It was a little over a month ago that I had left the Spurs for dead.
They had lost the first four games of the Western swing of the Rodeo Road Trip, the last one by a significant margin at Portland. They looked old, slow and lifeless. Typically the team had come roaring out of the blocks after the All-Star break, but here they were, looking like they'd rather be anywhere else, doing anything else, but playing. I caught them in person a couple nights later, at the Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, and was dumbstruck by how much they had to struggle for three-and-a-half quarters against a Kings team playing without DeMarcus Cousins.
"These guys stink," I told my friend Andrea, and I meant it.
And then the Spurs went on to win 50-plus games for the 483rd consecutive season in a row.
Little did I realize, as they pulled away late on that Feb. 27 night at Sacto to win by 11 that it would be the beginning of a streak in which they led by double figures at some point for 19 consecutive games. They're 16-3 in that stretch with most of the wins coming by cartoonish margins and at least two of the losses --to the Cavs and Knicks-- wholly self-inflicted.
The most recent conquest, Friday night at the AT&T Center against a Nuggets squad that had shown signs of a pulse under interim coach Melvin Hunt, was over before Gregg Popovich checked his first sub into the game. In fact, Manu Ginobili, who happened to be the first off the bench in this one, shared he would've been content to just as soon keep his warm-ups on.
"I didn't want to play, I want to stay there, watching and enjoying," Ginobili admitted afterward. "We knew we couldn't improve what was going on there."
Ginobili was being modest as always --he finished plus-17 in 19 minutes-- but the Spurs starters did come out like something created at CERN. Kawhi Leonard sank his first seven shots, mostly mid-range jumpers, for 15 points in the first 6:51. Danny Green splashed a couple of PUJIT threes (he would finish 6-of-6 from downtown and is now just 10 behind Chuck Person's single-season team record of 190) and Tiago Splitter added a couple of buckets down low. The Spurs led 26-14 by the time Ginobili checked in. Boris Diaw added 11 quick points soon after that, and by the time the barrage ended, the Spurs had scored 45 points on 79.2 percent shooting for the period. It's the most points any team has scored in any quarter all season.
It's a testament to the team's depth that the Spurs finished with 123 points on a night where the "big three" totaled a mere dozen. All three future Hall-of-Famers were content to be playmakers more than anything else, combining for 18 assists between them, with Tim Duncan in particular attempting but one shot in 19:56.
"Honestly, that was just Kawhi's quarter," Duncan said of the opening period. "We just rode his coattails the entire time. He had a great start and we fed off that. After that, the movement was there. We shared the ball and racked up the assists and our shots were falling. It snowballed from there."
The Spurs as a whole have been a snowball rolling downhill, expanding in scope and gaining momentum, flattening all obstacles in their path. The bench has has been a problem for most of the season but Diaw's been a monster in the post in March, scoring in double-figures for the sixth consecutive game for the first time since joining the Spurs. Ginobili is regaining his form awry three-point stroke aside and Marco Belinelli has been more consistent of late, with a better sense of how and where to find his shots on the floor. Even Aron Baynes has come on, with back-to-back career-highs of 18 points the past two games, and this emphatic alley-oop from Ginobili.
All that remains is the backup point guard conundrum, picking between Cory Joseph and Patty Mills. It's no mystery who Popovich wants to win, but Mills is not helping his cause. Joseph got the lion's share of the playing time for the third straight game and canned a couple of mid-range jumpers in a supporting role. Mills played in garbage time in the second half and shot 1-of-7, though he did add four assists. First-world problems in Spurs-land.
Actually, there was one other spot of bad news. Splitter left late in the first quarter with tightness in his right calf and did not return. As you're no doubt aware, that calf has been a persistent problem for him all year (and in previous campaigns), though Spurs officials didn't seem too concerned afterward. The Brazilian big man was spotted walking without a limp after the game, so we'll have to see if this is a thing.
The same could be said of the Easter Sunday showdown against the ludicrous speed --their uniforms should be plaid at this point-- Golden State Warriors. The game has the potential to be the kind of classic that would put the Final Four sandwiching it on Saturday and Monday to shame, but there are whispers that Warriors skipper Steve Kerr may sit some of his stars in the SEGABABA since they have nothing to play for. It could be a great measuring stick game for the defending champs and the challengers to their throne, but one can easily imagine both Popovich and Kerr keeping some cards close to their respective vests.
This much isn't a secret though: The Spurs, again, very much reside in the land of the living.
Your Three Stars:
3. Boris Diaw (40 pts)
2. Danny Green (69 pts)
1. Kawhi Leonard (143 pts)
[Players receive 5 points for first star, 3 points for second star and 1 point for third star. The points in parentheses are their accumulated totals for the season.]