It's easy enough to see that the Spurs are a better team than they were last year. You don't have to be a basketball genius like me (ahem), the guy who thought the San Antonio should've aggressively pursued Alexey Shved in free agency, to figure that out.
The simple numbers bear it out; at this point last season they were 23-15, seventh in the West and sporting a whopping 3.9-point scoring differential. Now they're nine games better, and their 13.9-point differential, if it held up (which, to be clear, it won't) would be the best of any team in league history. Last year they finished with a respectable 6.6 net rating. This season, they're at 14.6, which also leads the league. Beyond the numbers though there's just the sheer weight of the personnel the Spurs have upgraded. They're just so much deeper now with LaMarcus Aldridge, David West, Jonathon Simmons and Boban Marjanovic, all of whom bring various things to the table. Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker both look rejuvenated, playing limited minutes and picking their spots. Patty Mills is healthy now and liable to go on a scoring spurt at any time. Boris Diaw is more effective posting up than ever, playing with dangerous "stretch-fives" in Aldridge and West. Danny Green can still shoot it from anywhere and is as good defensively as any two-guard in the league. Leonard has an offensive arsenal comparable to any superduperstar you can name. Oh, and there's Tim Duncan minding the paint, only the best defensive big on the planet.They just have so many different ways to hurt people and exploit mismatches.
They're almost --almost-- slump proof.
Forget all the statistical mumbo-jumbo and the tangible roster for a second. Let's forge ahead recklessly to my favorite vacation spot outside of Las Vegas: Narrative-land. Come along, chase some flying unicorns with me, it'll be fun, I promise!
Look over there, next to the meadow, it's "I'm glad this game was close, the Spurs need to build some experience winning these kind of games." And there, on your right, by the barn made of solid gold, it's "The game was only competitive because the refs were in the bag for the big market team."
WHOOOOOSH! Whoa, that was close! That sucker flew right over us, a majestic, purple, "Forget about the Spurs for a second, did you get a load of that Porzingis guy?!?!" Look at him soaring to meet his blue friend, "Well, Pop wanted to give his small-ball lineup a look and it was rusty."
All of these creatures are beautiful and elegant in their own right, but for me, they all pale to the unparalleled beauty of the unicorn, floating atop the fulcrum of the rainbow, surveying all below.
What's your name, you magnificent proof that a higher power exists and loves us all very much?
"Call me 'There's no way the Spurs would've won that game last year.'"
Here are some diamond carrots, my new friend. Please let me mount you and fly us up to heaven.
(No, for real though that was a pretty fun game, and Manu Ginobili, who will forever and always be my personal flying unicorn for countless reasons including being a quotable Spur, said that he thought Jose Calderon's shot was going in from his angle.)
The Knicks, winners of three in a row, showed from the outset that they meant business in this one, getting off to a hot start in the first quarter and leading 30-26 after one. Rookie Kristaps Porzingis hit a deep three, letting Aldridge know he'd have his hands full on the evening, and had 10 points in the first period, while Lance Thomas hit all three of his shots off the bench, including a pair of bombs, and had eight of his own.
Leonard hasn't been rebounding much of late, but he turned that around tonight with seven boards in the first quarter alone, and while he was stymieing Carmelo Anthony in one end, he scored nine on the other, on a slick turnaround baseline fadeaway, a tip, a driving layup and a floater in the lane.
Ginobili checked in a bit earlier than usual for Green and had nine of his own, on a three and a couple of backdoor layups.
Everyone else was pretty cold and the Spurs shot just 9-of-25 in the period, lucky to be down just four.
The Knicks went up by as many as nine early in the second period with Porzingis notching his 13-15th points on another deep three, but the Spurs answered with an 18-4 run through the meat of the quarter, really their only sustained stretch of great defense of the game. Diaw and West combined for a dozen points inside and Aldridge scored all eight of his first-half points in the final 3:35, on two mid-range shots set up from Parker and a couple more from in close. Ginobili and Diaw both revealed that the Spurs had made going into the paint an emphasis against the Knicks, who've allowed the third-most points inside in the league, and the Spurs had a 32-16 advantage there at half, and a narrow 52-49 lead at the break.
"From the get-go, that's what Pop asked," Diaw said afterward. "To go inside-out, try to get some balls inside."
You don't have to ask a Frenchman twice!
So, how was that Kawhi Vs. Melo match-up going at half?
Typically the third quarter is when the Spurs have blown games open, but it wasn't to be against the Knicks, who started the second half by scoring 15 points in the first five minutes, seven of them coming again from Porzingis who kept shooting over or driving around Aldridge. Anthony was still cold for the visitors, but got to the charity stripe a few times to salvage his stat-line. Pop countered by playing his starters most of the way and they all had between 4-6 points, with Green finally getting himself going with a couple of jumpers and Parker snapping out of his doldrums with a breakaway layup on a jump ball after Green had stuffed Anthony. The Spurs stretched the lead out as high as seven with a Ginobili three --their only bench points of the quarter-- but a last-second tip from Langston Galloway made the score 79-74 going into the fourth.
The hosts were on the verge of breaking the Knicks throughout the first six minutes of the final period, leading by a dozen at a couple different points, including Parker's pull-up jumper with 5:27 to go. They really took advantage of the Porzingis-Derrick Williams tandem on defense, with Ginobili, Aldridge and Diaw all scoring easily inside and Green taking advantage of great ball movement for a corner three.
Midway through the quarter though Derek Fisher tried a desperate gambit, playing small with Anthony at the four. Popovich answered in kind, maybe just to experiment with his under-used small-ball lineup more than anything else, and it backfired on him. The offense got really stagnant for a spell, with Aldridge isolating three different times on Lopez to no avail, Parker coming up empty on a couple of jumpers and Leonard not getting a call on a mid-range jumper on what looked to be an obvious foul on Anthony. Galloway got an "and-1" on the other end and all of a sudden it was a five point game.
It was down to three when Pop called time at last with 2:27 to go, and inserting Ginobili for Simmons and getting to call a sideline out-of-bounds play calmed things down, but only briefly.
Arron Afflalo threw in a corner three off a loose ball and from there the two sides continued to trade blows. Parker found Aldridge for a jumper, and Anthony answered with a smooth fadeaway against Leonard. Parker drove for an uncontested layup, Afflalo drilled a 25-footer with Green contesting perfectly.
Parker hit a tough teardrop with 33 seconds to go to make it 100-97 and that lead stood for all of a second, with Porzingis slamming home an alley-oop off a perfect inbounds pass from Afflalo. Parker followed that up with a curious 20-foot jumper with plenty of time left on the shot clock that bricked and set up the following...
Yup... that'd have gone in last year.
(I think the Spurs are gonna have to play just a bit better to extend the home record to 23-0.)
Your Three Stars:
1. Kawhi Leonard
2. Tony Parker
3. Manu Ginobili
Up Next: At Brooklyn Nets (10-26)
After taking the weekend off the Spurs will face the Knicks' neighbors on their turf in the first of a back-to-back, and my guess is they'll be resting Duncan and Ginobili, with the tougher Pistons awaiting them the next night. The Nets have the second-worst record in the East, have lost three in a row, including Friday to the Magic in an 83-77 rock fight, and have dropped nine in a row at home overall. You know how the Spurs have won all 22 of their home games this season? Well the first of those came way back on Oct. 30 against the Nets, 102-75, including 60-28 in the second half. The Spurs lost up there last season, for what it's worth, and all I remember about that game was Pop reaming poor Green at the end, who was one of the few Spurs to show up that night.