While last week will mostly be remembered for Tim Duncan’s jersey retirement, games were played as well. The schedule wasn’t exactly daunting (Phoenix, Boston sans Isaiah Thomas, and New Orleans), but the Spurs still showed signs of improvement in some key areas, particularly effort, starting games stronger, and making the other team try to catch them, not vice versa.
The schedule gets tougher this week, giving the Spurs a chance at some revenge games against three teams who have beaten the Spurs already (Houston Rockets, LA Clippers and Chicago Bulls), plus a struggling but still eighth seeded Portland Trail Blazers team on a SEGABABA. This week will tell us a lot about if the Spurs recent improvements are legit or just the result of a relatively weak schedule.
John Schuhmann, NBA.com - 2 (last week: 3)
It's almost as if Tim Duncan's retirement ceremony inspired the two remaining Spurs that have won multiple championships with him, as well as the defense that he anchored for 19 years. Tony Parker's effective field goal percentage is at its lowest mark since his rookie year, but he has shot 53 percent with 21 assists and just four turnovers as the Spurs have won four straight games. And Manu Ginobili scored a season-high 17 points in Sunday's win over the Pelicans. Only the Grizzlies and Rockets have been better defensively over their last 10 games and the Spurs are back where they were (in the top five) in 15 of Duncan's 19 seasons. They'll be tested this week, though the Clippers' offense against which they had their worst defensive game of the season will be without its second best player.
David Aldridge, NBA.com - 1 (last week: 2)
They are 17-2 overall over the last five weeks. Of course, they don’t think they’re playing all that well right now. That’s what it’s like to have real standards as an organization.
Marc Stein, ESPN - 4 (last week: 3)
Tim Duncan's jersey has just been hoisted to the rafters. The jury's still out on LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol as a frontcourt partnership. And Tony Parker is averaging just 10.1 points per game. Put all of that together, and it sounds like a recipe for standings slippage. The Spurs, though, still look like a reasonable facsimile of the Spurs at 22-5, fueled by that league-best 14-1 road record that only two other teams in history -- last season's Warriors and the 1971-72 Lakers -- can identify with. Like we said in our Coach of the First Trimester dispatch: The job being done by Gregg Popovich is being taken for granted yet again. Not by us, though. Not after we had the privilege of sitting down with Pop for a SportsCenter convo in Timmy's honor.
Jeremy Woo, Sports Illustrated - 4 (last week: 4)
With Tim Duncan’s jersey retirement comes the official end of an era in San Antonio. Or so we think (if he pops up for the veteran’s minimum in March, don’t bat an eyelash). Watching the ceremony on Sunday night evoked a lot of nostalgia and feeling and all that, and Duncan actually spoke publicly for more than four minutes.
But this is about the current Spurs, who are 22–5 and taking care of business as usual, mostly. San Antonio will get a bit of a test this week, however, hitting the road against the Rockets and Clippers, who are two of the five teams that have managed to beat them this year, and have the personnel to expose the Spurs’ structural problems.
I hate being the guy in December who’s like, “Maybe let’s worry about the most consistent franchise of the last 20 years,” but the Spurs' record does conceal the fact that this team has the potential to be exposed defensively. More often than not, they’ve gotten along fine this season, but the LaMarcus Aldridge/Pau Gasol combo is sort of asking to be pick and rolled by capable opponents, the Rockets and Clippers both falling into that category. I read a good piece over at CBS Sports this week that called attention to the fact that teams are actively trying to hide Kawhi Leonard as a defender, parking his man in the corner and trying to isolate the Spurs’ other pieces.
It may not come full circle until the playoffs, but it’s a potential weakness that San Antonio will have to compensate for with immaculate team coverage, or by making some moves. It’s part of what happens when you lose Duncan, who even at the end of his career remained a superb communicator and preferable defensive option most nights. The Spurs are enviably strong, but it might take even more to win the West.
Matt Moore, CBS Sports - 4 (last week: 4)
The Spurs won 16 of their last 18. They don't give off the vibe of a team that's as good as their record, but it's still the second-best record in the NBA that they own. They face the Rockets, Clippers, Blazers and Bulls this week as the schedule finally toughens up.
Kurt Helin, NBC Sports - 2 (last week: 3)
As you would expect from the Spurs organization, the retirement of Tim Duncan’s jersey was classy, emotional and just flat out on point. That Sunday win over the Pelicans was first of five games in seven days for the Spurs, including games on the road against the Rockets, Clippers, then the Trail Blazers on the second night of a back-to-back. Rough stretch, guys will get rested. Of course, the Spurs have Christmas Day plans, taking on the Chicago Bulls in the second of the ABC games.