Man, what a streak!
That makes TWO straight prophetic columns I've written, first extolling the virtues of Jonathon Simmons right before he goes off for a career-high 18 points at Milwaukee and then today, with a proclamation that the LeBron James we once despised and feared has been slain, since Kawhi Leonard can neutralize him practically by himself.
Okay, fine, you're probably more excited about the assorted other streaks. By defeating the Cavs in a thriller the Spurs have won 10 in a row for the sixth season in a row, which is an NBA record. They're 23-0 at home and have officially won 32 straight at the AT&T Center stretching back to last season, as long as you don't count the playoffs, which the league doesn't for record-keeping purposes. San Antonio has reached the halfway mark of the season tied for best record in franchise history through 41 games and they're on pace for an even 70 wins, which would be a lot.
As for the game itself, well, falling behind by 15 points at home to a squad led by James in a nationally-televised game seems familiar, and what do you know, the home side came back in this one as well, though the win wasn't assured till the final minute.
Another key difference, of course, is that while Tony Parker was miserable for three quarters of Game 5 of the 2014 Finals before going off in the fourth, this time around he was pretty damn incredible right from the opening tip, and the main reason the Spurs were able to come out victorious. And what was particularly noteworthy about his performance, even more so than his game-high 24 points on 11-of-18 shooting, was his play on the other hand, getting into Kyrie Irving, making it difficult for him to get to the basket, contesting his jumpers and limiting him into a 6-of-17 night. It was a far cry from the last time Irving was in this building, on Mar. 12, 2015, when he detonated on the Spurs with 57 points including a series of high degree of difficulty shots at the end of regulation and overtime.
That also happened to be the last time the Spurs lost a regular season game at home.
"Tony has carried us a lot this year because of his two-way play," confirmed Gregg Popovich afterward. "He's working his butt off on Kyrie Irving who's a great player. That's not easy to do, and he still was aggressive offensively."
Parker's game and confidence are both peaking, and while his averages don't look all that impressive, he's been far more efficient this season than last and his defense has been more tenacious and aggressive than I can ever recall in the past. The reason for that is simple. As he explained, he no longer has to conserve energy in his own end to carry the offense. Most nights, he's the third option now.
"It's definitely easier right now because I don't have to do as much," Parker said. "I can spend my energy on defense than offense and then on some nights if Kawhi is a little off, like at Detroit, then Pop can call my number and I'm ready to go."
He needed to be ready, because none of his teammates were at the start. The Spurs found themselves in a quick 12-2 hole with their only bucket coming off a broken play and LaMarcus Aldridge miles from Kevin Love, conceding an open three. Both Aldridge and Tim Duncan missed a handful of shots around the rim, trying to post up against Tristan Thompson or Love with no success, while on the other end J.R. Smith went off early with 10 quick points, on a handful of shots you'd associate Smith with taking and making. Parker had a pair of layups and Manu Ginobili came off the bench for another plus a baseline jumper, but the Spurs were down 32-20 after the first quarter.
"We realized that we were giving them too many open looks," said Ginobili afterward, though it's possible that Popovich realized it for them, with the TNT cameras catching him telling the troops that they were treating the Cavs "like their older brother."
Things were going swimmingly for the Cavs. James' teammates were scoring almost at will against the Spurs, with Thompson and Love outscoring Aldridge and Duncan 13-0 and out-rebounding them 11-5. But how was he doing individually against Leonard?
Things started to turn in the hosts' favor in the second quarter, after they fell behind by 15, it was a back-and-forth period with the deficit floating between seven and 12 points most of the way, before the Spurs closed with a sneaky 6-0 run in the final minute on three baskets by Parker, one a floater, a layup and a step-back jumper. He had 12 of his 24 in the quarter to help stave off really James' one good stretch of the game, with LeBron scoring nine on 4-of-5 in the quarter, including a pair of "and-1" drives.
I thought Pop did something really smart by trying to match Parker's shifts with Irving's and letting Patty Mills deal with countryman Matthew Dellavedova's chippy nonsense.
The Spurs were able to win the quarter 24-18, with only Parker, Ginobili and David West --who had two inside buckets against Love and some scrub-- doing anything. That the Spurs were down just 50-44 at half with Leonard, Aldridge and Duncan combining for just five points on 2-of-15 shooting was borderline miraculous.
Leonard's most notable contributions in the quarter were a pair of fast-break feeds to the Wee Frenchman.
The Spurs continued to chip away in the second half, redoubling their efforts to get Aldridge and Leonard involved. It didn't work out so well for the former, but Leonard had a dozen points on a pair of bombs
and six freebies and three assists besides, while Duncan got a couple of buckets inside and West added four of his own.
Simmons came off the bench for a cold-shooting Danny Green and provided some energy and a driving score and Kyle Anderson had a jumper of his own when Pop decided to go small late in the quarter.
San Antonio took a brief lead with an early 11-0 run but from there it was a one-possession game for the final seven minutes of the period, with a three at the buzzer by Dellavedova keeping Cleveland ahead 73-72. Leonard also kept up his strong defensive play by stuffing some random whose name I didn't catch.
The Spurs took the lead for good on a West jumper from the top of the key and would stretch it as far as ten points before things got mildly hairy at the end. West was fantastic all game, with 13 points in 18 minutes, and making up for a laissez faire game from Boris Diaw and a night to forget for Aldridge. Parker was asked afterward if West's aggressiveness and physicality reminded him of their playoff battles against him in 2008, back when he was at New Orleans.
"I told him I didn't like him that much, he would never say 'hi' to anybody," Parker laughed.
San Antonio spread out the scoring in trademark style to close out the game, with eight Spurs notching between 2-4 points while no reserves scored at all for the visitors. Leonard had a huge slam off an offensive board where he got waaaaay up there, reminiscent of the one he had in Game 4 of the 2014 Finals, while Duncan and Ginobili added the dagger buckets.
The weird thing about the game was just how friendly and serene everyone was. There just wasn't the tension we associate with LeBron games. Leonard outplayed him again, but nobody, including James, seemed at all shaken by it or surprised. There were smiles and hugs and friendly greetings both before and after, like it was the All-Star game, which, I guess it kind of was. Even Pop looked calm and happy throughout, repeatedly encouraging his team with positive reinforcement and putting an arm around Green's shoulder after a mistake.
Leonard summed it up as only he can afterward when asked if it was the biggest win of the season.
"No, not really," he said. "I mean, it's an Eastern Conference team."
I'm guessing everyone will be a bit more stoic if the Cavs wind up having to make another visit to the AT&T Center this year. You'll forgive the Spurs for being preoccupied with bigger fish to French fry.
Your Three Stars:
1. Tony Parker
2. Kawhi Leonard
3. David West
Up Next: Vs. Dallas Mavericks (22-18)
After a well-deserved two days off they've earned in sweeping a tough TIGAFONI, the Spurs will try to keep all their streaks going Sunday against a Mavericks club that's hanging around the middle of the Western Conference playoff bracket. Dallas has dropped two in a row, losing a tough back-to-back in overtime against the Cavs and then at Oklahoma City the next night, where they rested most of their guys. Dirk Nowitzki continues to be amazing, Wes Matthews has recovered in record time from an Achilles tear and both Deron Williams and Zaza Pachulia have been surprisingly solid for them, while Chandler Parsons looks close to 100 percent. There's not much defense to be found here, but nobody's perfect. The Spurs narrowly defeated Dallas at home once already, on Nov. 25, with Leonard making a clutch three at the end and overcoming a rare crummy night from the bench. I'll go on a limb and predict that Ginobili and Patty Mills shoot better than a combined 3-of-19 this time.