he was the most important part of the game," Popovich confirmed. "Everybody will scratch their head, they won't get it, but his defense, his (ability to come up with) 50/50 balls, rebounds... the things he did out there were huge in keeping our run going, preventing them from getting on a run."
Indeed Joseph was out there during a 12-0 Spurs run early in the fourth during which they re-seized control of the game, and he allowed Popovich the freedom to rest Leonard for the final 15:53, which is probably a good thing given how hard Leonard has been pushed since returning. He did look pretty dead-legged while he was out there. Still, I thought Pop went a little overboard on the Joseph stuff. It's not like he was shutting down any All-Stars out there. It was the Hornets, without Walker, without Bismack Biyombo and without Marvin Williams. When Steve Clifford is forced to give a backcourt of Brian Roberts and Gerald Henderson 71 combined minutes, you know there isn't a bevy of better options to be found on the bench. Lance Stephenson, 0-of-5 from the floor with no free throw attempts, was a ghost. P.J. Hairston was similarly invisible in nine minutes. Gary Neal was basically their bench.
Parker and Ginobili were 2-of-12 combined in the second half with five points, total, but the Spurs got enough from Bonner, who had all 10 of his points after intermission and by Green, who had one of his trademark fourth quarter "clumps" scoring 10 in the period and nailing consecutive threes 34 seconds apart to ice the game.
"We went through a dry spell in the third quarter," said Green, understating it a tad. "It seemed like there was a lid on the basket, but we kept moving, kept finding each other, and kept penetrating. Our defense is what kept us in the lead. If we weren't playing defense, they could have taken the lead easily and put us in a pretty bad situation."
Good defense, yes, to a degree, but also a club severely lacking in offense. Truth be told the Hornets didn't offer the Spurs much reason to take them seriously, at least not for the 48 minutes, and that task has been very difficult for San Antonio all year long, regardless of opponent. They just cannot put a solid game together, at least not more than once every two or three weeks, and it's got to be driving the coaching staff batty. They know this won't be good enough when it matters, it just won't. It's easy and cheap to blame a championship hangover and it's inaccurate at this point to blame injuries. There's just something off about the Spurs and one can only hope they find whatever it is during their Rodeo Road Trip, a time where they've historically come together and found their groove for the games that count.
The team serenaded Popovich in the locker room after the win, singing "Happy Birthday" much to their coach's dismay, but you get the feeling that the curmudgeonly coach won't be in much of a celebratory mood, no matter what vintage of Bordeaux he fills his glass with at home. A game with the streaking Clippers comes at a good time on Saturday. The Spurs badly need to play some real competition again. These wins look nice in the standings --the Spurs actually leapfrogged the Mavericks into sixth after Dallas lost at Houston-- but it's hard to say actual progress is being made.
Your Three Stars:
3. Tony Parker (41 pts)
2. Danny Green (42 pts)
3. Tim Duncan (65 pts)