It's difficult sometimes to put what the San Antonio Spurs have done so far in context. They go through large stretches of games --often against so-so competition-- looking rather ordinary, showing vulnerability in this area or that, but almost inevitably they find ways to break games open, to ruin their opponent's best laid plans. They ugly up games when their foes are playing too pretty and come up with stretches of beauty when their rivals want to play in the mud. More often than not they look slower, less athletic, and less explosive than the opponent, yet practically every night they can "out talent" the competition with five future Hall-of-Famers. Or sometimes a few of those living legends are out of action because of some reason or another, and the Spurs still win because they just out-basketball you.
Seemingly weeks go by without an impressive win over a worthy opponent, yet here they sit with 55 wins, the same as last year but in 17 fewer opportunities. They'll top last year's total, probably. Different facets of the operation seem lacking on different nights, and a few seem deficient more consistently, yet we look up and the Spurs have not just the best point-differential in the league but what would be the best in NBA history if they can keep it up. It doesn't add up sometimes, this whole that's greater than the sum of its parts, but if we can't figure it watching them night in and night out, then what are other teams to do when they see these guys once every few months, with hardly any time to prepare for them during the regular season grind?
Take Thursday night's game against the Bulls for example. Chicago came in severely shorthanded, missing their best player in Jimmy Butler, who was out with a left knee strain, and also without Aaron Brooks and Joakim Noah. Guys like E'Twaun Moore and Justin Holiday were pressed into heavy duty by necessity, and both thrived. Actually, both were fantastic, combining for 32 points on 20 shots and making 6-of-8 threes between them. The Bulls as a whole were deadly from downtown, nailing 11-of-22 triples against a Spurs defense that's the stingiest in the league in allowing them (6.3 per game) and tied-for-second in three-point percentage defense, per NBA.com.
Moore and Derrick Rose were relentless in attacking the teeth of the San Antonio's defense and got to the rim time and again to either get up good looks or to kick out to open guys. Taj Gibson and Pau Gasol were active on the glass, with seven offensive boards between them and Chicago had 11 overall, winning the 2nd-chance points battle 17-12. On the other end of the floor they limited the Spurs' good looks from three, didn't foul too much, got back in transition and kept the Spurs' vaunted bench in check.
Chicago played so well in so many areas of the game, but it just didn't matter at all because A) they couldn't take care of the ball at all, throwing it all over the gym to the tune of 21 turnovers and B) the aforementioned bit about the Hall-of-Famers. It's not every day you face a big-man who joins Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players in NBA history to compile at least 26,000 points, 15,000 rebounds and 3,000 blocked shots, after all.
And Tim Duncan is just the other big on the squad these days, the guy who looks to set up LaMarcus Aldridge from the high post, who serves a pressure release valve for the guards and who mostly rebounds and plays defense and does the unglamorous stuff while Aldridge gets up shots.
YASSSSSS. pic.twitter.com/1GX6l9yANf— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) March 11, 2016
The former Blazer had gotten off to a slow start with the Spurs, but he's fully integrated now and has scored at least 23 points in six straight appearances, finishing with 26 points and 10 rebounds and scoring on not just his beloved pick-and-pop jumpers but also several smart cuts to the hoop, working in concert with Duncan, Tony Parker and others.
Then there was Kawhi Leonard, whom poor Mike Dunleavy, 35, was tasked with guarding with Butler out. Honestly Dunleavy did as well as could possibly be expected of him. He kept Leonard in front of him, didn't allow him to penetrate --or possibly Leonard just didn't see the need to-- and kept Leonard off the boards. And still San Antonio's young superstar dominated, canning nine jumpers, mostly of the pull-up variety, including 4-of-5 from deep, on the way to a game-high 29.
Kawhi is 2/2 from THREEEEE tonight! pic.twitter.com/SNuMn6sPOH— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) March 11, 2016
Leonard's raised his scoring average to 20.8 points per game and he's also scored at least 23 in six of his past seven games, with the exception being 15 in 25 minutes of a SEGABABA blowout at Minnesota a night after he had 40 minutes of mano-a-manu with Paul George at Indiana.
If you want to feel sorry for the Bulls at all --and why would you?-- it should because they ran into Parker on the wrong night. It sounds odd to describe one of the most decorated point guards of all time as "an X-factor," but at 33 and in his 15th season it fits The Wee Frenchman, who's more of a game manager than a gunslinger at this stage of his career. Parker was brilliant against Chicago, with nine of his season-high 12 assists in the first half and three big jumpers early in the third quarter to stretch San Antonio's lead to 12. Parker finished with 20 points, as many as he had in his four previous games combined.
Tony out here doing Tony things pic.twitter.com/G0RXRxPzgQ— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) March 11, 2016
The Spurs moved the ball well and took care of it even better, especially in comparison to Chicago, but they didn't shoot it well nor was their defense sharp. The just took advantage of all the extra possessions the Bulls afforded them and math did the rest. You're not gonna beat the Spurs with that many giveaways and you really have no chance if you allow their starters to make 35 buckets.
Oh, and you really can't let stuff like this happen.
Right place, perfect time. pic.twitter.com/f7ZVyYV7TJ— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) March 11, 2016
The quixotic search for context continues, but help is on the way, with games against fellow Western Conference elites --and also Portland-- in the offing. The Spurs are now 31-0 at the AT&T Center and have won 40 on the trot dating back to last season. They'll be tested but good over the next nights, all the while continuing to tweak on the margins with new pieces in Andre Miller and Kevin Martin, who made his Spurs debut and played an uneventful 7:42 but drew a chuckle from the vets on the bench by drawing a foul the one time he put the ball up in earnest. Martin's prowess at earning free-throws may buy him minutes against lesser lights, but you wonder if there'll be a spot in the rotation for him for the time being with the schedule being what it is and the steep learning curve of the team's playbook.
Martin's been on the business end of many Spurs drubbings over the years. Now he'll get to see how the other half lives. We'll find out if he can make sense of who they are, where they're going and what they're capable of.
At least his view will be enviable.
Your Three Stars:
1) Tony Parker
2) Kawhi Leonard
3) LaMarcus Aldridge
Up Next: At Oklahoma City Thunder (44-20)
If it seems like ages ago the Spurs last played these guys, it's because it practically has been. San Antonio opened the season with a narrow 112-106 loss at Chesapeake Arena on Oct. 28, a game in which Leonard scored 32 (still his season-high) and ate Kevin Durant's lunch on both ends. There was just too much Russell Westbrook and Enes Kanter to overcome on that night. Since then the two clubs have gone their separate ways and while Durant's returned to form and Russ has never been better, the rest of their supporting cast has been mostly disappointing and they've hit the skids defensively and in fourth quarter execution. The Thunder are 4-6 in their last 10 games and tied with the 76ers with 10 fourth quarter blown leads. The Spurs are going to have to play well to beat them, but OKC's defense seems to have a way of enabling lots of teams, good, bad or indifferent, to score in prodigious amounts. Should be a good one.