It's February, there's still two weeks to go till the Rodeo Road Trip, Tim Duncan remains out of action and the Spurs were facing yet another nondescript opponent at home.
The Orlando Magic started the season surprisingly well under Scott Skiles, but have been the worst team in the league since the turn of the calendar, with two January wins to their name. A visit to San Antonio, where the Spurs were a perfect 25-0, did not portend a competitive game. Worse still for the visitors, the Spurs were 7-0 coming off losses, winning by an average of 21.4 points.
You kind of figured that Gregg Popovich would not be in the mood, especially coming off a pair of noncompetitive losses to the league's elite. He'd be short, he'd be ill-tempered, he'd have a quick hook with certain guys, but perhaps most of all he'd be of the mind to experiment and tinker, just out of sheer boredom.
'Tis the season for wacky Pop lineups and he did not disappoint.
Neither did the Madge, truth be told. The Spurs got out to a 12-0 lead in the blink of an eye behind threes from Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green and stretched it to 19-4 soon after, with LaMarcus Aldridge scoring easily against Nikola Vucevic and Leonard canning another bomb. However, just as we in the press area were rolling our collective eyes and settling in for a second half of Boban-a-palooza, Orlando started scoring, mostly off offensive rebounds. They had 10 second-chance points in the first quarter alone, and while their defense was mostly abysmal, they were still hanging around, 35-24.
Aldridge had 14 of his season-high 28 in the first quarter, with four pick-and-pop jumpers, a driving layup and four freebies, all while working exclusively against poor Vucevic, who's like Brook Lopez but with better rebounding.
Patty Mills came off the bench to hit a couple of threes and the Spurs looked to be well on their way to another rout at home.
It started off as more of the same in the second quarter. Manu Ginobili created three Orlando turnovers just by getting in the way, as he does, and he scored a couple of layups on the other end, including the world's first ever ankle-breaking crossover dribble without actually dribbling.
The rest of the bench was quiet though, save for a nice backdoor feed from David West to Mills, and momentum started to gradually turn as the starters were unable to capture their first quarter *ahem* magic.
Green got the hook from Pop soon after checking in for losing his man on an in-bounds play, giving us the unholy spectacle of a Tony Parker-Ray McCallum backcourt. (No thank you.) Rasual Butler also got second quarter minutes because hey why not. The Magic play a ton of small-ball and none of the Spurs' "smalls," from Green to Kyle Anderson to Jonathon Simmons, were doing much to remain on the floor. The Spurs shot 8-of-18 in the second quarter, 0-of-5 from downtown, with six turnovers, and Orlando outscored them in the period 20-17 despite shooting 34.6 percent. The Magic doubled Aldridge aggressively once he checked back in and there didn't seem to be an effective "Plan B." The Spurs still led 52-44 at half, so it wasn't exactly time to panic yet.
Half-time caption contest!
(My answer wasn't deemed publishable enough to win the half-time caption contest.)
Lest you guess the boys were snapped out of their doldrums with a fire-and-brimstone half-time speech from the skipper, the Spurs almost immediately surrendered the lead, with Orlando bushwacking them with a 12-3 run to start the third. Green was benched once more after consecutive giveaways to Victor Oladipo, and once Simmons proved unsatisfactory as well, the rotation kind of went kablooey, with Ginobili checking in far earlier than usual. Parker didn't have his usual giddy-up (perhaps he was up late the night before speaking with family overseas with news of another son on the way, though that's just speculation on my part), Leonard was as quiet on the court as off for once, and Ginobili hit one three but missed a couple other wide open ones. Mills drilled a pair of long twos of the "no-no-okay good shot" variety but otherwise the offense continued to be dormant save for eight more points from Aldridge. The Spurs were up 75-70 after three, again getting outscored for the quarter.
They broke the game, with, of all things, a lineup of West-Anderson-Green-Mills-McCallum, because of course they did. The quintet hadn't played a second together before tonight, as you probably suspected, and for all we know may not ever again. Stylistically and aesthetically there are few combinations the Spurs could throw out there that would be less appealing to me personally, but good god did they did work well together to start the fourth quarter, with a 18-8 run in five minutes.
Anderson in particular may have been the best we've ever seen him. He repeatedly got to the spots on floor he was comfortable shooting from with an array of herky-jerky hesitation moves and was sharp from a play-making standpoint too, which we hadn't seen as much of this season.
Anderson had seven of nine Spurs points early on to get the lead back to double-digits and fed Mills for a four-point play and West for a dunk shortly after. Mills finished with eight in the quarter on his way to tying his season-high of 22.
Mills was asked afterward if that was the first time he played with Anderson and the rest and he replied that he couldn't even remember which five guys were out there.
"I think when we're in that position and we can put guys into the game, it doesn't change the game at all. We step in and fill shoes and then we just play."
Or, as Ginobili put it, "We've got a lot of players and sometimes it's not easy to find a spot for everybody."
The sixth-man went on to explain that while Popovich is experimenting with different lineups, he's hardly running a charity when it comes to playing time in relation to the increased workload Simmons and Anderson have had of late. "I don't think Pop is just giving out gifts and trying to be nice, especially after the two losses we had last week, "Ginobili said. "He's giving them the minutes because they deserve it and they went for it, and when they were on the court they [produced], so they earned it, so it's not that Pop is being 'nice Pop.'
Good Pop, bad Pop, nice Pop, ice Pop. We see 'em all, often in a single quarter. The regular season is his laboratory, the players are various acids and bases and we're all left to watch what happens and hope that it doesn't get too messy.
Your Three Stars:
1) LaMarcus Aldridge
2) Patty Mills
3) Kyle Anderson
Up Next: Vs. New Orleans Pelicans (18-29):
After sneaking into the playoffs with a win in the final game of the regular season last year --which ultimately proved disastrous for the Spurs-- the Pelicans were tabbed to be an up-and-coming team in 2016, especially with a reputable coach in Alvin Gentry to revamp their offense. Instead, they got off to a miserable 1-11 start, and have been trying to climb their way back up the standings, in fits and starts, ever since. They're in the midst of their best stretch of the season, winners of seven of their past ten, but still long shots to get back into the playoff chase, four games behind eighth-seeded Portland. However, one thing they've got going for them is that they've taken over the Trail Blazers mantle as "random team that owns the Spurs." The Pelicans won three-of-four meetings last year, and it would've been a clean sweep if not for a miraculous tip from Duncan at the buzzer in the other one. They also won the first one this season, on Nov. 20, at home, convincingly 104-90 with Ryan Anderson scoring 30 off the bench. It's gonna be interesting to see how the Spurs match up, especially with Duncan unlikely to play.