On a night where they were rocking out to the greatest hits of Cyndi Lauper and Michael Jackson to celebrate "80's Night" at the AT&T Center, it was only fitting that the Spurs grounded out an old-fashioned win over a talented Wizards crew with an offense that featured a heavy dose of big men attacking the basket and little spunky Cory Joseph relentlessly attacking the rim and precious few three-balls by either team.
"I just thought Cory's play was really impressive," said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich afterward. "He was still pretty sick. He couldn't practice yesterday and he has been taking medicine, staying in bed and all that sort of thing. He put out a hell of an effort tonight. He is a tough young man. He was fantastic."
Joseph, who had been ill the past couple of days with a fever, wasn't even a sure bet to play before the game started, but nonetheless scored 17 of his 19 points in a first half in which he made all seven of his shot attempts. He out-dueled celebrated counterpart John Wall, who scored 11 points in the first quarter for a Wizards team that shot 66.7 percent and scored 35 points in the period, but both he and they flagged down collectively after that, feeling the effects of their game the night before at Oklahoma City. The Wizards scored 23 in the second quarter, 19 in the third and 15 in the fourth, while Wall only had four points over the final three quarters.
"It's a combination of many things," Manu Ginobili said of the defensive performance. "Of course our defensive effort improved in the second half, we started very slow and they were very inspired. Maybe the fact that they played yesterday --a tough game-- helped us and they got tired and their legs weren't the same, but then we were more attentive, we had too many distractions in the first half and we didn't down the stretch."
Offensively, the Spurs outscored the Wizards 52-32 in the paint, despite only getting four points from Tim Duncan. They dominated inside anyway thanks to a season-high 16 from Tiago Splitter, who more than held his own with fellow countryman and good friend Nene; and 14 more from Boris Diaw, who abused Kris Humphries inside, backing him down and scoring three straight buckets on him in the game-turning third quarter stretch that saw the Spurs rally from a 73-66 deficit to take a 74-73 lead.
It remained a one-point margin going into the fourth quarter and it looked set up for another high-wire finish (and perhaps another overtime or three) but then, trailing 91-88 with 5:35 to go the Wizards went cold until the outcome was decided, missing seven straight shots and mixing in a shot clock violation. Joseph had an emphatic block of a would-be Bradley Beal layup to punctuate the defensive stand. Not too shabby for someone who wasn't sure he could play when he woke up.
"Before the game I talked to coach and we were just going to test it out," Joseph explained. "We talked and if I felt like I was gassed or weak out there, we don't want to hurt the team, so I'd let him know. The first couple of minutes I felt okay and so I decided to suck it up and decided to stick with it."
More and more the Spurs brass is looking prescient for sticking with Joseph, who had an inauspicious start to his career and looked like a marginal NBA player at best during his first two seasons. Now though, with steady playing time due to the injury absences of first Patty Mills and now Tony Parker, Joseph is proving that he's a legitimate player, and if not quite starter material then at least one of the better backup points in the league, whether he stays in San Antonio or moves on elsewhere. Running an offense and getting a team into its sets remain issues for him, but he's continued to steadily improve in every facet of his game so why bet against him figuring those out as well?
Looking at the box score, few would guess the game had so many highlights, yet Ginobili, who was otherwise quiet with five points, pulled off two fantastic alley-oop passes to Duncan and Marco Belinelli (both were layups, but still). Danny Green had a Dr. J-esque reverse layup, cradling the ball behind the backboard and spinning it in. The coup-de-grace though was Joseph, who pulled off a driving layup right out of the Rajon Rondo playbook, darting diagonally into the lane, stopping on a dime, head-faking poor Humphries off his feet and spinning the other way to lay it in.
"I watch a lot of Rondo clips," Joseph revealed. "I went and saw the trailer and thought he was going to jump, and he did, and I had to finish it. I did it one time before in Boston, I think it was last year and actually it was against Humphries too."
Joseph has scored in double-figures in 10 of his past 13 games and is averaging 13.2 points as a starter. The whole win speaks to the Spurs depth that they were able to beat one of the best teams in the East despite getting nine points total out of Duncan, Ginobili, Parker and Kawhi Leonard. They also finished with 101 points on a night where they sank only 4-of-16 threes and 11-of-18 free throws.
Not only did the Spurs beat Washington for the 17th consecutive time (their longest current streak against any team) and 14th in a row at home, but they have their first "winning streak" since Dec. 5 and 6 when they won at Memphis then came back to whip the Timberwolves at home. Is this a sign that they're getting ready to go on a run? Too soon to say, but the schedule is a lot more forgiving in January, with the next game Tuesday night against a bad Pistons team. Parker may even be back for that one, though the way Joseph is playing, what's the rush?
Your Three Stars:
3) Tiago Splitter (6 pts)
2) Boris Diaw (23 pts)
1) Cory Joseph (37 pts)