You kind of felt sorry for the Suns tonight. You felt sorry for them even before the opening tip. You knew. As soon as the Spurs found themselves struggling to shake the lowly Timberwolves on Monday, you knew.
They're going to hammer these guys.
The Spurs have struggled to beat good teams on the road, but let's give them credit where it's due. They've absolutely laid the wood against the rank-and-file teams, and have completely obliterated just about every at home on the way to a 19-0 record at the AT&T Center, becoming only the third Western Conference team to win that many without a blemish and the first since the 1985-86 Houston Rockets.
As Manu Ginobili put it, "It's not that we care about the record, but we know we've been very successful and given games away at home."
It's a far cry from last season, where they lost eight games at home, including to the Lakers and Pistons. They also put themselves behind the 8-ball in the standings last December, going 8-10. This time around they finished 14-2 in December, with a 18.5-point scoring differential and a 20.2 net rating, the highest by any team in any month in the history of the league.
Thanks to their 33-point win over the Suns and Golden State's 23-point defeat at Dallas without Stephen Curry, the Spurs have now lead in overall scoring differential by a decent chunk (13.5 to 12.3) and if they could somehow sustain this pace it would blow away the previous best of 12.28 set by the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers.
For all the talk about the improved Eastern Conference, there has been an even greater separation between the wheat and chaff in the league than ever before. Only four teams have won over 70 percent of their games. The NBA is La Liga now, with three teams vying for the crown and everyone else just trying to stay above water.
The Warriors, the greatest show in town with the intricate passing, the high-volume scoring and the ultimate mighty-mite weapon who can score from anywhere are obviously Barcelona, with Curry the NBA's answer to Lionel Messi. The Cavs, with the preening, strutting, perfectly coiffed (okay, that one not so much) physically dominant superstar with the star-studded supporting cast are Real Madrid, with LeBron James as Cristiano Ronaldo. That leaves the Spurs as Atletico Madrid, the veteran club who play a tight defensive style, everyone working as a team and the coach wringing every ounce of talent from the roster. That makes Kawhi Leonard... Antoine Griezmann, I guess? (Hey, they're both 24!)
It's not a perfect analogy. Maybe the Champions League would be better, with the Spurs as Bayern Munich and the Thunder as PSG. It doesn't matter and you've already lost interest. My point is there are very, very few good teams in the NBA, the Spurs happen to be one of them and tonight they kicked the crap out of Las Palmas by the score of 5-1.
Just understand that it got out of hand quickly. LaMarcus Aldridge had a burr in his saddle for whatever reason, facing the team he almost picked over the Spurs in free agency. Tony Parker found him for three mid-range jumpers and David West --starting for Tim Duncan for the third straight night-- for another and the Spurs were already up double-digits midway through the quarter, with Jeff Hornacek calling time. Not only were they sharp on offense, but quite active in their own end as well, with Parker nabbing a couple of steals 28 seconds apart and then Kawhi Leonard pilfering one and dishing to Danny Green for a fast-break dunk.
Most of the time this season the Spurs have had this odd habit where either the starters will play well and the bench will sag or vice versa, but against the Suns both units had it going, and the second team followed the 16-6 start with one of their own to give the home side a 20-point margin after one quarter, effectively ending the drama. Boris Diaw was aggressive from the outset, Manu Ginobili scored on a couple of awkward floaters and if you were wondering whether Gregg Popovich had a word or two for the team about their effort level against Minnesota, watching the 38-year-old Ginobili's determination on a pair of loose balls in the first quarter seemed to offer a hint.
Manu turns the Suns over for the second straight possession, and drops in a floater from the free throw lin... https://t.co/RXXutX2dSl— J.R. Wilco (@jollyrogerwilco) December 31, 2015
It was more of the same in the second quarter, with the Spurs stretching the lead out to 31 and swiping 11 steals in the first half alone. Diaw scored a pair of crafty buckets inside, Aldridge swished another pick-and-pop feed from Parker and Green, Leonard and Parker all hit threes. At least this period the Suns dinged the scoreboard some too, with Tyson Chandler coming off the bench for some reason and cashing in on three dunks and T.J. Warren getting a pair of floaters to drop.
The halftime stats were ugly. The Spurs had 16 free-throw attempts (though only nine makes) to the Suns zero. They had nine more assists than turnovers, while Phoenix was minus five. The Spurs even made three more bombs than the Suns, and that's supposed to be their thing. 61-33 seemed to fit the eye-test.
Things settled down a bit in the second half, with both squads playing mostly in second or third gear, with occasional bursts of aggressiveness. Aldridge drove hard to the bucket to Pop's noticeable approval and Leonard hit his third three of the night, the two of them combining for 16 in the third quarter. Really, the way the two stars were playing, everyone else on the Spurs could afford to take a seat and enjoy the show.
The young guys and deep reserves got most of the run in the fourth quarter with matters well decided. Kyle Anderson had a pair of smooth jumpers to go with an and-1 flip and Jonathon Simmons had a couple of driving layups of his own. Again though Boban Marjanovic stole the show, with five points and six rebounds in the quarter, giving him a season-high 12 boards for the game, the first Spur ever to haul in a dozen in 15 minutes or fewer.
The night ended on a poignant note from Popovich who opened up a bit when asked whether he found Marjanovic as entertaining as the fans do.
"I enjoy his play, but I don't look at it as entertainment. Sometimes it actually worries me. The crowd really gets a kick out of it and and all that, but he's a basketball player, not some sort of odd thing. It actually worries me at times, I hope he gets treated with the same respect that other players do because he's a hard worker, he's a really intelligent kid and he wants it badly. I think it an get you off your game when people cheer in a certain way. A couple people were yelling 'M-V-P' tonight. The fans have fun, but my perspective is different than the fans."
Marjanovic has already proven he's way better than some ceremonial "victory cigar" type of player, and hopefully fans will stop seeing him that way soon as well. The good news for the Spurs is that they should have plenty of opportunities for to cheer for other little-used players at the end of these one-sided games.
Your Three Stars:
1. LaMarcus Aldridge
2. Tony Parker
3. Boris Diaw
Up Next: Vs. Houston Rockets (16-17)
The Spurs will try to make it a perfect 20 in a row at home and avenge their Christmas loss at Houston in the process Saturday night to kick off 2016 in style. The Rox have dropped two straight since the Spurs game, with coach J.B. Bickerstaff questioning the team's priorities and accusing them of "disrespecting the game" after a loss at New Orleans (he had a point, I mean, really, what kind of sorry team loses to the Pelicans?) and Houston following that up with a home defeat to the Hawks. The Spurs scored a season-low 84 points at Houston, barely cracked 40 percent shooting and were only 5-of-20 from downtown, with the interior tandem of Dwight Howard and Clint Capela giving them a lot of problems. Hopefully Duncan, who's missed the last three games, will be back for that one.