Before the Spurs and the Cavs decided to get together and play the best game of the NBA season, the biggest sports story for most of the day was Will Ferrell, who filmed an HBO special for Funny or Die in partnership with Major League Baseball to raise money and awareness for cancer research, flying to five separate spring training ballparks across Arizona and having cameos for all ten teams participating in those five games, with the hook being that he played all nine positions on a baseball field over the course of the day, like A's shortstop Bert Campaneris did for Oakland in one game in 1965. Here's a recap of that, if you're interested.
Ferrell's most famous movie may well be Anchorman, and one of its most memorable lines was his protagonist Ron Burgundy's reaction upon discovering that his dog had eaten an entire wheel of cheese that had been in the refrigerator.
And that's kind of how I feel about watching Kyrie Irving shoot the crap out of the basketball in another come-from-ahead, gut-wrenching overtime loss for the Spurs.
Maybe I'm just a contrarian, but ironically after a six-game winning streak where I couldn't help but to pick nits about each and every one of them, I find myself for the first time pretty much all season thinking that perhaps the Spurs are contenders after all in a game that they lost. To me this performance was more meaningful than the past six games put together because it came against a legit challenger at full strength. If anything, it was the Spurs who were at less than their best, with Manu Ginobili still waylaid by a nasty bout of the stomach flu. He was two shades paler than normal and ten pounds lighter than usual, on a frame that's all skin and bones anyway. He made a go of it for five minute stints in both the first and third quarters, but was a ghost the whole time, operating two steps slower than everyone else and never really being involved.
Still, the Spurs were getting the better of the Cavaliers. For the guts of the game it seemed less Spurs-Cavs than Thunder-Cavs actually, with twin mano-a-mano duels taking over the narrative. For the first 16 minutes or so it was Kawhi Leonard vs. LeBron James, with Leonard, who was sent from the future to prevent James from destroying humanity, playing James even head-to-head, completely unfazed and unintimidated as always, driving and jab-stepping on James like it's no big deal and sinking short jumpers in his mug.
After that, the smaller guys took over, with Irving driving around Tony Parker effortlessly and getting every acrobatic layup to roll in no matter how gamely Tim Duncan or Tiago Splitter would contest it. When he didn't feel like driving, he simply shot over Parker, seldom missing on the way to 22 first half points. However, Parker nearly matched him shot for shot. Four different times in the second quarter Parker answered an Irving bucket with one of his own, raining mid-range jumpers as the Cavs repeatedly went under the screen and sinking his teardrops with uncanny precision. The Wee Frenchman had 19 points and 5 assists at intermission, and the Spurs led 64-62, both teams running at a breakneck pace.
Both teams slowed down in the third quarter and though Irving hit just 3-of-7 shots, he was 2-of-2 from downtown to keep the Cavs in the game. The Spurs starting five were superb and balanced, with each of them making at least one field goal, with Leonard leading the way with seven, harassing James into a miss on a fadeaway on one end and draining a three on the break on the other, with Parker finding him all alone on the wing to give the Spurs an 80-73 lead. They led 84-79 after three.
In many ways the Spurs best quarter was the fourth. Kevin Love was a non-entity after eight early points and was benched for Cavs coach David Blatt for most of the second half. Blatt also sat the hulking Timofey Mozgov and went small, with his only big the undersized Tristan Thompson. The Spurs worked Thompson over like a speed-bag, victimizing him on the pick-and-roll over and over. Duncan and Splitter combined for ten points as dive men, completely uncovered at the rim, and Duncan hit Danny Green and Marco Belinelli for backdoor layups as well. The Spurs finished with 56 points in the paint, on 28-of-40 shooting for the game, while the Cavs managed 42, a few of them on clever and well-executed alley-oops from James or Irving to Thompson. To give you an idea how well the Spurs executed in the half court, Duncan, Leonard and Parker all had at least six assists and the Spurs shot 56.4 percent for the game, only the second time in the Duncan-Popovich Era that they shot at least 56 percent and lost (h/t Matthew Tynan).
Leonard found Green for his fourth three of the game and once Green sank the ensuing free throw after James earned a technical for complaining about a no-call on the previous trip down, the Spurs led 105-95 with 3:05 to go. When Leonard made 1-of-2 freebies and the Spurs still led 108-101 with 1:44 left. After that, both offenses took advantage of small-ball, getting second opportunities when the opponent's sole big left his position to contest a shot. First Irving got a rebound and the "and-1" to cut to four, and after Parker canned a jumper on the other end, he nailed a three to make it one-possession game with 31 seconds to go. However, after Parker missed another shot that would've iced it, Leonard was able to swoop for the weakside rebound, and all he had to do was make a free throw for the Spurs to win.
