Before the game against the Pacers, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was asked how he would evaluate the team through roughly a third of the way through the season.
"I feel like we're a little bit ahead of the curve defensively, but we're still sputtering offensively," he said. "I give us about a 'B+' defensively and probably a 'C+/B-' offensively."
On the surface that reads like a classic example of Pop underselling his team and being impossible to impress, but I kind of see where he was coming from. As we saw against the Clippers and the Thunder, the defense hasn't been all that great against the best teams. If anything, Pop was too harsh on the offensive grade, what with the Spurs ranking third in the league in offensive rating.
(Then again, they are five points better than the next-closest team in defensive rating, so maybe he could've gone 'A-' there.)
One thing is clear about the Spurs above all else, no matter how tough of a grader you are: With Kawhi Leonard on the squad, it almost feels like they're cheating on the exam.
Leonard versus Paul George was supposed to be a thing. We've already seen Leonard dominate Kevin Durant at both ends of the floor in the season-opener, but one could argue that Durant was rusty after having missed so much time with injuries. George though is at the height of his powers and in the midst of the best season of his career, a legitimate top-5 MVP candidate.
I remember arguing with Pounders a couple of years ago that Leonard was a great young player, but to calm down with the hype and realize he'll never be a Paul George. He doesn't have his explosive first step. He doesn't have his shooting ability. Leonard is a great defender and all that, but let's be rational here, please.
Obviously I'm a basketball expert and none of you should ever question me, ever.
Leonard destroyed George tonight. Just wiped the floor with him. There have been UFC fights that were less decisive. George finished with seven points on 1-of-14 shooting. Previous to tonight the most shots he'd ever taken while scoring seven or fewer points was 12, on Apr. 25, 2012 against Chicago, the peak of Tom Thibodeau's run with the Bulls. Leonard was attached to George's hip all night, making his jumpers unnerving, and the big-man combo of Tim Duncan and LaMarcus Aldridge were waiting for him if he dared to foray into the paint. To George's credit he made a few nifty passes inside and finished with six assists, but he turned it over a half-dozen times too.
Meanwhile on the other end of the floor Leonard merely led the Spurs in scoring, as he has 18 times now in the 27 games he's played, and eclipsed 20 points for the 17th time. He forced a few contested threes early on --maybe he was ha-ha over-amped after being named the Western Conference Player of the Week-- but was more aggressive about going to the bucket after that and found the Pacers big-men more pliable, finishing with 24 on 10-of-19 to go with six rebounds, five assists, three steals and zero turnovers.
"At this point it's not a surprise, it's a confirmation," Manu Ginobili explained when asked if he was taken aback by how one-sided the Leonard-George match-up turned out to be. "Every game what he's bringing to the team on both ends, it's an incredible moment for him and it translates to our record... I don't know what he's averaging, but it's 20-plus and he's keeping high-volume shooters and scorers way under their average and that's a big advantage we've got."
The Spurs didn't appear to have much of an advantage early on, with Leonard and George trading bricks for the first 7:27, but once the teams went to their respective benches, a theme quickly emerged. The Pacers are regarded as a poor man's version of the Warriors in some quarters, because they love to go small with C.J. Miles as a stretch-four. Miles has been fantastic for the Pacers this season and came into the game as Indiana's second-leading scorer, but he was completely over-matched in the post against Boris Diaw, who scored four point-blank buckets early on.
"I couldn't believe they put Miles on him," said Tony Parker afterward.
The game might have been a litmus test of sorts, an experiment to see how the Spurs would match up against the "death-ball" lineup the Warriors use. Diaw is the ultimate weapon for San Antonio when he's engaged, because he's versatile enough to play against smaller lineups defensively and can exploit that size mismatch in the post. They beat the Thunder and the Heat, two teams that specialized in small-ball lineups in the 2014 playoffs largely due to Diaw's efforts.
As always, Diaw was blase after the game, seeming completely unimpressed with his 14 points on 7-of-9 shooting, his eight boards and game-high plus-21 in 25:29.
