If the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, Friday night's second half of a home-and-home against the Houston Rockets was a single step on the Spurs' 2014-15 journey that seemingly protracted itself over miles 712-989. On a night when Yankees-Red Sox went approximately 192 innings, Spurs-Rockets II supplied ten thousand times the drama in a (relatively) condensed package. This one had it all: Huge momentum swings. Controversy. Vintage-2003-but-with-better-free-throw-shooting Tim Duncan. Aron Baynes hacking at a rate of 1 foul every 3 minutes. JET outshooting Verde. Verde out-defensing everybody. Jekyll and Hyde Manu. James Harden in-game half-court shooting practice. Rockets announcers single-handedly laying the groundwork for National Sean Elliott Appreciation Day. Josh Smith taking TWENTY-SIX FREE THROWS!
The hideousness of this game was matched only by its interminable length, while its beauty was matched only by the subsequent boost the Spurs received in the Western Conference standings. Yes, the hilariously appropriate result of a game featuring a half-hour fourth quarter was that the Spurs - the same team, mind you, that spent about three months locked into the 7th seed with vice clamps and duct tape - jumped from 6th to 3rd in one evening. Granted, much of that ascendancy derives from the NBA's ineffable seeding system. Ever since their record surpassed the 4th seeded Portland TrailBlazers, the Spurs haven't been a true 6th seed. But because Portland is a division leader, they can fall no further than 4th, even though they lose homecourt advantage to a 5th seed with a better record.
I can see your eyes glazing over, so rather than try to explain the ins-and-outs of The West, Seeds 2,3,5 and 6, I'll just link here and return to the subject of Friday night's game. You see, this game wasn't just a thrilling come-from-behind victory, a game where the Spurs started out in a 0-12 hole, didn't lead until the end of the third quarter (Welcome back, Patty Thrills!), and then allowed a nine-point lead to evaporate until Timmy snuffed out a Harden layup attempt with two ticks left...
This game was a microcosm of the whole season.
I know I'm not the first one to make that observation, and at any rate it's fairly obvious. The Spurs got into a big hole early (December/Q1). They fought their way out but couldn't get over the hump (January/Q2,3). They got key contributions from unexpected sources (Joseph/Mills) before losing a big man in a very untimely manner (Splitter, Baynes/Baynes). They kept their heads above water (February/4Q), employing unconventional tactics (Hockey substitutions/Bust-a-Smoove) and dirtying things up just enough to maintain their mental edge before prevailing at the end thanks to the desperation of a spry 38-year old who isn't quite ready to call it a career.
Ever since rookie Dwight Howard ooped over his head in the closing seconds of a game in Orlando, Timmy has seemingly made it his mission to confine Howard to his own ground-bound world. Dwight is capable of putting up big numbers against the Spurs, but it costs him something each time. Like Harden, he looked uncomfortable in both games last week. Unlike Harden, there are very few other ways Howard can contribute on offense if he isn't getting so close to the basket he can look down into the rim.
I mentioned the microcosm. But there's also the microcosm within the microcosm. Wednesday night, Tony Parker sped around the floor like Marty McFly's DeLorean after Marty head-butts the steering wheel. Friday night, Tony was a ghost the entire game, albeit a careful ghost with no turnovers. His only "points" came when Howard spiked his floater into Galveston Bay.
At the same time, Kawhi Leonard played ligament-tear and conjunctivitis-free, but you'd barely know it from the number of easy bunnies he missed in the first half. Seriously, Jason Terry (the Jason Terry) somehow managed blow up a Klaw run-out by, uh, doing absolutely nothing. Kawhi got caught between wanting to dunk and having to lay the ball in, and instead of SA taking its first lead in the second quarter, Houston went on a 6-0 run to go back up by seven. The second half wasn't quite the reawakening that we've grown accustomed to from The Future of the Franchise - his jumper abandoned him in the second half and he played far too tentatively when Dwight Howard was in the lane - but he grabbed some key steals and his defense played a role in keeping Harden off the line.
As I've said before, though, Kawhi will have nights where he looks mortal, even when Pop is able to stash him defensively on lesser offensive threats and sic Green on the other team's first option. The thing is not whether he will struggle, but how he will handle those times when he looks mortal and/or disengaged. In the game against these same Rockets on Wednesday night, Kawhi opened the game shooting 1-4 from the field with two turnovers, the second of which came as the wily Pablo Prigioni stepped in front of him on a fast break. The move seemed to shake Kawhi a bit. He had that look on his face like my dog has when he gets water in his ears. I worried about him in that moment, worried that everything had come too fast, that it was all predicated on beating crappy teams who'd given up on the season, or else half-committed good teams like Atlanta and Golden State. Now that he was facing a team just as desperate as the Spurs for playoff seeding, a team with the long arms of Dwight Howard and Trevor Ariza, he'd return to earth. (Yes, I forgot in that moment of weakness about the Memphis game.)
I had a similar feeling once before, during halftime of Game 5 against Oklahoma City in 2012. The Spurs had played well in the first half, but OKC was in the midst of a comeback. After the buzzer sounded, Danny Green rose up to take a practice shot prior to leaving for the locker room. At that moment, Russell Westbrook, who was fuming over some no-call, smacked the ball out of Green's hand. Instead of taking umbrage and challenging the belligerent Westbrook for his breach in etiquette, Green turned and looked somewhere off-camera, and he smirked as if to say, "You believe this guy? What a spaz!" In that moment, I knew Green and the reconstituted Spurs weren't quite ready.
But Wednesday night, my worry evaporated as soon as the next timeout, when the once-flustered Kawhi walked to the huddle with his shoulders back and his head high. It was an image so unlike our perception of him as demure, humble, even shy; Kawhi looked cocky, prideful, and self-assured, and once he got back out there, Houston's night was done. There's your microcosm.
Spurs-Rockets II was a bit different from that first game. The only thing missing was the Playoffs logos on the floor and Kevin Harlan's gorgeous tenor (could've used you for this one, Kev.) In fact, it's a little annoying that we haven't already earned a 1-0 series lead by virtue of a road win like this - a win the 2014-15 Spurs just weren't ready to earn before Friday night. Instead, the Spurs earned something more prosaic: a chance to fight for the second seed.
It was just a step, but it's a thousand miles from where they started out.