The irony of the 2014-15 San Antonio Spurs... they look exhausted and sluggish for the better part of three months, to the point where we're all yelling to the heavens that they desperately need a break, and then when the week off finally arrives, you're kind of chagrined about it because they're finally showing some spirit and backbone on the road.
Obviously we don't want to get carried away here. The Pistons are not a proper measuring stick by any means. They're 12 games below .500 in the Eastern Conference, without the services of their starting point guard in Brandon Jennings (out for the season with a torn Achilles) and the Spurs were up 18 points midway through the second quarter to these guys at the AT&T Center back on Jan. 6 at a time where they didn't have Kawhi Leonard and got only 13 worthless minutes out of Tony Parker, still recovering from his hamstring strain. The Spurs couldn't have played any worse in that game and still were a bad inbounds pass away from winning.
Honestly, I'm not even mad that it happened, because that play gave us this awesome soundbite of Stan Van Gundy (adult language) immediately after, which of course led to wonderful YouTube mash-ups like this (ditto).
The key to that win for Detroit was the way they abused the Spurs inside, with Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe combining for 38 points and 28 rebounds. The Pistons had 15 offensive rebounds that night and 58 points in the paint in all. The bigger story though, on a macro level, was that they outscored San Antonio 33-19 in the third quarter, the quintessential example of a running theme.
"Fun" stat: The Spurs suck at playing the third quarter this season pic.twitter.com/TBl2hHTpXR— Matthew R Tynan (@Matthew_Tynan) February 10, 2015
And that was before the Spurs got outscored 34-18 at Indiana on Monday.
So naturally, at Detroit, a place where they've gotten blown out the past two seasons back when the Spurs were actually, you know, good, and the Pistons had Josh Smith and terrible coaching, everything regressed to the mean this time around, with San Antonio playing easily their best all-around game since whooping Portland 110-96 in Leonard's first game back from a hand injury. Not only did the Spurs play relatively well from start to finish, but their most dominant stretch was the third quarter, where they outscored the Pistons 34-24, shot 66.7 percent from the field, 44.4 percent from three and dished out ten assists while committing but one turnover. If anything, the game was a reversal to how the Spurs usually operate, in that they scored 62 points in the middle two quarters and just 42 in the first and fourth periods. Still, it was a welcome respite for a club that hadn't scored over 100 in eight of their past 11 games since looking so 2014-ish against the Blazers.
A number of Spurs contributed to the win, as they almost always do. Jordan Howenstine at Spurs PR pointed out it was the 36th time this season they had five or more double-figure scorers, tops in the league. Danny Green was particularly good, breaking out of a 4-of-26 shooting slump from downtown this month by nailing 5-of-10 while flooding the box score with eight boards (that's 20 in the past two games for him), four assists, two blocks and two steals. Tony Parker had a solid 17 and six, and looked like his old self, a handful of turnovers aside. Aron Baynes, starting once again, had a pair of beastly dunks and contained Monroe quite well in his own end. Kawhi Leonard did a bit of everything, even though he couldn't find the basket all night. Manu Ginobili, Tiago Splitter, Marco Belinelli and Patty Mills were all terrific off the bench. Tim Duncan, gearing up for his 16th All-Star Game, played just 18 minutes, starting each half but never checking back in after subbing out.
What was eye-opening about the win though was Gregg Popovich giving the hook to his stretch fours Boris Diaw and Matt Bonner in the second half and deciding to go small for the final 18 minutes, if you don't count garbage time. Both Diaw and Bonner were forgettable in the opening 24 minutes, as they largely have been all season long. Once Van Gundy subbed out the ineffective Monroe, bringing in his own stretch four in Anthony Tolliver, Pop countered, surprisingly, with Marco Belinelli and stayed small the rest of the way, not fearing the size mismatch with Tolliver or Jonas Jerebko at all. To be fair, Van Gundy didn't play Drummond and Monroe together the rest of the game either, so Pop had no pressing reason to go back to two bigs. Once Duncan subbed out, Popovich used Tiago Splitter as his lone big, and then back to Baynes to close out the game.
The Spurs improved spacing when they went small was impossible to miss. Without the sluggish Diaw and the ponderous Bonner, all of a sudden the offense had life. The Spurs zinged six, seven, eight passes together in rat-a-tat fashion and had the Pistons at their mercy. Van Gundy's troops tried to plug holes in the dam the best they could, but no matter how hard they scrambled, someone was left wide open, usually in the corners, but on occasion it was the big right at the rim, where Duncan, Splitter and Baynes all feasted. High-assist totals are nothing new for the Spurs and they finished with a pedestrian (for them) 26 for the game, but the ball just stuck less to my eye and everyone was making quicker decisions. Both Leonard and Green had four assists and that's not common for them, with people like Ginobili and Diaw usually leading in that department. The thing to understand was the Spurs didn't even shoot all that well, just 37 percent from downtown despite getting wide open looks. They could've blown the game wide open much earlier, but they're close to finding themselves.
The Spurs have rarely gone small the past two years and why should they have, the way Diaw has played? Lately though I'm starting to get the impression that Popovich is losing some faith in his Frenchman and that he'll have a quicker hook with him than he's had in the past. Baynes' rugged, bouncy energy certainly gives them another viable option and the fact that he's slowly and surely extending his shooting range has not gone unnoticed. There's also the reality Green has played too well over the course of the season to waste away on the pine as Ginobili's understudy. Throw in guys like Mills, Belinelli, even Cory Joseph, and the reality is, as has been the case for most of the Duncan/Popovich Era, that the team has a surplus of smalls and too few bigs. I think Pop likes his three centers fine --Splitter is great when he's not paired with Duncan-- but he seems to falling out of love with his stretch fours.
It's a situation that bears watching going forward. Who knows, maybe the All-Star break will do Diaw wonders. He's played all but one game, tied with Green for most on the team. Or maybe he'll show up 15 pounds heavier and make Pop's decision easier.
I'm just happy the Spurs got over that third quarter mental block at long last. They tore down a wall of their own making.
Your Three Stars
3. Tony Parker (47 pts)
2. Aron Baynes (27 pts)
1. Danny Green (50 pts)
[Players get 5 points for 1st star, 3 points for 2nd star and 1 point for 3rd star. Numbers in parentheses are their totals for the year]