"Sometimes when teams go small, we go small too to try to match their size and speed and quickness, but tonight we went in the other direction, trying to use that [size] to our advantage and try to play inside."
Curiously Pacers coach Frank Vogel didn't utilize small-ball much with George out there and mostly used it when Diaw and David West were in for the Spurs, but San Antonio outscored his guys 46-35 when they played small. The Spurs finished with a season-high 62 (!!!) points in the paint (on 31-of-46 shooting) and killed the Pacers on the fast-break 18 to 4.
They led 50-48 at half, with Kawhi doing Kawhi things and Bobo at his jiggly mesmerizing best, but the Pacers hung in with some three-point shooting from former Spur George Hill and his fantastic blonde hair.
The most noteworthy thing about the first 24 minutes, other than the Spurs having their way inside, was that for the umpteenth time this season Kyle Anderson got a quick hook from Pop. He lost Chase Budinger on a back cut on his very first play on the floor and in came Jonathon Simmons, who coolly hit a corner three a short time later...
It was more back-and-forth for most of the third quarter, but the Spurs gained separation for good near the end of the period, using the Aldridge-Diaw-Leonard-Ginobili-Mills lineup that had been so effective for them the first ten games of the season or so. Leonard started a 14-6 spurt with a corner three and Danny Green got into the act later on with a three of his own after checking in for Ginobili, who took a knee to the thigh in a collision. The Spurs led 79-70 after three, with Leonard outscoring George 11 (on 5-of-7) to 2 (on 0-of-5) in the quarter.
Really, you should watch this whole highlight clip. It's a Leonard tour-de-force.
After Leonard tenderized the Pacers for three quarters, Parker finished them off with nine points in the fourth. The Spurs got the lead up to 18, with consecutive saves of loose balls at the baseline resulting in threes from Ginobili and Parker. The Spurs matched their season-high winning streak of six games and stretched their home record to a perfect 16-0, with Pop's "B+" defense holding Indy to 92 points on 42.2 percent shooting.
The main topic in the locker room afterward, with Leonard not sticking around to discuss his performance, was George Hill's hair, especially after the cameras caught Pop complimenting him on it.
"I love it," confirmed Pop when asked. "I wish I had the guts he has. That could really turn some heads."
Parker was less of a fan, saying, "I love George, he's my little brother, but I don't know about that haircut..."
Meanwhile Ginobili revealed that he didn't even recognize Hill at first. "Like 10 games ago we were watching a Pacers game in the locker room and I said 'Who's No. 3?' and they said 'Georgie' and I said 'WHAT?'"
"I wasn't paying much attention to the Eastern Conference teams but now I'm starting to get used to it," he explained.
Ironically, Pop was the Spurs general manager who couldn't wait to ship out Dennis Rodman, so I guess his grading curve for blondes only extends so far.
Your Three Stars:
1. Kawhi Leonard
2. Boris Diaw
3. Tony Parker
Up Next: @ Minnesota Timberwolves (11-17)
After a successful home stand against what will likely be four playoff teams, the Spurs will head out on the road against a young Minnesota crew that's probably a year or two away but headed for big things. Karl-Anthony Towns is the odds on favorite to win Rookie of the Year and has been as good as advertised as the first overall pick. Anthony Wiggins has come on in a big way after starting the year off terribly. Ricky Rubio is back healthy and his shooting remains historically awful, but he's playing well overall. Even Zach LaVine is having a nice sophomore season and Nemanja Bjelica has been a nice find for them as a stretch-four off the bench. All those guys are fun to watch and you should endeavor to do so whenever possible.
However, the Wolves also have Andre Miller and Kevin Garnett a pair of vets who each should've retired three years ago (I betcha KG comes down with the "Duncan Flu" again), and also longtime Pounders know how I feel about Kevin Martin, a one-dimensional shooting specialist who's shooting 37.2 percent.
The Spurs should totally trade Manu for him.