You'll forgive the Spurs if they were a bit less than inspired against the depleted Nooch on Wednesday night.
We've seen a lot of teams decimated by injuries roll through here over the years, but I'm not sure if I've ever seen any squad hit so comprehensively as the Pelicans have been. Quincy Pondexter had knee surgery late in preseason and has missed the whole year. Tyreke Evans messed up his knee in late January and was lost for the year. Eric Gordon fractured his ring finger on March 5th and that was it for him. Norris Cole hurt his back on the 9th and has been shelved since. They shut down Anthony Davis on the 18th, and he's since had surgery on his left knee and left shoulder. Ryan Anderson suffered a sports hernia on the 20th, coincidentally enough an injury pretty close anatomically to the one he unintentionally inflicted on Manu Ginobili, and even more serious, though it may not seem so at first blush. Then, two days ago, both Jrue Holiday and Alonzo Gee went down, with a "right inferior orbital wall fracture" for the former and a "complete rupture of the right proximal rectus femoris" for the latter and neither of those sound the least bit pleasant.
To suggest that the Pelicans were reduced to a skeleton crew at San Antonio would be an insult to skeleton crews. They started both Omer Asik and Alexis Ajinca in the same front court, and their combined shooting range is about as long as this sentence. Alvin Gentry played Kendrick Perkins, whose only basketball skill is a menacing glare, 18:30 on purpose. Luke Babbitt and Tim Frazier both got significant minutes off the bench and played relatively well. They signed James Ennis off the street literally hours before the game and played him 24:06, and I swear he was their best player, making three triples and adding four assists.
So naturally the Spurs needed a Bobo fadeaway to drop with less than a second remaining to spare themselves the indignity of trailing after the opening quarter and the game was tied as far along as four minutes into the second.
The game started decently enough. Both teams played a bit against type and were firing away from behind the three-point line, making four apiece, albeit in just five attempts for the Pelicans. Perhaps Toney Doughlas got lost on the scouting report, or around Asik's moving screens, but he canned all three of his triples. Meanwhile Kawhi Leonard looked fresh after missing the past three games with a thigh contusion and he scored seven in the opening period and his wing-mate Danny Green added eight more, including a couple of bombs to snap out of his rough road trip.
But then the second quarter started and neither team could make a thing. Good defense? Some, maybe, and the Spurs in particular protected the rim really well with Tim Duncan and LaMarcus Aldridge, with Green adding a couple of swats in there and Leonard chipping in, but mainly it was a parade of missed open jumpers, especially from the mid-range. The quarter was 9-7, Spurs with three minutes to go, it was that bad. At one point the Spurs were shooting 3-of-15.
It was Ginobili who snapped them out of the funk with a pair of threes in the final 1:38, and in between both he and Gregg Popovich were incensed at referee Mike Callahan for a no-call on what appeared to be Jordan Hamilton push off that sent the Argentine sixth-man sprawling. Ginobili doesn't normally complain much, especially during live action, but he was animatedly arguing his case to Callahan while standing in the corner as Leonard had the ball, and then suddenly found himself open on the wing and drained that second three, staring a hole into Callahan during his backpedal down the court.
Ginobili wound up leading everyone with 20 points, scoring nine in the fourth quarter on a three, a four-point play and a sweet give-and-go layup from Kyle Anderson. Perhaps he was heartened before the game by a visit from his pal and countryman Fabricio Oberto, but he explained afterward that getting to stay at home this past weekend instead of playing at Oklahoma City and Memphis did him a world of good.
"It doesn't mean that resting, I'm going to have a game like this, that's for sure, but no my body sometimes needs it," Ginobili said. "If we could play two games a week instead of four, I feel like I would have a much better season."
Remember, Ginobili scored a season-high 22 against Sacramento after a month layoff following his testicular surgery, so maybe there is something to this. Leonard looked like his usual superstar self for two-and-a-half quarters before Popovich gave him the rest of the night off as a precaution following his return from injury and both Duncan and Tony Parker were solid as well, with Duncan especially spry in his own end. They shook off the cobwebs and the boredom to open up an 18-point lead after three quarters, with the five starters combining 22 points, including two more bombs from Green, and then the bench mostly coasted home from there, allowing an obscene 37 points to Pelicans randoms on 15-of-20 shooting but never being seriously threatened.
With the win the Spurs have now started 38-0 at home, breaking a tie they previously held with the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls for best ever home start by a team in NBA history, and they've already tied franchise records for most home wins (2004-05) and most regular season wins 63 (2005-06). Popovich was so impressed by the home record that he gushed, "It doesn't mean anything. Absolutely nothing. Maybe a cup of coffee, maybe."
It could just be a coincidence but it seems he thought so much of the team's performance against New Orleans that he's scheduled practices for both Thursday and Friday, which is obviously a rarity for teams this late in the year, especially contending ones as veteran laden as the Spurs.
Or maybe scrimmaging against one another is the only way, short of playing that other team who never loses at home, for him to find his guys suitable competition these days.
Your Three Stars:
1. Manu Ginobili
2. Danny Green
3. Kawhi Leonard
Up Next: Vs. Toronto Raptors (50-24)
The Spurs will try to break a pair of franchise records against a Raptors squad who set one themselves, winning 50 games for the first time in their history by slapping around Mike Budenholzer's Hawks Wednesday night. The Raps are only two games behind Cleveland for the one seed in the East, but they've been pretty wobbly of late, winning just six of their last ten, with minor injuries to Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas. Against the Hawks they started Jason Thompson instead of Luis Scola, and Thompson was so unspeakably awful against the Warriors that they waived him to make room for Anderson Varejao. DeMarre Carroll, their big off-season acquisition (they signed him for four years, $60 million compared to Green's four years, $40 million) has been out with a knee injury since Jan. 4th and may not return this season due to complications.
Nevertheless, while I'm not quite sure what to expect from the Raptors (it'll be a SEGABABA for them), it'll be good to see old friend Cory Joseph again. If the Spurs win not only will they break a pair of aforementioned franchise records, but they'll have defeated every other team in the league at least once for the second straight season after not having done it previous to then since 2004-05. A win would help them avenge a 97-94 loss at T-Dot on Dec. 9 on a night where DeRozan simply wouldn't miss from mid-range.