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Rehash: The Spurs' Red Mamba Strikes Back

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The Spurs survive the Celtics and gain a bit of pride in the process.

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Let's go off the record here, just you and me. This game was exactly what the Spurs needed. Once again sixth in the West, the Spurs will go into Atlanta Sunday to face the Hawks, who have lost just 4 games all year at Phillips Arena, After that quick jaunt, they'll return to the Central timezone for a mini-gauntlet of Mavs/Thunder/Mavs/Grizzlies. If you  twisted my arm, I'd say all of those games are winnable, since each of those teams has shown varying degrees of vulnerability lately. (The Thunder in particular have gone from merely snakebit to straight Bermuda Triangle spooky, though they keep winning.) But the Spurs' ability to go better than .500 over that stretch depends on whether they play like they did in first, second and third quarters against Boston (when they outscored the Celtics 84-63), or like they did in the fourth quarter against Boston (which the Celtics won largely thanks to a 16-0 run).

Knowing these guys, it will be some combination of both, which is why it's good that they have the Hawks/Mavs/Thunder/Mavs/Grizzlies stretch as a warm-up before the OTHER gauntlet in April, when the D.C.s alternate home and away games with Golden State, OKC, Houston, Houston, Phoenix, and New Orleans. (So great is the Warriors' lead over the Western Conference that the game against the Dubs might be the "easiest" of those six for the Spurs to steal.)

But back to last night. The Spurs showed many encouraging signs, even beyond what they've shown during this 11-2 stretch. They got out to an early lead. Their bigs, led by Tiago Splitter and a returned Aron Baynes, played an aggressive but nuanced game, such that Tim Duncan (5-5 shooting) was largely able to slip into the 20-minute of PT supporting role that is so often a hallmark of Spurs blowouts. Kawhi Leonard dominated the 3rd quarter, scoring 13 straight at one point, while Tony Parker steadied the team late, putting the brakes on the fourth quarter Celtics run that cut a 23 point Spurs lead to 7 with around three minutes left.

About that run. I was doing the Twittering last night, so I take full responsibility:

But even the 16-0 run I think worked to the Spurs' advantage in this game. At the end of the 3rd quarter, each of the starters had long since entered into double figures, and the proceedings had a hint of Minnesota deja vu. Well, we all know what happened after that game. I even wrote in the rehash of the T-Wolves game that it was a detriment to the team that their bounce-back from the Cavs loss was so unequivocal, and had wiped away the taste of defeat so thoroughly. By the time the Spurs rolled into Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night, they'd already stopped being afraid of losing and reverted to ennui. Through three quarters, the game against the Celtics looked to be wiping away any residual effects of the Knicks game, threatening to send the Spurs off through the gauntlet under the mental haze of overwhelming victory.

AND THEN...

Marcus Smart and the Celtics reared back and punched the Spurs in their collective Red Mamba (literally, in the case of the actual Red Mamba), which forced SA to refocus and tamp down the rebellion.

Matty B's tender Baby Bonners and the nostril-flaring they incited were emblematic of a Spurs team that is finally playing to its potential on a consistent basis rather than consistently laying down or playing down to its opponents. The Spurs of December would've fallen behind early to a Celtics team coming off a 10-4 stretch of its own, while the Spurs of February would've capitulated late, burying themselves under a pile of unforced turnovers and missed iso jumpers, while giving up easy baskets on the other end. These March Spurs are showing themselves to be a different breed. The focus is there, Knicks game notwithstanding. But perhaps most importantly, the edge is back.

Just ask Mr. Bonner.

Game Notes

- The Spurs lead the all-time series 46-38, including something like 19 consecutive victories after Duncan's arrival. After letting the Celts have a couple during their Big 3 era, SA has started a new streak, going 6-0 over the past three seasons.

- If I'd told you the Spurs would be doubled up on offensive rebounds (14-7) and also shoot just 22% on three pointers, you'd probably not think "double-digit win" would you?

- The Spurs won because they held the Celtics under 40% shooting, making 3 more shots despite taking 7 fewer of them, and also made 6 more free throws. Some teams do just enough to win, but good teams do just enough to win comfortably.

- Several of those Spurs' shots were of the uncontested variety, or were only broken up by fouls. Of Duncan's five makes, only two were contested, which is pretty astonishing for a guy who's almost completely abandoned the jump shot. SA actually opened the game on a 17-2 run of their own, and all but one of the 8 shots made during the run came on layups, dunks, or 3-pointers.

- When Boston did manage to contest the Spurs' shots, San Antonio still shot 19-38 for 50%, compared to 37.5% for the Celtics.

- Tony Parker's shot chart is especially striking because you can see how easily he was getting to his preferred areas of the floor. Other than a technical he received for complaining on a non-call in the second quarter, Tony was able to quietly and effectively pick his spots against a Boston team that was missing Spur-foil Isaiah Thomas

Game MVP

Kawhi Leonard - 8-14 shooting, 2-5 3FG, 4-4FT, 7 reb, 3 stl, 22 points (team-high +23 in 31 minutes)

Leonard drew comparisons to both Dr. J (for his scoring) and Manu (his passing) from the Spurs' broadcasting team. From where I was sitting, he was just Kawhi. I'm not sure I've ever seen another player quite like him. Pippen is a good analogue, but he didn't have Leonard's silent ferocity nor was he as unflappable so early in his career (even late in his career he was prone to letting his emotions get the best of him). Pippen also wasn't as powerful as Kawhi, relying instead on his natural grace and quickness. Kawhi forces people to stop him, usually with two defenders or a foul, and swallows up anyone who tries to get past him. It's also worth noting that Kawhi doesn't play with a wing defender the caliber of Michael Jordan.

As a side note, Pippen probably dominated a lot of 3rd quarters the way Kawhi did last night, but I bet he never sat on the bench looking like this afterward:

Game LVP(s)

Marco Belinelli and Patty Mills, who combined to shoot 4-20. By no means did their poor marksmanship lose the Spurs the game tonight, but as the primary sources of instant offense within the Manu-less 2nd unit, they'll need to step it up against Atlanta.

Quote of the Night

"You know, I've said this before... there are times where you wish you weren't on the bench on the other team because you appreciate what just happened from a basketball purist standpoint. A 38-year-old, that is maybe the best power forward to ever play the game, dove on the ball in the first three minutes or four minutes of the game. Great tone for his team."

- Boston Celtics Coach Brad Stevens

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