Let me preface the following by saying right off the bat that I hate the Rockets. No for real, this is no blogger shtick. I genuinely hate them. Not even sports hate either but hate hate. James Harden and Dwight Howard are my least favorite pair of teammates in the league, an impressive feat in a league that features tag team partners such as Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and LeBron James and hell, I don't know. Matthew Dellavedova.
Still, despite all of my haterade, I couldn't shake the nagging feeling that something wasn't right about the Spurs decimation of the Rox at the AT&T Center. It was competitive for a half but then, as all these other games have been for the past month, things escalated quickly. [Insert clever and timely Anchorman joke here.]
For the 22nd straight game, the Spurs built a double-digit lead and have won by at least a dozen points during their entire winning streak, matching a pair of LeBron teams in the '08-09 Cavs and the '11-12 Heat.
It's this darn conscience of mine though that prevents me from ever enjoying anything. It's probably from watching Pop say some variance of "It wasn't a fair fight," a thousand times over the years.
The Rockets, those vile, gross, unwatchable ne'erdowells, are sympathetic figures in spite of themselves. Believe me, I don't like it any more than you do, but there it is. Without Patrick Beverley, who is out for the season after undergoing surgery to repair torn ligaments in his left wrist, these guys just don't have a chance. In fact, Donatas Motiejunas, who's been a lifesaver for them with Howard missing most of the season, is done for now too, with a back injury. I bet if you catch Rockets GM Daryl Morey in an honest moment and tell him he can pick one squad, the one from a month ago without Howard but with those two guys or the one he's stuck with now, he'd pick the former. The Rockets still found ways to win without Howard. They're not going to beat anyone of note without Beverley.
It's not that Beverley is all that good per se, it's just the happenstance of their roster, where he's the only competent point guard. Morey's done a very solid job of building around his stars with not only Motiejunas and Beverley but also Trevor Ariza, Terrence Jones, Corey Brewer and Josh Smith, but they're toast at the point with the ancient combo of Jason Terry and Pablo Prigioni. They just don't have a chance.
It's not often that Tony Parker, 32, get 18 shots up in 25:36 these days. The Spurs are either doing the free-flowing, democratic good-to-great thing when inspiration strikes them or they're revolving their attack around Kawhi Leonard. But against Terry and Prigioni, who are a combined 75 years old, Parker had the freedom to engage attack mode to his heart's content, making 13-of-18, many in the paint. Howard, still working his way back to health, only played 21:41 and could seldom intervene.
"He played a really great floor game," said Popovich afterward. "He showed really good patience in distributing the ball, looking for his shots and going to the bucket. He was tough for them to guard tonight."
Parker, who missed the second half at Oklahoma City with what he termed an "inflamed" Achilles, kept the Spurs in the game early with 13 first-quarter points while James Harden was living at the free throw line and Howard was having no difficulty backing down a lithe Tim Duncan. Both Leonard and Danny Green got off to cold starts, but a late surge from Manu Ginobili ensured that the Spurs trailed just 33-32 after one quarter.
After that though, the Spurs stopped fouling --Harden had only two free-throw attempts the rest of the game-- and took control of the game incrementally, despite not shooting well from outside. After falling behind 49-41, they ended the half on a 16-2 run to lead for good, with almost all the points coming inside via various post-ups and drives by Parker, Leonard, Boris Diaw and a rugged Aron Baynes.
"I think we've really found that over the last half of the year here," Duncan said of the Spurs versatility and depth with post-up situations, not only with all their bigs but also with Leonard and Boris Diaw, allowing them to target smaller people.
"We've given Kawhi a lot more touches in there," Duncan noted, adding, "Boris obviously has been a post-up player, he's one of our go-to guys especially against the second team and when things get stagnant we're willing to give him the ball. He's a willing passer but he's an even better scorer when he wants to be."
The Spurs had 62 points in the paint against Houston, and having Parker, Leonard, Ginobili and Cory Joseph all attack the paint certainly contributed to that. Joseph, getting some extra minutes with Marco Belinelli sidelined by a sore left groin, wound up being their best defender on Harden while contributing a team-high five assists. Baynes had 8 points and 12 rebounds, Diaw finished with 15 and 9 and Ginobili tossed in a hat trick of threes.
It was Leonard who broke it open though. Even in a relatively quiet first half he had contributed three steals and then once more attention was paid to Parker, he hit 6-of-9 in the second half to get to the 20-point plateau for the fourth consecutive game.
"We go to who is rolling and Tony was rolling in the first half," Leonard explained. "My whole life playing basketball, you're going to have games where you don't play great in the first half but you have to play the whole four quarters."
(Kawhi Leonard is literally the most literal person on the planet.)
The Spurs are setting a flamethrower to the league and the only person who can shut them down is Pop. He's repeatedly sat Leonard the past few games before he could exceed his career-high of 26 points and pulled the same trick on Parker, icing him at 27 points. Maybe he's superstitious that the last time a Spur scored 30 --Parker against Cleveland-- they lost.
So what gives, Pop?
"It's because I'm a jerk," he joked. "I don't want them to get a big head. What do they have to get 30 for? Selfish."
As we've seen all season long with the Thunder and the Rockets though, the basketball gods can be even bigger jerks. Leonard had his wrist injury early in the year and luckily avoided surgery. Beverley hurt his late and had to go under the knife. Those are the breaks of the game.
If the Spurs win out and the Grizzlies lose two games, they finish as the two seed. That's crazy.
Your Three Stars:
3. Boris Diaw (41 pts)
2. Kawhi Leonard (156 pts)
1. Tony Parker (82 pts)
[Players receive 5 points for first star, 3 points for second star and 1 point for third star. The numbers in parentheses are their accumulated totals for the season.]