Slowly but surely, the Spurs starting lineup is starting to find its rhythm, even though its prized newcomer is still struggling to find his.
Coming into Wednesday night's game at the AT&T Center against a Nuggets squad that had been surprisingly competitive 11 games into the season, the Spurs starters had produced a 99.4 offensive rating in 154 minutes, per NBA.com's stat index. That's on par with the 22nd-ranked Indiana Pacers as a team, so obviously not that hot. However, given where we were a week ago, where the starters were clocking in worse than bottom-ranked Philadelphia, they're definitely trending in the right direction.
Against the Nuggets, who were 20th in defensive rating before facing the Spurs on a SEGABABA (they won impressively at New Orleans the night before), the starters played 18:12 collectively by my count and totaled 47 points on 19-of-36 shooting with just three turnovers. That works out to 124 points over a full game.
Tony Parker was the star of the show and got the Spurs going right from the offset, with a hand in 14 of their first 16 points. He found LaMarcus Aldridge for a pair of pick-and-pop jumpers real early on and probably deserved more than the four assists he had in the first quarter. It was an opening period where the Nuggets were eerily reminiscent of what San Antonio was like against Portland to start out the game two nights earlier. They couldn't shoot at all but were really active on the glass and very careful with the ball, with just one turnover.
With Manu Ginobili (bi-lateral hip tightness) out for at least two games, Kyle Anderson was first off the bench but got yanked after a minute after allowing an open three to Denver's Gary Harris. Rasual Butler came in for him and popped in a quick triple, sandwich by a couple bombs from Patty Mills. The Spurs led 31-24 after one.
Both teams got red hot in the second quarter, with Parker finding Tim Duncan inside for a pair of layups and Leonard tossing him a dime for a free-throw jumper. Leonard canned two threes in less than a minute midway through the period, including one where he saved Danny Green from a turnover by snatching a wayward pass with his massive left paw and basically threw the ball in on a turnaround fling, like so.
Wow, not what you want, but WOW!!! pic.twitter.com/O8QCo9ef5q— Chris Itz (@Chris_Itz1) November 19, 2015
Parker hit a couple of short jumpers late and both teams finished with 34 in the quarter, giving the Spurs a 65-58 lead at recess.
The second quarter would prove to be the only hot-shooting one for the Nuggets and the Spurs pulled away a bit in the third, as they have all season long. Parker scooted around rookie Emmanuel Mudiay using a series of picks from Duncan and Aldridge for a pair of layups and Leonard had one reverse layup and a fast break dunk courtesy of an otherwise anonymous Boris Diaw.
Beautiful pass, ferocious dunk. Boris Diaw... pic.twitter.com/Jm8nCVrzSp— Chris Itz (@Chris_Itz1) November 19, 2015
What made the difference however was the defense at the rim. Duncan had three of his six blocks in the quarter and the Nuggets, who had 12 offensive rebounds and 15 second-chance points in the first half, didn't have any in the third period. It was the Duncan's first game with as many as six blocks since Nov. 5, 2014 against the Hawks and the 40th time he's had at least six in his career, counting just the regular season games. He also became the third-oldest player to ever swat at least six shots in a game. We're so used to the Nuggs being the springy team swatting shots into the rafters against the ground-bound Spurs, but San Antonio had 13 blocks in this one with Aldridge and Butler also collecting two apiece and making Denver work for everything they got around the basket. The lead was 14 after three.
A Diaw-West-Butler-Anderson-Mills lineup in the fourth went about the way you'd expect but was just solid enough defensively to buy the starters enough rest, as the Nuggets pulled off what seemed like the slowest 8-2 "run" in history to get within 10 with 7:02 remaining. They never got any closer. Leonard and Green each hit a three and Parker had a short pull-up and the Spurs sowed up their sixth win in a row.
Parker finished with season-highs in both points (25, on 9-of-14 shooting) and assists (9) and taught Mudiay a few things. He was reminded that once he was the 19-year-old point guard, trying to figure out everything on the fly.
"I remember," confirmed Parker. "I wish I was that fast again, you know? For me personally it was a lot to take in because we were 'the Spurs' already and trying to win a championship and coach Pop was going all 'Serbian' on me, going crazy, everything was going so fast, [and I] was just trying to do everything and understand what we want and how to get the ball to Timmy and David Robinson back in the day, so it was just a lot of information and I was just trying my best to take everything in and at the same time play my game and be aggressive."
Mudiay, the seventh overall pick of the draft had a rough shooting night but finished with a respectable seven assists to just two turnovers. He's in a different situation than Parker was, as the Wee Frenchman noted. the Nuggets aren't going to be contending for anything this season. Still, Mike Malone is a defense-first coach like Popovich and someone who has a reputation for holding players accountable, regardless of pedigree. He stood up to DeMarcus Cousins in Sacramento and eventually earned his respect. If Mudiay takes to Malone like Parker took to Pop, and the Nuggets front office gets lucky with a couple of lottery picks, there will be light at the end of the tunnel for Denver.
Parker meanwhile will be preoccupied with trying to make Aldridge feel comfortable, the same way veteran Spurs once welcomed him. The team continues to struggle feeding the ball into the post to Aldrige. Leonard definitely doesn't feel comfortable doing it from the wing, often hesitating or getting too close as Aldrdige's defender keeps pushing him further and further out. Among the starters only Duncan seems to be able to get the ball into the former Blazer, and he often does it from the top of the key after the wing reverses the ball to him and Aldridge has his man sealed.
Leonard, Green and Parker all need to work on their post entries, with the proper spacing and angles and whatnot because right now Aldridge only seems to look right when he's catching-and-shooting from the wing without having to think. Once he holds the ball, things go south and you have wonder if it's getting in his head because he missed a few bunnies around the rim too.
At least the other parts of Aldridge's game didn't suffer, as he finished with 12 boards and the aforementioned two blocks. He and Duncan are making forays to the rim practically impossible and having two dobermans on the wings in Leonard and Green on top of that is almost unfair.
You look at the stacked rosters atop the West and throughout NBA history however and quickly realize that fair never has much to do with anything. It's an arms race and the Spurs got Aldridge specifically to put them over the top. It's fortunate that they've had this soft opening schedule to help ease him along toward that.
Your Three Stars:
1. Tony Parker
2. Tim Duncan
3. Patty Mills