He missed both, Irving drained another three at the buzzer over Leonard to send the game into overtime, and from there Irving and James combined for 15 points on five consecutive Cavs possessions, drilling four impossible threes and another and-1 from Irving and the Spurs were toast, despite scoring 15 of their own in the extra period. Irving finished with 57 points, tying the immortal Purvis Short, who burned the Spurs on Jan. 7, 1984 in a 154-133 win for the Warriors where it's a safe bet that all involved has far less commitment to defense. Popovich had no such complaints afterward, and the SportsVU tracking cameras backed him up, as officially 30 of Irving's 32 attempts were contested.
"I thought he was pretty decent," Popovich said of Irving with a sardonic chuckle. "Kyrie Irving was unstoppable, I don't know how to guard that. He did a hell of a job. We all know how talented he is, but he went to a new level tonight. He had a hell of a night and that talent just got us. We had our opportunities, up nine at one point, up three, up seven and just gave it back and we can't afford to do that."
Popovich was disappointed that his guys couldn't close out the game, but didn't show a trace of anger or bitterness about it. Like Burgundy, he was too impressed to be upset, but more so he realized what was plain despite the flukish ending and Irving's heroics.
"I thought we got better tonight," he said, a sentiment he doesn't express often after wins, and he was confident that his guys would react well from the setback.
The veteran-laden locker room echoed his comments, with Parker giving Irving due credit, saying it was one of the best performances he'd ever seen but being quick to add what every one of them was thinking.
"If it's going to take that to beat us, we're in a great place."
Indeed, a Spurs team that was struggling mightily a month ago to get anyone to score even 15 points had three guys score at least 24 and Duncan was right behind with 18, finishing two assists shy of a triple-double. They even got an encouraging performance out of Boris Diaw, who roused himself out of hibernation and scored on post-ups against James, Love and James Jones. Even with a greatly diminished Ginobili, there was no doubt the Spurs were the better team. They just happened to lose the game.
Leonard stepped up and took the heat for his wonky free throws, admitting "I know I lost the game," but his confidence was far from shaken. In fact, he even let out a small laugh at the memory of how ridiculously nuclear Irving was. Sometimes there is nothing to do but laugh. "I've made big free throws and big shots before," he noted.
Frankly, the game left me with more doubts about the Cavs, and I wasn't a big believer in them going in. They had been playing very well defensively of late, but I have no idea if Blatt miscalculated badly in his game plan or if the players just screwed it up repeatedly. It's one thing to not respect Splitter as the roll man, but to do it over and over against Duncan was either stupid or insulting. Blatt also did that cheesy thing that a few NBA coaches do nowadays, screaming at Green near the sideline as he was hoisting a three. Green drilled it and it was the only moment of the game I had a profound rooting interest. Popovich has his faults, but he'd never stoop so low as to try an influence a live play. It's beneath his dignity and should be. Players should play and coaches should coach. I wish the league would change the rule and charge coaches with a technical to banish such bush-league antics.
My main critique of the Cavs though was they still haven't seemed to figure out what to do with Love, who took just ten shots and grabbed five rebounds in 32:50. Once the Spurs brought in Diaw or just went small altogether, he didn't do anything, and they never posted him up or used him on the pick-and-roll. It's a complete waste of his talent. The pathetic thing is, from what I've read and heard, the only reason Love joined the Cavs is because Andrew Wiggins didn't sign with James' management company's agency, so they banished him to Minnesota in retaliation. There's always things behind the scenes with James, who has rendered Blatt completely irrelevant except for the rare sideline out-of-bounds play. They've junked Blatt's offensive concepts completely and just play LeBron-ball now, with he and Irving isolating and running the same high-screen roll over and over. Love has been marginalized and they're out-talenting most people to death, as Popovich referred to. It's not going to work in the long run against elite competition. Eventually you need a system and some way to defend inside.
Green summed it all up well. "I think we're taking steps in the right direction," he said. "I think we're getting better and better with each game to where we were last year. We're still nowhere near it, but we're getting closer to it."
And despite the final score, I still think the Spurs are closer to finding it than the Cavs are. I don't think they have 16 wheels of cheese in them.
Your Three Stars:
3. Tim Duncan (90 pts)
2. Tony Parker (70 pts)
1. Kawhi Leonard (108 pts)
[Players get 5 points for first place, 3 points for second place and 1 point for third place. The numbers in parentheses are their accumulated totals for the season.]