Game 50 Vs. Miami: Spurs 98, Heat 85 Rec: 32-18 4th in Southwest, 7th in West Streak: W-2
That game was beautiful. Everything I love about basketball. The passing, the shooting, two teams executing beautifully over and over again, fully embracing the concept of team, of selflessness, playing for one another, of passing up good shots for great shots and figuring out how to be more than the sum of their individual parts.
Of course, I'm referring to Hawks vs. Warriors earlier in the evening. What an instant classic. It'd make a riveting, compelling Finals, for sure and I'd sign up for seven games of it right now if I could. (I'm guessing most of you feel differently, but we'll get to that.)
That Atlanta vs. Golden State garnered considerably more attention --and deservedly so-- in the NBA landscape than a rematch between the teams that squared off in the last two NBA Finals tells you everything you need to know about how quickly everything can change in the landscape of sports, how the best laid plans can go to waste, and how, as Ferris Bueller once put it, "life can come at you fast." When the league made the schedule, Spurs-Heat was supposed to be a marquee match-up on national TV. Instead, we went from this last June 15 to being genuinely bummed to find out that Hassan Whiteside was going to miss the game with a sore ankle.
Hassan Whiteside! I say with no bravado whatsoever that more folks on the NBA blogosphere might have been aware of my existence than Hassan Whiteside's before this season, and I'm nobody. But you remove LeBron James from the equation, you put Dwyane Wade on the injured list --shocking, I know-- and there you have it, your lone hope for a dramatic ballgame hinges on Hassan Whiteside's balky ankle.
Ultimately, I think hitting rock-bottom with that realization has to mean that the "Big Three" experiment for the Heat has to be judged, if not a failure, then for sure not an outright success. Obviously four consecutive Finals appearances and two championships is incredibly impressive, and you can't overlook the mental fortitude they showed --James in particular-- in winning four elimination games between the 2012 and 2013 postseasons (plus a couple more "unofficial" elimination games such as Game 4 at Indiana in 2012 and Game 4 at San Antonio in 2013). Still, what rubbed so many people raw about how the Heat came to be was that it was a collection of mercenaries, that they were bought, not built, to borrow from that infamous San Antonio billboard. James bolting Miami after just four years only justified all the doubts and the taunts cast Miami's way. It was a mutually abusive relationship. Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra drained every last ounce of energy out of James' body the past four years, and he used their ability to put enough pieces around him to help him win. Once he didn't feel confident any longer in their ability to surround him with the right talent, he bailed, pure and simple.
Compare that to what the Spurs have. They not only brought back everyone from last year's championship squad (for better or for worse, as we'll discuss in a future column), but they've established continuity that's the envy of the league. Not only have Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker --the real "Big Three" always and forever-- been teammates for the past 13 years, but the Spurs lead the league in most continuous service for four teammates (Matt Bonner for nine years), five and six teammates (Tiago Splitter and Danny Green for five years each), seven, eight and nine teammates (Kawhi Leonard, Patty Mills and Boris Diaw for four years) and so on right down the line. The Spurs certainly haven't set the league on fire this season, partly due to injuries and partly due to many of them just haven't played very well. They're still in the fight though, they'll still be the team with the "corporate knowledge" and the playoff experience that nobody, not even the Warriors or the Hawks, will want to play when it matters.
Against the shorthanded Heat Saturday night the Spurs were hardly at their best. Heck, the final margin of victory was by fewer points than in any of their Finals wins over the Heat last June, and maybe that in and of itself should be alarming. Still, Leonard, who has a bit of history against the Heat, set a career-high with five threes and did a bunch of Kawhi Leonard things, to steal a phrase from Bill Simmons. Parker made 9-of-12 shots (albeit against the likes of Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole and Shabazz Napier) and scored over 20 points for the first time since Dec. 22 against the Clippers.
"Baby steps," Parker answered afterward, when asked when (if ever) full-scale attack mode Parker will be activated again.
The Spurs had two guys score at least 20 for the first time since Dec. 26 at New Orleans, where both Duncan and Cory Joseph had 20 on the nose, and that's as top-heavy as they're going to get, as no one will confuse them with the Thunder anytime soon. Then again, considering Oklahoma City's franchise history --no rings since leaving Seattle-- and place in the standings --three games out of a playoff spot after Friday night's awesome loss at home to the Pelicans-- that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Here's what the Spurs have going for them: In addition to heroics from Leonard and Parker and several slick passes from Ginobili like these
there was the 821st double-double of Duncan's career (think about that, a whole decade's worth of regular season double-doubles, basically, plus he's the all-time leader in playoff double-doubles) and Gregg Popovich inching within one win to get to 1,000 for his career (again regular season only), an accomplishment he finds about as noteworthy as getting through a sideline interview without a sternly-worded --pun intended-- word from the league office.
What they also had was a quiet 31 assists on 40 baskets against Miami. As many as the Warriors managed and three more than the Hawks got in their win. They also had their full complement of players for the first time all season. It only took 50 games. No one will notice or care, but slowly but surely the Spurs are improving, just incrementally enough that it won't draw attention, as below the radar as a defending champion can be. Now comes the Rodeo Road Trip, where historically the Spurs have really pulled together and gotten serious about the campaign. Maybe they can still remind some people that the Warriors and Hawks are imitating them, and not the other way around.
Your Three Stars:
3) Manu Ginobili (54 pts)
2) Tony Parker (45 pts)
1) Kawhi Leonard (74 pts)