Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was asked after his team's slug-fest win over the always competitive Grizzlies if his team's rash of turnovers in the third quarter --five miscues in the first 5:33 of the period-- was a sign of a team still trying to figure itself out.
"No," Popovich replied. "It was a sign of a team playing poorly."
The Spurs had suffered the most decisive loss of their young season the night before at New Orleans, the only game they trailed going into the fourth quarter, in fact, and while their defensive energy and activity was much-improved against the shooting-challenged Grizzlies, the offense was still stagnant and out of sync, even with Manu Ginobili back in the lineup.
There was one big difference, of course. LaMarcus Aldridge, who appeared to turn his left ankle early on against the Pelicans, sat this one out with what the team called a mild sprain. Fellow newcomer David West started in his place and filled in well, especially defensively alongside Tim Duncan. The two of them swarmed Marc Gasol in the paint and sealed the basket off from the Grizzlies litany of good-not-great perimeter attackers. It also helped the cause that Zach Randolph was out for Memphis with a sore knee.
The Spurs started somewhat sluggishly, with just eight points in the first six minutes, but picked it up when Ginobili and Boris Diaw checked in and Tony Allen and JaMychal Green subbed out for the Grizzlies. All of a sudden there was more room to operate and Tony Parker and Ginobili used it to their advantage, scoring a quick 11 points between them to help the Spurs to a 24-19 lead after one.
It was mostly more of the same in the second period. The Spurs uncharacteristically got into the bonus early and wound up with 14 free throws in the quarter, four apiece for Parker, West and Kawhi Leonard. It was bizarro-land Spurs basketball in more ways than one -- they finished with 29 points in the quarter despite having just one assist on their eight made shots. They had just six helpers on 18 buckets for the half, but Parker found little resistance from Mike Conley and scored a dozen in the quarter to give him 18 at half. Parker has had several scoring bursts over these first baker's dozen games, where he looks like got his old zip back and has been pretty consistent overall when he's looked for his shot.
The Spurs led 53-39 at intermission, playing well in most respects and then... the machine blew a gasket. And soon after that, Popovich did.
He was less than pleased during an early time out with Leonard and Danny Green, telling them both to move the ball instead of forcing up bad shots. A short while later, when Boris Diaw was lackadaisical inbounding the ball and hadn't noticed Leonard leaking out behind all the Grizzlies jogging back, he animatedly gestured for the offense to Go! Go! Go! Fortunately for the Spurs, Green was alert enough to have spotted Leonard's advantage and quickly shuttled it over to him for the dunk.
Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger did Popovich a favor by calling time and Pop tore into Diaw for a good 20 seconds on the bench, as angry as I can remember him with one player in a long time. Diaw had a turnover a couple minutes after that and he was yanked. Pop went with small-ball the rest of the way, primarily with Kyle Anderson at the four.
Ironically, for all their sloppiness in the third quarter, the Spurs shot 50 percent in the period with assists on all nine of their makes. The only problem they had was they stopped getting to the line and only got off 18 shots because of the turnovers. Their defense and Memphis' own miscues --they had seven giveaways themselves-- kept the Grizzlies at arm's length.
Gasol was as frustrated by his team's play as Pop was with the Spurs. "I think we took tougher shots than we should have," he said afterward. "Instead of moving the ball and passing, we fell into some traps. The paint seems like it's open, but you're falling into right what they want, which is taking a tougher shot over two defenders."
Indeed the Spurs finished six blocks on the night and altered countless other attempts. Grizzlies attackers had to navigate through a thicket of arms and bodies at the rim. The Spurs were waiting for them because nobody on that squad shoots it like Ryan Anderson. Memphis missed their first eight three-point tries before finally hitting one at the end.
As we've seen in some recent home games, the opponent chipped away a bit in the fourth to make it a game and the Spurs had trouble pulling away. Six more turnovers --they finished with 18 in all-- contributed to them getting just 15 shots up in the final period. They finished with 18, with Anderson hitting a couple of big jumpers at the end of the clock and making one sweet feed underneath to Tim Duncan for a layup
Then a pair of pick-and-roll buckets from Parker to Duncan iced the game. It also allowed Timmeh to chalk up another double-double, which was most welcome a night after the first board-less (but certainly not bored-less) game of his career.
After, Ginobili praised the play of Parker in the first half but acknowledged the problems that came after, saying, "Their pressure bothered us and we didn't attack well enough or hard enough. Their hands started to bother us. I think we are a type of team that's one dribble and kick it, so the pressure cannot bother us as much, and in that part of the game and a little later too we didn't do it well and [Popovich] wasn't happy about that."
When asked what Pop's, um, passionate pep-talk was like from his perspective, Ginobili took the opportunity to ease the tension. "I was relaxed," he said. "I wasn't [playing], I was not the one turning the ball over, it's like when we have a video session and I didn't play, I go in there relaxed, I bring a little juice... but when you are a part of that you don't want to be in there. It was tough and he was not very happy."
Ginobili has provided more than a little juice for the Spurs when he's been healthy enough to play. He had 11 of his 15 in the first half and continues to make good things happen for himself and his whoever he's on the floor with, without having to force anything. His mid-range shot has been really on so far, which has helped buy him some room.
The Argentine sixth-man went on to admit that the Spurs' schedule hasn't been very difficult so far and cautioned that it soon will get much tougher, but also relayed that its the team's M.O. to build slowly as the season goes on and that overall there's been more positives than negatives, especially on the defensive end.
The biggest issue the Spurs have had, aside from integrating Aldridge smoothly into the flow, is that they've been too dependent on Leonard so far, as good as he's been.
Kawhi's in elite company: Curry and Durant also have 20+ points, 50+% FG, 40+% 3FG. https://t.co/PF2tFdBab7— J.R. Wilco (@jollyrogerwilco) November 22, 2015
Leonard played 78 minutes combined in the back-to-back and that's a few too many. Anderson and Rasual Butler have had some moments, but both have played better with Leonard in small-ball lineups rather than in relief of him at the three spot. At least Anderson is trending in the right direction. His fourth quarter tonight was encouraging. The team is ever worried about not wearing out Ginobili, but Green's tough start --he was 1-of-7 from downtown with four turnovers tonight-- hasn't helped on that score either.
They're still waiting to put a complete 48 minute game together and will have another opportunity Monday against the Suns, San Antonio's fifth game in a week. Hopefully Aldridge will be back for that one and Popovich will have less to lament.
Your Three Stars:
1. Tim Duncan
2. Tony Parker
3. Manu Ginobili