Man, it sure seems like 2015 is shaping up to be a Murphy's Law kinda year, doesn't it? After the perfect, fairy-tale, wouldn't-change-a-thing 2014 campaign, whatever can go wrong is for the Spurs.
Which, considering that they're still 41-24 and fifth in the standings in the ridiculously competitive Western Conference, goes a long way toward A) explaining how spoiled we are and B) how talented the Spurs still are.
They were coasting along, up 93-60 late in the third quarter against an injury-depleted Minnesota squad that truly was the Timber-pups out there, with no Kevin Garnett (who missed all three chances this season, the first two as a Net and now this one to face his old pal Tim Duncan, but I'm sure it was just a coincidence) no Nikola Pekovic and no Ricky Rubio, but then disaster struck. Ginobili leaped for a rebound but came down on Gorgui Dieng's foot, twisting his right ankle at a grotesque angle. Ginobili immediately grabbed the back of his foot and looked to be in agony, which, after my heart started beating again, I realized was good news, all things considered.
I'm not a sadist, just rational. I've read enough about Achilles tears to know that apparently they're not painful after the initial jolt where it feels like you got kicked in the back of the calf. After that, it's a numb sensation, supposedly. A sprained ankle though is quite different. You're in pain for a while and can't put any weight on the foot --Ginobili was carried to the locker room by Duncan and head trainer Will Sevening-- but it's obviously a far less severe injury. Gregg Popovich estimated that his sixth man would miss 7-10 days, which means it's not even that bad of a sprain, relatively speaking. I was thinking it'd be 2-3 weeks, minimum.
Anyway, all of a sudden the blowout didn't matter. The fourth quarter was a fog and I can't remember anything about it. The whole game was meaningless really, considering the level of opponent, but even playing in third gear for a half, the Spurs put up 60 points n the first half with some dazzling spells of ball movement, punctuated by 6-of-10 shooting from downtown. Duncan was halfway to a triple-double while both Ginobili and Parker were in double figures already. Ginobili in particular looked real spry after missing one game with the stomach flu and being an anemic shell of himself in another. He had a couple of and-1 layups finishing through contact and an emphatic block of PtR founder Matthew Powell's all-time favorite player, Kevin Martin.
Yeah, I can watch that a hundred more times.
The T-Pups stuck around for a half thanks to some hot shooting of their own, mainly from Martin and wunderkind Andrew Wiggins, and they were down just 60-50 at intermission. The Spurs finally got serious defensively in the third quarter though --remember when that used to be a thing?-- and ratcheted up the defensive pressure, forcing six turnovers in the period, four from rookie Zach LaVine, including a couple of lazy, unfocused passes in Leonard's vicinity.
Don't do that, Zach LaVine. The slam dunk champ finished with a good stat line in the box score, 18 points on 7-of-13 shooting with six rebounds and six assists, but it's exhibit 6,845,985 that sometimes stats lie. I wasn't impressed at all by the kid's carelessness and his defense was also cringe-worthy. Leonard and Splitter out-scored the Timberwolves by themselves in the quarter, with the Spurs pummeling them 33-13. The Spurs had a season-high 38 assists and of the five times they've scored more than 120 points, three have been against Minnesota.
"We moved it well, but it wasn't a fair fight," said a diplomatic Popovich afterward, adding, "Their guys are devastated by injuries, so I thought we had good focus under the circumstances."
Leonard, who finished with five steals for the second time in three games, was a bit more blunt, as is his nature, admitting that the Spurs have let down in the past this season against undermanned opposition. "It's human nature," he said. "Top guys are sitting and you try to play down to the level of competition," though he observed that the Spurs were solid in that regard this game.
It was hard to find fault with anything the team did, despite the competition. Eight finished in double-figures, with Boris Diaw --finally gearing up for the stretch run-- nearly joining them with nine points. No starter played more than Leonard's 25:18 and even Cory Joseph finished with 10 points and 7 assists. Basically, they were the Death Star Spurs we know and love, combining dominance with sneaky-cool highlights as long as you realize things besides alley-oops can be highlights, like so...
and maybe this...
but probably not that.
Put that away, Tiago.
The Ginobili injury puts a damper on everything though, and now you're back to the square one, waiting for #fullsquad, then waiting for the injured guy to gain his rhythm and for the team as a whole to gain their rhythm with him. It's a whole process, and with Ginobili especially it tends to take a bit longer than some others. He had good fortune avoid injury all season long and you kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, and it finally did.
It could've been worse though. It could've been so much worse. Luckily it will be a short time out for Manu and not what poor Wes Matthews and Blazers fans are going through.
"We're getting back to the rhythm where we want to be," said Duncan, who's only two rebounds behind Garnett now for eighth all-time. "That's the kind of game that we want to play. We want to move the ball, play off the pass, collapse defenses and make shots. We got away from that for a little while, our shooting wasn't there, and we tried to force it a little bit individually. Now you can see us moving the ball again, shots going down and we trust in each other."
Duncan admitted to feeling a bit grouchy still about the loss to Cleveland, saying they "gave that one away," but he's right to be optimistic. Even with that loss the Spurs have outscored people by 14.3 points in their last eight games, building leads of 34, 40, 26 and 39 in four of those and at least 10 in all eight (h/t Paul Garcia from Project Spurs). Parker's return to health has pushed the pace back to last year's levels and the shooting is regressing toward the mean.
Now the Spurs have to show that they can stay mean, even with Ginobili sidelined and that damned Murphy guy stubbornly in their way.
Your Three Stars:
3. Manu Ginobili (61 pts)
2. Tiago Splitter (21 pts)
1. Kawhi Leonard (113 pts)
[Players receive 5 points for first star, 3 points for second star and 1 point for third star. The numbers in parentheses are their accumulated totals for the season.]