You know, for a team that allowed 66 points in the second half to a squad which had lost eight of their previous nine games, the Spurs didn't look half bad out there.
In what's been a running theme, San Antonio won its sixth straight, tied with their spunky ABA brethren Indiana Pacers, thanks largely to Tony Parker rediscovering his zip and Kawhi Leonard continuing to imitate a man-eating tarantula. The Spurs never trailed and raced out to a 26-point lead with 8:45 to go in the third quarter on a short jumper from Leonard, moments after his fifth steal of the game, matching a career-high. Just to show he's not a total sadist, Leonard didn't pick on anyone too bad, choosing instead to victimize Terrence Ross, Amir Johnson, Jonas Valanciunas, DeMar DeRozan and Lou Williams once each. Leonard also had a career-high dunks, and surprisingly they all came within the flow of the offense rather than his usual breakaway specials.
When asked if his growing experience in the league is making him even more dangerous in terms of anticipation, Leonard agreed, saying, "Most definitely, even playing the Raptors, as a team, you get a feel for what they do, and knowing what spots they're going to."
My brilliant follow-up was asking Leonard if he ever felt like an NFL corner, trying to bait opponents into interceptions.
"No, never," he replied, in a monotone. Ah well, I tried.
What no one could disagree with, however, was the Spurs came out with decidedly more energy and effort for the opening half, especially the first quarter where they snatched nine offensive boards --four by Leonard-- to Toronto's one. With Manu Ginobili missing the game due to a stomach flu, Gregg Popovich opted to play his three big guns heavy minutes early on, with Leonard going the whole period and Parker and Tim Duncan subbing out with just 57 seconds to go. Parker zoomed past for three layups and Danny Green hit a pair of early threes and the Spurs were up 28-17 after one.
It was more of the same in the second quarter, though the Raptors finally showed some life on the boards against the second-string. Green swished two more bombs, getting a four-point play on the latter, and moved past Sean Elliott to fourth all-time in Spurs history with 564 made threes. Marco Belinelli rained in a couple too as the bench finally got into it, and Aron Baynes added seven points inside. The Spurs shot 61.1 percent in the quarter while holding the Raptors to 34.6 percent, and led comfortably 61-41 at half.
Popovich often relates that an early big lead is the pet peeve of every coach, as inevitably momentum shifts and it proved true once again versus the Raptors, after the Spurs stretched the margin as far as 26 early in the third.
"We tried to give it back, we did a good job of that," he quipped afterward, adding, "It's hard to keep a lead... It's always the same things. It's basketball. We took two, three, four bad shots in a row, a couple of turnovers, didn't get back in transition and then all of a sudden it's a 10-point swing."
Parker (23 points, 9 assists) and Leonard scored 17 of the Spurs 24 points in the third, again with Leonard playing the whole quarter while Leonard and Duncan played almost all of it, but the home side got lazy in their own end, and the Raptors starting backcourt of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry combined for 20 in the quarter, with DeRozan in particular proving slippery. With Patrick Patterson subbing for Valanciunas early in the quarter the Raptors offense took off and the gigantic Lithuanian never reentered the game. Still, the Spurs survived a 24-9 Toronto run and a three from Matt Bonner put them up 14 going into the fourth.
Johnson, Patterson and Tyler Hansbrough were all relentless on the glass, combing for eight offensive rebounds in the final period with Bonner and the growingly (pun intended) sluggish Boris Diaw powerless to stop them. The Spurs twin "stretch fours" combined for zero defensive rebounds in 26:48 and Diaw's apathy in particular (no points on 0-of-2 shooting in 16:48, four assists, three turnovers) continues to be the team's biggest worry spot.
The Raptors cut the lead all the way down to six, with Lowry going off for 17 of his game-high 32 in the fourth, drilling 4-of-6 from downtown. The Spurs never in serious jeopardy, but Popovich wound up having to play his stars playing-caliber minutes, with Leonard totaling 38:51, Parker 36:30 and Duncan 36:17. They should've all been resting up for LeBron James and the Cavs if the bench was serious about closing out the game, though to the Raptors' credit, they never quit. Pop never gave the bench much rope with Ginobili out but they almost managed to hang themselves anyway.
The biggest scare of the night came not with Toronto's comeback effort but rather with Duncan, who hyper-extended his left elbow after Splitter was knocked into him very late in the game. The injury isn't believed to be serious --both Popovich and Parker expressed doubt that it was-- but the very fact that Duncan had to be in the game that late was an ominous sign. It's funny that the Spurs will run into their old friend James on Thursday, because lately they've resembled the kind of star-laden top-heavy team that LeBron has been associated with his whole career. Still, it'll be a welcome litmus test for the Spurs after six straight games against mediocre --or worse-- competition. They need to find where they stand, and hopefully Duncan will be among those standing when the lineups are introduced, and Ginobili too while we're at it.
Though come to think it, the Spurs resting a couple stars for a TNT game against LeBron with Craig Sager making his grand return from beating cancer to interview Pop, that would be so perfect.
Your Three Stars:
3. Danny Green (55 pts)
2. Tony Parker (67 pts)
1. Kawhi Leonard (103 pts)
[Players receive 5 points for first star, 3 points for second star and 1 point for third start. Numbers in parentheses are their accumulated totals for the season.]