The Spurs beating the Thunder by 25 shouldn't be surprising. Scores as lopsided as the one from Tuesday are not common between playoff teams but the Spurs had outscored opponents by 14.5 points per 100 possessions since March, going into Oklahoma City. They led the historically good Warriors by 28 points two days before and had beaten this same Thunder team a few weeks ago by 39 points. The Spurs beating the Thunder by 25 shouldn't be surprising, yet I actually shook my head in disbelief a few times as they picked them apart because it sank in just how strange it is to see a team that struggled early in the season get this good exactly at the right time.
I never thought the Spurs were out of the running for a repeat even during the tough stretches. There were injuries that deprived them of the familiarity that had proven to be key to their success and some complacency was expected of a team fresh of a championship run. Some of their problems, however, seemed real and not even the most optimistic of Spurs fans truly believed this team could be better than last season's. In the first half against the Thunder, as Kawhi Leonard wrecked havoc on defense like he normally does but also carried the team on offense, it dawned on me that they might be.
Again, there was nothing notable about this win, nothing to separate it from other more impressive ones. Yet ever since the loss to the Knicks I've been a little bit wary of saying the Spurs are back. At the time it signaled to me that they couldn't simply flip a switch within a game and win it by playing well 10 minutes. The loss against the Mavericks followed a few days later and suggested there were still issues with consistency. Those two games stayed with me more than any other because they featured the more familiar version of the Spurs we've seen this season, that directionless team trying to get its bearings.
A little over a month ago re-signing Boris Diaw was starting to look like a mistake. Tiago Splitter had lost his spot in the starting lineup. Tony Parker could not shake off a hamstring injury. The bench unit wasn't clicking. Those concerns look like distant memories now. Even though they have gone through some minor injury trouble the Spurs have been so good lately that no one has averaged more than 28 minutes per game during the past 10 games. The turnaround has been astonishing and while I had my doubts before, it doesn't feel like a fluke at all.
If this surge managed to surprise me even though I believed the team to be good the whole time then Kawhi Leonard playing like a top 10 player this season when I thought it would take him a couple more years to get to that level has been nothing short of shocking. Leonard's 26 points on 15 shots fail to illustrate how good he was. He made his four three-pointers and his three shots near the basket while also showing off the touch in the post and from mid-range that suggests he might be able to be a number one scoring threat after all.
The lesson to learn from such an up-and-down season, I guess, is to never assume things will stay the way they are. Maybe Leonard comes back to earth and maybe the Spurs look mortal before the playoffs start. For now, even the most jaded of fans have to be excited to see the team playing at a level that seemed outside their reach not long ago. It took some of us a little longer to truly believe the Spurs had turned a corner but games like Tuesday's make it Crystal clear that is the case.
- Tony Parker didn't play the second half due to tightness in his Achilles. There are no news on whether it's serious but considering he started the game and the Spurs were up by 22 points at the break I'm assuming it was mostly a precautionary measure.
- Manu Ginobili hit two of his four three-pointers. Ginobili needs to be able to hit those shots now that Leonard is showing the ability to make play with the ball in his hands, relegating Manu to a spot up role more often. Hopefully he can continue to connect from outside.
- Leonard's stat line was good but Tim Duncan's is ridiculous. He finished the game with 12 points, nine rebounds, three assists, one steal and four blocks in 23 minutes. Duncan's numbers are down since March but he can still put his imprint on a game when he wants to.
- Cory Joseph continues to be solid in the back up point guard role and it's hard to imagine a scenario in which Mills reclaims it. Cory even hit a three-pointer on Tuesday to beat the buzzer at the end of the first half. I'll never be comfortable with his reluctance to shoot threes but it seems the decision to give him minutes is paying off.
- The Thunder had three top five draft picks and seven total lottery picks on their active roster. The Spurs' only player to have been selected in the top 14 is Tim Duncan. San Antonio's ability to find contributors in unlikely places is well known but the contrast in roster construction this particular case was stark.
The Spurs are now one game away from the third spot in the West. Two matchups against the second-seeded Houston Rockets are coming on Wednesday and Friday and could determine whether the Spurs move up in the standings or stay in sixth place.
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