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Reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the Spurs

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The defending champs have stunk on the road, haven't finished off close games and have a bench that's inconsistent at best. Yet they're still the West's best bet to upset the Warriors.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Like most of you, I was left awestruck by the Spurs thorough wipeout of the Hawks Sunday afternoon. In winning that game decisively they climbed two hills that had proved too daunting ever since the turn of the new year. They beat a really good team, and they did it on the road. (It should also be noted that they won decisively, which was probably a good thing because close games have been quite the bugaboo this year.)

This game was the classic Neo-Ball Spurs I love so much. Honestly, I was starting to fear I'd have to stick to DVDs or YouTube clips to ever see it again.

The defense was ferocious and all-encompassing. The Spurs closed out with expert choreography, owned the glass and were diligent about getting back in transition. The new wrinkle they've added of late is their aggression in preying on passing lanes, spearheaded by Kawhi Leonard and his Go-Go Gadget arms. San Antonio seemed to know what the Hawks were doing on every play, which made sense since the two teams use practically the same playbook.

Atlanta still made half of their 24 three-pointers, because they have gifted shooters and know how to share the ball, but they had to work for everything they got. The starting backcourt of Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver combined for 10 of the team's 19 turnovers, and Korver only got off four shots in 29 minutes. Tim Duncan stymied their bigs with four blocks and the Spurs gummed up everything without fouling, limiting the Hawks to just seven free-throw attempts all game.

Offensively the Spurs dominated inside, with 60 points in the paint. The starting frontcourt was devastating, as were the reserves. They punished the Hawks over and over for focusing too much on stopping Tony Parker, the way Miami did in the Finals last year. Parker was happy to stay in the periphery and others initiate.

Tiago Splitter has never been better. He's always been a strong finisher in the pick-and-roll and a sneaky underrated passer, but his touch around the rim has been deadly of late. He's been more effective in the post as well, with short hooks and up-and-unders. Splitter has been really good about knowing when he has the advantage and when he should pass out.

Duncan is on a roll as a passer, especially in the high post hitting cutters or working the hi-lo with Splitter. He makes the most of the freedom he has to operate because defenders back off to encourage him to shoot. His numbers have been down in March, but he hasn't needed to do as much with the other starters taking on bigger roles. His shooting percentage for the month is very good, so I'm not worried about him in the least.

Danny Green has been on fire all month, shooting 48 percent from downtown. He's getting even better in his decision making about when to shoot it and when to do something else. He's varying up his arsenal, from a quick side dribble so that he can still shoot the three, to one dribble for the open long-two, to two dribbles and taking it to the rim. He gets lost a bit in Leonard's shadow as a defensive playmaker, but Green remains unparalleled in transition.

It's hard to say whether Parker has suffered another ding or he's simply downshifting to conserve energy after having made his point about not needing to be sent out to pasture just yet. He's taken 11 shots or fewer in five of his past six games. He's taken a bit of a backseat in the midst of the hot spell from the others, but he remains a vital part of a starting five that's been decimating the league.

I don't even know what to say about Leonard anymore. I covered how he's expanding his offensive arsenal as a passer against Cleveland, but the show he put on against Atlanta was something else entirely. Jesus joked that Gregg Popovich felt bad for Manu Ginobili being out of action with a sprained ankle, so he let the Argentine handle the controller on the Kawhi-Bot. My line was that Manu simply possessed Leonard's body like Patrick Swayze (R.I.P.) did to Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost. He's making crazy bounce passes on the move now where as a rookie he couldn't hit people in the hands from ten feet away.

It's clear the game is slowing down for Leonard to the point where he can see two or three frames ahead. You know a Spur has mastered the Neo-Ball concept not when he makes the assist but the tricky hockey assist to set up the easier actual assist. Often the plays that don't show up in the box score are the ones that unlock a defense's puzzle. He's becoming full-fledged terrifying. He's pricing himself beyond the max. His agent should ask for the max plus all the townsfolk's first-born sons.

There have even been signs of life from the bench. Boris Diaw has eschewed his three-pointer -- he won't shoot one unless he's wiiiiide open. However, he's back to being assertive in other aspects, whether it's driving or working in the post and he's making quick decisions and using more possessions again.

Marco Belinelli has a good stroke going and his ball fake continues to fool everyone. He's been better about getting to his hot spots and only taking good shots.

Ginobili just returned to action after missing four games with a scary-looking sprained ankle, but he's been superb in March in scoring around the basket after struggling in that area for much of the season. His three-pointer comes and goes, like most everyone on the team. How Ginobili looks to the eye really depends on how his bench-mates are shooting. Sometimes nobody can make anything or the spacing's screwed up and it'll make Ginobili look invisible or force him into bad shots or ugly turnovers. But when people are making shots and the spacing is good, he looks like an older version of a legendary player for short stretches. Make no mistake, we're nearing the end.

I touched on this briefly here, but I continue to think Gregg Popovich is making a mistake by closing the book on Cory Joseph and deciding to stick with Patty Mills and last year's rotation. Mills is a great story and it's clear he and Pop have a bond, but there's no getting around the fact that he's been a disaster this season, particularly in March, where he's shot 33.3 percent. Mills has two double-digit scoring games the past two months. His shot selection remains fairly horrid and he brings little else to the table besides floor spacing, which doesn't matter if he misses shots. Joseph is at the point where he can't even make layups anymore after losing his spot, but he needs to given a real chance here in the last dozen games. He's better than Mills at virtually every aspect of the game but shooting threes, and their percentages are practically identical in that regard this season.

Bottom line: for every game Mills helps the Spurs with a scoring flourish, there's nine others where Joseph takes less off the table. A telling sequence late in the first quarter at Dallas was where Mills had the ball isolated and couldn't even take Raymond Felton off the dribble. The Spurs settled for a desperation 27-footer from Belinelli there. Joseph would've gotten to the cup easily against Felton.

Speaking of the Mavs, I'm not going to be a prisoner of the moment and make too much of that nonsense. The starters have been unbelievable all month and they finally had an average game, with Parker and Duncan in particular struggling. The team looked tired as a whole, setting soft and sloppy screens, Also, Pop eased off on their minutes in the front end of a back-to-back.

Dallas played 4-on-5 offensively while Rajon Rondo was in the game --seriously LeBron Era Mario Chalmers had the ball more as a "point guard" than Rondo did Tuesday night-- and still lit up the Spurs, with Monta Ellis getting free on one screen-roll after another. My guess is that in a playoff situation Popovich would cook up a trap to get the ball out of his hands and wouldn't employ so many bizarre lineups like Diaw with Matt Bonner or going with Jeff Ayres down the stretch.

The concern has to be the inconsistent bench, especially on the road. Pop has to find some combination that works, not just at point guard but also in deciding whether he'll play five reserves at once or whether he'll mix in Leonard. Maybe the best solution of all, instead of deciding whether Leonard gets Diaw's minutes or Belinelli's, would be to dump both Mills and Joseph and go with a backup five of Ginobili-Belinelli-Green/Leonard-Diaw-Baynes. What's the worst that could happen?

Good luck figuring these guys out.