I admit, I've had The Jordan Rules on the brain ever since writing about Jeff Ayres breaking down at the end of the game at Phoenix. It even inspired me to write about the infinitesimally tiny squabbles the Spurs have in comparison to that combustible 1990-91 Chicago team that Sam Smith chronicled, the kind of club where the phrase "25 men, 25 taxi cabs" didn't do justice to all their internal squabbling. So, I apologize if I've gone overboard with my infatuation with a squad from a quarter century ago and I promise I'll quit bringing them up... but damn if these Spurs didn't remind me of the '91 Bulls on the floor today in their win over, coincidentally enough, Chicago.
Here's what I mean: Those Bulls, as good and talented as they were overall, struggled mightily to have a cohesive halfcourt offense all season long. No matter how much Phil Jackson tried to get them to buy in to the democratic concepts of the triangle offense, Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan, especially, kept sabotaging it repeatedly, looking for their own shots and passing it to each other if they passed it at all. They took the lion's share of the shots, leaving scant few for their teammates. What made the Bulls so good though, besides Jordan's extraordinary talent, was the way they wreaked havoc defensively. Jordan and Pippen had such length and quickness defensively that they stalked the passing lanes, waiting to pounce on the slightest mistake. Any pass that wasn't crisp and fast or any dribble that wasn't quick and tight to the body would get turned into a highlight dunk the other way. Horace Grant was the key to making it work the way he could hedge on the pick-and-roll and still quick enough to recover on the roller, essentially guarding two men at once. The Bulls were so lethal defensively that the selfishness and inconsistency of their halfcourt offense didn't matter against all but a handful of elite teams.
We've also seen this more recently with the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh Miami Heat and perhaps, arguably, with Oklahoma City. If guys have enough length and quickness and one-on-one talent, then they can overcome not playing team ball offensively against most anyone.
The Spurs were similar to Jordan's Bulls in a way, if you cheat a little. Offensively, as has been the case for a few games now, it's the Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard show. Both of them are as quick, explosive and aggressive as they've been all season long and neither are inclined to pass all that much when they're feeling this good. They combined for 52 points on 39 shots, with Leonard scoring 20 now for the fourth straight game and Parker abusing Aaron Brooks and others for a season-high 32, the fourth time in five games he's scored at least 19. Here are 12 of his 15 consecutive points in the third quarter.
The dynamic duo also combined for all of two assists.
The Spurs had just 14 assists as a team despite their lofty point total and Gregg Popovich for one was ambivalent about the team's fifth straight win. When asked if this is as well as the team's played all year, he complimented Tiago Splitter and Patty Mills (whose 15 points was the most he's scored since Jan. 16 against Portland), but made sure to offer a cautionary observation after that.
"I think the pieces are there," he said, "It's just a matter of if we'll execute as we move down the stretch and play the way we need to play. We are not really a one-on-one team. We are a move-the-ball team when we are best, so that's what we've got to get to at some point."
Then there's this clip that makes you wonder if the guys were telling him, "There, there, Pop. We promise to pass it more next game."
His comments echoed a similar concern Manu Ginobili voiced after the Nuggets game, after the Spurs scored 120 points in the win. He didn't see the need for the team to call so many plays for Leonard since they won it all last year without relying on that and he's so talented that he scores plenty organically anyway through the flow of the offense and his steals, offensive rebounds and so on. When you've got two black holes on offense --Parker calls it "attack mode"-- even high-scoring wins have a tinge of fool's gold to them. When those shots aren't falling, things turn ugly fast.
To be fair, a reason for the low assist total, and what makes the comparison for the '91 Bulls work, is the way the Spurs employed their twin velociraptors defensively a la Jordan and Pippen. The "cheating" part I referenced is that it wasn't the same two guys. Oh sure, Leonard still plays Pippen's role there, but his partner in crime isn't Parker but rather Danny Green, who stymied the Bulls perimeter scorers all game long with two steals and two blocks. Manu Ginobili added three more steals and even Marco Belinelli had a couple, not letting Chicago rookie Doug McDermott have an inch of air space. The Spurs had season-highs with 15 steals and 35 fast break points, while finishing with 17 more field goal attempts than the Bulls, which is a neat trick to pull when you take only five fewer free throws. When they weren't swiping the ball from Chicago, they were making sure to rebound it, keeping the Bulls from dominating the offensive glass the way they typically do.
Points come pretty easily when you make plays like this
I don't mean to rain on anyone's parade. At least the ball didn't stick for the Spurs. They didn't always pass up good looks for great ones, but they were decisive; they either passed, drove or shot immediately, never letting the Bulls defenders get a second to set. Being quick and aggressive is better than slow and indecisive.
In a related story, Boris Diaw played just 5:35.
What's unmistakable is that the Spurs seem to be moving faster as a team when the rest of the league is slowing down in these dog days of March. The West is brutal and everyone is beating each other up and suffering through injuries, some of them catastrophic ones like Wes Matthews' torn Achilles for Portland. San Antonio, healthier than they've been all year, are inching up the standings and taking advantage of a soft spot in their schedule.
"I'm still dealing with some stuff," noted Parker afterward when someone told him he finally looks healthy. "I'm going to fight through it because I'd rather play than stay out."
Whatever he's dealing with, Tim Duncan would probably like to try it. He went without a field goal for the first time in 1,311 career games, missing all eight of his shots. The length of Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah have always given him trouble and now that both of them are on the same squad, that makes it tough. Bill Russell once remarked that in his opinion the finest game of his career was one in which he went 0-for-8, so I suppose we shouldn't be too hard on Timmy. Let's at least give him a couple more games before we cut him.
Also, since I had no place to mention this, here's one last clip for you to enjoy:
Your Three Stars
3. Manu Ginobili (60 pts)
2. Kawhi Leonard (98 pts)
1. Tony Parker (64 pts)
[Players earn 5 points for first star, 3 points for second star and 1 point for third star. The numbers in parentheses are their cumulative totals for the season.]