I wasn't confident about the Spurs' chances against the Suns on Saturday. The Suns had beaten the Thunder on their last outing while San Antonio had a hard time dispatching a Kings team missing DeMarcus Cousins. An early lead for the Suns -- which I was expecting -- could lead Pop to throw in the towel, knowing his players were looking forward to returning home. Boy, was I wrong.
It was the perfect beginning of a second game of a back-to-back for the Spurs. The momentum from the win against the Kings clearly carried over, as the Spurs looked more in rhythm than their opponents. Splitter, who started for the second time in a row after coming off the bench a few times, was great on both ends early and Kawhi Leonard kept Eric Bledsoe in check. The defense in general was on point in the first quarter, holding the Suns to a 19 percent field goal percentage, which was necessary since the Spurs' long range troubles continued. As promising as that first quarter was, at that point it looked like a game from earlier in the year, when the Spurs would survive thanks to their defense despite not being as good as they can be on offense.
The bench came in with a lead for once and did what it used to do last season: build on it until there was enough separation to control the tempo. As great as Aron Baynes was at scoring the ball (10 first half points) and Manu Ginobili at dishing dimes (five after two quarters), the key to the Spurs' success continued to be their defense. The Suns, a team that averages 46.5 percent from the floor and scores 1.06 points per possession shot 18 percent or an estimated 0.5 points per possession. The Spurs were as active as they've been this season on that end, with everyone doing their job. It was the lowest scoring first half in Suns history and while they obviously missed some shots they typically make, the Spurs deserve a lot of credit for their struggles.
The only thing threatening an easy win after a great first half performance was the Spurs' tendency to come out of the locker room for the second half flat. A 27-point lead can easily turn into a 17-point lead, which can then be chipped away at until going into the final quarter a runaway game turns into a back-and-forth affair. The Spurs were having none of that, coming off the break focused and first holding on to the lead and then extending it to 34 points. It was such a dominant defensive performance that it didn't matter that Tony Parker and Patty Mills weren't hitting shots. The Spurs broke the Suns' spirit en route to a lopsided win on the road.
The Spurs finished the Rodeo Road Trip with four wins and five losses, the worst result in the traditional away stretch's history. Yet as depressing as those losses were, the team finally showed a pulse late. The mystique surrounding the nine-game road trip is based around the Spurs finding their postseason form. It's possible it took longer this year but they might be finally there. Of course the victories over the Kings and Suns could be just a mirage. Fortunately, there's a six-game homestead ahead in which we'll likely find some answers.
- Leonard had a terrific game. In the past he would let his offensive performance dictate his defensive focus and that's a huge problem for a player who makes a difference by affecting the game on both ends. That wasn't a problem this time, as Leonard would seemingly come after it harder on defense after a miss. Kawhi finished with 22 points and 10 rebounds but also three steals and two blocks. That type of stat-stuffing is what the Spurs need from him.
- Tony Parker continued to struggle. He scored six points on 13 shots and logged only two assists in 22 minutes. At least this time he was aggressive, taking open mid-range jumpers when they were there and trying to force his way to the rim. I prefer Parker taking 13 shots trying to make something happen than for him to take five while trying to stay out of the way.
- Ginobili and Duncan had good games, despite not scoring much. They combined for only eight points but had 14 rebounds and eight assists. The most important thing is they played under 21 minutes and they will have three days off to recover physically.
- Danny Green and Boris Diaw were arguably the two role players that were disappointing the most recently. They stopped that trend in this game. Green was perfect from the floor and the free throw line in the first half for 12 points and Diaw came alive in the second to secure the win with his aggressiveness.
- Tiago Splitter was terrific to start the game but Aron Baynes finished with the more impressive stat line. The Big Banger logged a double double in under 20 minutes and his burly frame and physicality elicited a Bill Laimbeer comparison from the Suns' broadcasters. I think Splitter should continue to start but Baynes has definitely carved out a spot for himself in the rotation.
- Brandon Knight had a dreadful first half and didn't play after the break due to a hip injury while Eric Bledsoe was an out-of-control disaster out there. I still think that backcourt could work. Bledsoe has to buy in and stop calling his number so often but they can both score and have some untapped potential as playmakers. I will continue to watch the Suns intently.
The Spurs will face the Kings in San Antonio on Wednesday. A win then could help them get their confidence up for the stretch run.
For the opponent's perspective, visit Bright Side of the Sun.