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Spurs fall to Suns in Mexico City

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Maybe the Spurs should stick to playing Stateside

NBA: San Antonio Spurs vs Dallas Mavericks EFE-USA TODAY Sports

Game 40, @Phoenix (via Mexico City): Spurs 105, Suns 108

Record: 31-9 - 1st in Southwest, 2nd in West

¡Qué lástima!

Mexico City hasn’t been especially friendly to the San Antonio Spurs. Their three most recent matchups south of the forthcoming Wall include a DNP – Smokebomb against the Wolves in 2013, a defeat at the hands…and feet of some shoeless Mexican children even smaller than Tyler Ulis, and Saturday’s loss to the Phoenix Suns, which moved the Suns out of a tie for last place in the Western Conference.

Mexico on the other mano, has been very, very kind to Devin Booker.

The best shooter on Mexican soil since Pancho Villa, Booker will surely be remiss to return stateside after setting a career high against the Mavericks Thursday (39) and then tying it against the Spurs in the Suns’ second consecutive game in D.F.

The young man – and I must emphasize YOUNG...he won’t be able to legally drink back in the States until October – has a bright future in the NBA as he showed athleticism and exuberance, paired with a composure well beyond his years.

The game started out ominous with the Suns’ guard hitting a three pointer on their opening possession. His shooting hadn’t cooled from Thursday, where 28 of his 39 points came in a vigorous fourth quarter comeback attempt. This ultimately started the Suns on a 9-2 run that saw Coach Popovich go with a hockey line substitution on the starters three minutes into the game.

The Spurs were out of their normal minutes rotation from that point on, that they never really settled back into it.

Manu Ginobili, entering to a rapturous response in the arena, proved to be the Spurs’ spark. His eight first-quarter points were one of the reasons the first period ended with the teams tied at 25.

Both teams looked sloppy in the first half – which can be chalked up to some combination of altitude, travel, and access to authentic Mexican food leaving everyone a little off their game. The 25 combined first half turnovers could’ve been due in part to the Spurs playing without both backup PGs, seeing Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Jonathon Simmons, Ginobili, and Kyle Anderson taking turns initiating the offense when Tony Parker was off the floor. Bryn Forbes even got some action, connecting on a long 2 from the corner for his first NBA points since mid-November.

Back on the floor, Tony Parker scored seven straight points between the last field goal in the first and the first two (off of steals) to open the second quarter. In fact, the Spurs outscored the Suns 21-11 to open the 2nd frame, helping SA get a cushion they would carry for much of the game.

Thanks to improved defense and reducing turnovers, the Spurs took a 58-51 lead into halftime. It was shaping up to be a backcourt battle with Booker and Eric Bledsoe combining for 28, while Parker and Leonard combined for 27.

The Spurs kept a similar lead for most of the 3rd quarter, with both Kawhi and Booker propping up their teammates. San Antonio was up by as many as 11, but the Suns whittled away and a P.J. Tucker buzzer-beating three would cut the lead to 5.

The Tucker shot was part of an overall 20-5 Suns run, including a 17-1 stretch to start the the 4th quarter. This nearly coincided with Parker’s brief injury with a thigh injury (he would return), and marked a point where the Spurs were down all 3 point guards.

If you break the game into 8 distinct six-minute arcs, the Spurs' scoring looked like this:

13 12| 21 12| 14 13| 3 17.

That glaring six-minute opening to the 4th quarter (David Lee scored the Spurs first field goal at the 6:20 mark), one in which the Spurs Juice Crew with Patty and Manu usually blows a game wide open, was ultimately the Silver-and-Black downfall. Manu ended up closing the game out (alongside Gasol), Forbes played 4th quarter minutes; the rotation was generally in shambles. A few key injuries can have a ripple effect.

The game looked to be out of hand for Los Spurs, but a Manu three with 5:18 to bring it back to 5 points made this a game. Ginobili proved to be crucial in both the opening and closing quarters when it seemed no one else wanted to be there.

From that point on, Leonard took the game over and elevated what was a nice night into what should’ve been an all-timer if the outcome went a bit differently.

In the final 4 minutes, Kawhi was flying all over the court, collecting loose balls, going coast-to-coast, drawing fouls and playing like a frenetic-pace superstar. He also switched on Booker, and there was a point where it didn’t look like the poor second-year guard would even touch the ball again for the remainder of the game.

