A team's psyche is an odd, peculiar thing. The Spurs didn't play particularly well Wednesday night at the AT&T Center in their 110-103 win over Orlando, especially on defense where they allowed 50 percent shooting from the field --and a blistering 47.6 percent from downtown-- and 103 points in all to a Magic team not known for its scoring prowess. Also, there was the small matter of Orlando's 15-36 record coming into the game, as well as their nine-game losing streak. The numbers told you it was a hapless opponent that any contender worth its salt should pound into dust by the middle of the third quarter at the latest. Yet here were the Spurs, struggling desperately to put them away and not settling matters until a corner three from Tony Parker put the home side up five with 21 seconds to go. It was Parker's third three in five tries for the night and those three buckets accounted for basically all of his positive contributions to the game.
Despite that, the Spurs were jubilant, positively giddy afterward, more so than they've been after closing out some playoff series. Everyone had relieved smiles on their faces, the quips were flowing, and for once the players and coaches didn't even look at their questioners like the necessary burden we are but rather a gathering of like-minded souls they could pal around with, reminiscing about the evening's conquest.
The first thing Gregg Popovich did in the post-game scrum was single me out before even a question had been asked --I was terrified he was upset about something-- and clarify that Tiago Splitter sat out because he felt ill and that Pop didn't know about it until after the pregame interview, where he told us all that he intended to start Aron Baynes and I followed up by asking if Splitter was available to play off the bench. Once Splitter was unavailable, Popovich made the decision to start Boris Diaw, so that Baynes could back up Tim Duncan.
Call me a cynic, but I'm not sure I would've gotten that clarification from Pop had the team lost.
A couple minutes after that, when I asked if he felt that Marco Belinelli's return improved the offense after it had been congested the past couple of games, Pop asked what I meant and I referred to the team's poor spacing against the Clippers.
"Oh, I thought you meant guys had colds or something," he replied.
Finally, after jokingly mocking a reporter for a vague "talk about," question, Pop turned back as he was leaving the session to imitate the poor fellow, saying, "Can you discuss... the defense? Can you just talk to us a little bit about... shooting? Like it's a clinic..."
The man has expert comic timing when he wants to.
Then there was the star of the game, the ever-stoic (supposedly) Duncan, who battled frighteningly talented Nikola Vucevic to a draw, each Goliath sinking 11-of-17 shots, with the younger Vucevic pulling down 13 rebounds to Duncan's mere 10. A couple of games ago, Duncan vacated his usual interview spot, near Cory Joseph's locker, to talk to us from the middle of the room, sitting in Belinelli's unoccupied chair. Joseph gave him some good-natured flack about it, hollering across from the room, about how Duncan was acting big-time.
Fast-forward to today. Duncan stands as close to Joseph's stall as humanly possible, basically rubbing up against the sitting Joseph, during his entire interview. He fields a question an opening question about the game with "We let them hang around too much but honestly it was good to make some big shots down the stretch... Tony made a big one, Boris made a big one... Cory was awful... but to fight through that and find a way to win the game down the stretch was good for us."
Again, perfect timing.
Later on, when asked about Vucevic, Duncan responded, "He's a heckuva scorer, he's great, he played great, defensively I was not very good, he seemed to make everything tonight..." and then Joseph interrupted with, "Awful!" to draw just the perfect look from Duncan.
That Joseph is a fighter, y'know. He's not going to back down from any challenge.
Anyway, that was the mood of the team. They've definitely lost a few games this season playing better than they did in beating Orlando. The Magic raced out to a 20-10 lead halfway through the first period with Parker playing terribly on both ends and Tobias Harris destroying Diaw. Manu Ginobili, Patty Mills, and yes, Marco Belinelli helped engineer the turnaround. The Spurs had a 15-0 run with their bench overlapping the first and second quarters and from then on it was a game of mini-runs, the Spurs getting out to seven and eight-point leads, the Magic forever clawing back. The Spurs losing leads with their starters, and building them back up with their bench. You kind of had the feeling it was San Antonio's night when on consecutive possessions late in the third quarter they kicked around the ball but somehow turned the near-turnovers into three-pointers by Belinelli, who had 11 points on 4-of-6 shooting in his first game back since injuring his groin on Jan. 9 vs. Phoenix. Another positive omen was Kawhi Leonard hitting the front rim hard with a 22-foot scud with three minutes to go, only for the ball to bounce straight up in the air and somehow fall back through the net and a 100-96 lead.
The Spurs final two buckets on the night --the ninth and tenth assists of the game for Ginobili-- came on a floater in the lane from Diaw and Parker's aforementioned corner three. The Allies got more help from the French in WWII than the Spurs got from their "Legionnaires" for the first 46 minutes against the Magic, but it wound up being a footnote in the win.
Deep inside the Spurs surely know that how they're playing is not nearly good enough. Ginobili basically admitted afterward the Warriors would practically be unbeatable for this current Spurs team and everyone understands that they're running out of time to improve. The hope for everyone concerned is that they'll come together as a team during the upcoming Rodeo Road Trip. The biggest difference, in the big picture sense, between last year's Spurs and ones we're watching now is that last year's team had an edge about them on the road. These Spurs haven't had an impressive road win since early December.
Duncan was having fun at Joseph's expense and chiding himself for repeatedly saying "we," when discussing his beloved Chicago Bears, but such light moments have been a rarity this season and may well continue to be. There are only so many Orlando's on the schedule. Things are going to get serious and soon.
Your Three Stars:
3) Manu Ginobili (53 pts)
2) Kawhi Leonard (69 pts)
1) Tim Duncan (70 pts)