When the Celtics lost out on Tim Duncan during the spring of 1997, after a season spent tanking just so they could acquire him, the franchise knew it was going to sting for a while. I doubt anyone in Boston thought back then that they'd still be feeling the reverberations of those ping-pong balls not bouncing their way some 18 years later.
Yet Brad Stevens, the amicable fellow whose job it is to revive the franchise that sent Rick Pitino back to the college ranks a humbled man, was understandably ambivalent after the Spurs beat his team comfortably Friday 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 purest standpoint," Stevens marveled. "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."
Stevens, who happens to be six months younger than Duncan, was referring to a pair of steals the Spurs big man came away with in the first 2:07, getting acquainted with the floor on each. On the latter one, Boston's Brandon Bass lost track of the trailing Duncan, who slammed home an alert pass from the surging Tiago Splitter to give San Antonio a 10-2 lead.
Right now most of the basketball-watching public's attention is focused on the NCAA tournament. Stevens, who rose to prominence leading mid-major Butler University to a pair of championship game appearances, is not yet far removed from the college game. It's natural that he'd be inspired by the type of play that's more associated with amateurs. That's the stereotype, right? The kids hustle and play hard for the love of the game. The pros take it easy and cash their checks.
That way of thinking has always been at odds with reality, and particularly in Duncan's case. At his age he has no choice but to play with focus, energy and determination. Any other way and he'd get embarrassed by those who were in diapers when he broke into the league.
Duncan indeed set an early tone with his floor burns, and the Spurs figure to play like their shorts are on fire for a while after a performance at New York Tuesday night that Gregg Popovich labeled "pathetic." They were superb at Milwaukee the next night and even better against Boston for three quarters, racing out to an 84-63 lead.
Most of the damage was done, again, by the starting unit, with all five scoring in double figures and combining for 75 points. The ball movement was crisp enough to produce 19 assists on 21 first half baskets and the Spurs finished with 31 for the game.
The starters have been destroying the league, with a 25.4 net rating over 182 minutes (119.3 offensive, 93.9 defensive), per NBA.com. They've been even better since Feb. 27, with a 131.0 offensive rating and a 95.5 defensive rating, according to NBAWowy.com.
"All in all we're starting to get back there," confirmed Duncan afterward, breathing heavy from a quick post-game workout he felt was necessary since he only played 19:46. "I think the last five, six, seven or eight games, excluding the loss to New York, I feel like we're getting our rhythm back top to bottom. I think a big part of that is Tiago's starting to play well, Tony's [Parker] starting to play well and they're feeling really good about their games."
Parker's resurgence has been well documented but not much has been noticed or written about Splitter, who had a season-high 18 points against Boston and a season-high 13 rebounds at New York. He's averaging 11.4 points on 67.6 percent shooting to go with 5.1 rebounds over his past five games. His bread-and-butter as an offensive player has been as a dive man on the pick-and-roll, but lately he's been very effective in post-ups, using his up-and-under move and his low-arcing hook shot from in close. He's even been confident enough to put the ball on the floor and drive from the high post or to dribble a considerable distance on fast-ish breaks.
"It's the most comfortable I've felt this season for sure," Splitter said. "I'm feeling healthy, that I can push myself. and [leave] it all on the court. I'm running better, rebounding better and I'm just feeling stronger. Of course the confidence just goes together with that."
Leonard broke the game open for the Spurs midway through the third quarter with a 13-4 run in which he scored all of the home side's points. He had two strips in that stretch, drawing free throws on one and getting the trademark "pick-six" dunk on the other. He finished with a game-high 22 points and three steals and was summoned late to cool down the Celtics.
The Spurs led by 25 at one point but their bench was fairly miserable without Manu Ginobili. They allowed the Celtics to make a 16-0 run against them in the fourth quarter, necessitating the need for Pop to bring Leonard, Splitter and Parker back into the game. To give you an idea, the highlight for the reserves was probably Matt Bonner getting punched in his, uh, red mamba, by Celtics rookie Marcus Smart.
The act itself wasn't praise-worthy, obviously, --Smart was ejected and will likely be disciplined further-- but at least it got the crowd to chant Bonner's name. It was Parker who finally broke Boston's spirit with a mid-range jumper, and he had another bucket and two assists to put them away for good.
Meanwhile, the cavalry is on the way. Ginobili told Mike Monroe of the Express-News that he's recovering quicker than expected after spraining his right ankle on Mar. 15 vs. Minnesota and will in all likelihood lobby to be on the plane when the Spurs fly to Atlanta for the start of a two-game road trip.
Stevens will have to wait a bit longer to get the players he needs for the Celtics to truly matter once more. He's got time on his side, the support of his general manager and the ownership group and most importantly, the talent to make a difference. He and Pop were a mutual admiration society praising one another pre-game.
Also, and this can't be stressed enough, no matter what happens in the next draft lottery, you won't see Stevens telling people that Larry Bird isn't going to walk through that door. Although, you gotta admit, "Tim Duncan isn't going to dive on that floor," does sound kinda catchy.
Your Three Stars:
3. Tony Parker (61 pts)
2. Tiago Splitter (29 pts)
1. Kawhi Leonard (118 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.]