On a final wild sequence that had the Mexico City fans on their feet (and multiple captured on camera raising up, taking their shirt off, and twisting around their head like a helicopter, as if instructed by Petey Pablo), a Tyson Chandler tapout led to Kawhi chasing down a loose ball to start a fast break. While he could’ve probably continued a contested layup (or potentially draw a foul), he made the “smart” play to kick out to Manu who found a wide-open Danny Green, who missed the game-winning three.

The Spurs would ultimately shoot 5-for-15 in the game’s final quarter.

Takeaway

Kawhi has dueled with unlikely “stars” in the Spurs recent losses. Michael Beasley from Milwaukee and now Devin Booker. Kawhi has scored 30 in each of the last three, but losing two.

Here’s the thing: Devin Booker NEEDS to have explosive scoring nights for the Suns. They are an uneven and young team, with some decent-at-best, talent around him. They aren’t as bad as their record, as evidenced by beating a very good Rockets team, but they aren’t world beaters. Kawhi Leonard plays on a championship-caliber team. In a game of where high 30s make the headlines, it is slightly worrying that 39-year-old Manu Ginobili was the second best Spur on the court. (Tony Parker was probably third at the tender age of 34)

Can you chalk it up to altitude? Attitude? Not having Patty Mills and Dejounte Murray available? Sure. But the Spurs were coming off a game where they looked like a team that knew how to take care of bad teams soundly, get the requisite Spursian rest so that they can get up for battle with the good teams, all in preparation for the playoffs when things really matter. The remaining Spurs simply need to support their superstar if they want to win it all.

The real test will be in how the team responds. Luke Walton commended the Spurs for the way they fired on all cylinders after a close loss to the Bucks – will Thibs meet the same focus, effort, and precision on Tuesday? Will we see the fortitude and character that Pop values over midseason wins?

CLOSING GAMES

Before this week, the Spurs have been great at closing teams out and keeping leads. Securing a double-digit margin in 30-of-40 games, this marked the second time in the past week that they collapsed down the stretch; with only one such loss occurring the remainder of the season. Both times it was to younger, inferior teams (though the Bucks are much better than the Suns). San Antonio was up by 11 points Saturday with 13 minutes remaining.

Though it should be noted that basketball is a game of percentages, and the Spurs have gotten three excellent shots (Bertans/Manu on Tuesday and now Green) in the closing seconds in the past week and none have gone in. One, or all of those could’ve rattled in (well...maybe not Ginobili’s), creating an entirely different narrative.

“That was really the game,” Popovich said regarding Danny’s miss. “You don’t want to come down to the end and have to make a shot to win the game. You want to win games earlier than that.”

Quick Notes:

  • This game had almost an old ABA feel, where the crowd just might cheer for whatever team is playing well at the moment and points flowed like…well not water - considering Montezuma’s and his Revenge and all. But they flowed.
  • Mugsy Ulis – Tyler Ulis looks like a father/son combo with PJ Tucker who may have the most mass in the NBA. (Hook ‘em?)
  • Phoenix wants to be the “adopted Mexico City team” - Did this work out for the Buffalo Bills and Toronto?
  • 1255: miles between Phoenix and Mexico City
  • 692: miles between San Antonio and Mexico City (approx. equivalent of SA to Kansas City)
  • 847: miles between San Antonio and Phoenix
  • LaMarcus Aldridge was a pedestrian 6-for-14, after being completely en fuego over his past 8 games, shooting over 65%.
  • Suns are a now a 4th quarter team? They are averaging 30 ppq in the 4th quarter of their last 4 (two in Mexico), up from 25.6 in their previous 36 games this season.
  • There was a very odd defensive goal-tending call late. The announcers seemed as baffled as I was. Will have to see the two-minute report.
  • In 5 regular season and 19 pre-season games in Mexico, Devin Booker now owns the two highest scoring efforts. Kawhi’s 38 place third, bumping Michael Finley’s 35 point effort out of the Top-3 entirely.
  • Suns led 28-10 in second chance points, and had a 45 to 33 rebounding edge.

Up Next:

The Minnesota Timberwolves come to San Antonio on Tuesday. Even dropping 2-of-3, this is the Spurs second best start to a season – (31-9), including an excellent 17-4 on the road. One game from the midpoint of the season, and they’re on pace for a 64-18 record.

The January record falls to 4-3, with all three losses coming by a combined margin of seven points.

They face another dangerous, young team in the Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday. The hope is that we see the effort and execution shown versus the Lakers as opposed to the Suns or Bucks.