Game 36, @Denver: Spurs 127, Nuggets 99
Record: 29-7 1st in Southwest, 2nd in West Streak: W-2
If you’ve followed the Spurs for any decent amount of time, you’ve probably heard Gregg Popovich and his players explain that the team’s goal is to always keep incrementally improving and building, with the idea that they’ll peak in the playoffs. It’s a noble, sensible aim.
It’s also a bunch of baloney.
Stick Pop with some truth serum and ask him if it was possible for him to bottle how the Spurs are playing at this moment, or to simply skip ahead to mid-April right now, and I guarantee you he’d take it, no questions asked.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but San Antonio’s offense has been obscene of late, especially from the starters. Each one is playing as well as or better than we could possibly hope for, all simultaneously, their talents and skill-sets meshing beautifully.
It’s not enough to suggest that Tony Parker has “wound back the clock” or “is in vintage form.” Simply put, he’s playing as well as if not better than he ever has. We’re seeing him go behind-the-back with his dribble at full speed, splitting traps and kicking and drawing multiple bigs before kicking out to open wings on the corner and finishing through contact and around traffic at the rim. The Wee Frenchman’s legs are underneath him, he’s getting more lift on his jumpers and teardrops, and not front-rimming them anymore like he had been the past couple of years. He’s also regained enough zip to where defenders have to respect his drives and back off just enough to give him room on his mid-range J’s. These days Parker’s age and experience are actually helping him. He knows the offense inside and out, where and how to get the ball to everyone in their preferred spots, and he’s racking up the assists. He’s even burying wing threes now instead of just ones from the corner.
Parker had the second-best shooting game of his career at Denver, making 10-of-11 shots for 21 points and a season-high nine assists in a tidy 23:33 of work. The only time he’s topped that Jan. 16, 2006 at Memphis, when he sank 12-of-13, many of them, no doubt, layups against Pau Gasol.
If the Spurs can have this Parker against the likes of the Clippers or the Warriors, they’ve got a chance to make noise in the playoffs.
The thing is, Parker’s not the only one lighting up out there. Out of nowhere, LaMarcus Aldridge has turned back into an unstoppable force in the post. He’s scored at least 23 in five of his past six games, at high rates of efficiency to boot, and is simply not missing whether it’s from the three-point line, the elbows or in the paint. He went around and through Denver’s young big-man tandem of Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic like they weren’t even there and stretch-four Wilson Chandler was even more hopeless. Aldridge has suddenly turned into Shaquille O’Neal down low after seemingly being allergic to the paint during the first two months of the season and the only difference between the two is he doesn’t have to travel or elbow people in the face to score and he can make his free throws.
Gasol, meanwhile, isn’t as prolific, but he’s been just as deadly from the mid-range and the three-point line, he’s blocking shots at the rim and he’s killing teams with his passes from the high post, finding back-cutters at the basket or shooters in the corners and wings. His passing chops is even starting to rub off on Aldridge a little.
The Spurs’ big-man tandem has been so devastating of late, and Parker’s return to form so jaw-dropping, that it’s almost impossible not to take Kawhi Leonard’s all-around greatness for granted, like we did with Tim Duncan for so many years. His three-pointers are falling again after a mini-slump in that department in December and the improved play of his fellow starters is making it that much harder for opponents to defend Leonard. He’s not seeing the double-teams with as much regularity these days as he was earlier in the year and he’s been comfortable deferring more to Parker as the lead ball-handler, biding his time, staying patient, and trusting that the ball will find him. Leonard’s not having to work as hard for his points these days, and it’s allowing him to expend more energy on the defensive end, or as was the case against Denver, to just steal the ball on offense.
Still laughing about this https://t.co/T0Z25Uno0Y— Pounding the Rock (@poundingtherock) January 6, 2017
And that leaves Danny Green, who’s merely shooting 46.3 percent from three after hitting just 2-of-6 from outside against the Nugs. If he’s the fifth Beatle of this group instead of their second or third most valuable performer, then you know the Spurs are truly dangerous.
Simply put, the Nuggets had no chance Thursday night. They started 10-of-10 from the field, with Jokic, their skillful wunderkind center, showing off his wide array of talents, shooting from distance, scoring with his back to the basket, showing impressive touch on floaters and hooks and making the kind of passes most point guards would envy. He curved one feed with backspin around Gasol to a back-cutting Gary Harris early in the game that I rewound maybe 14 times it was so gorgeous.
And yet, none of it mattered. Nuggets coach Mike Malone called out his defense after a recent loss to Sacramento, describing it as “embarrassing” and “the worst in the NBA” (they’re 28th in Defensive Rating, for what it’s worth) and lamenting the lack of veteran leadership on the club. I doubt he’s feeling much better about it after the Spurs torched the nets on Thursday, making 56.7 percent of their shots and 12-of-24 threes on the way to 129 points, the fourth consecutive opponent to score at least 120 on Denver. The Spurs faced scant resistance inside, shooting 22-of-34 in the paint, and didn’t exactly have to ping it around the perimeter on the way to 34 assists.
It was a continuation of a winning formula, as the Spurs outscored Denver by 15 points at the three-point line, making 50 percent of their attempts to 28 percent for the Nugs. It was the 12th time this season they’ve shot 50 percent or better from downtown. They pulled it off 19 times last year and only 11 times in their championship season of 2013-14, when they were hailed for their shooting. They’re 12-0 this season when they’ve made at least half of their threes and 48-3 since 2013-14 when doing so.
That’s the difference. Even when they start poorly, you know the Spurs defense will eventually show up after a bad quarter or half. After making their first ten shots, Denver shot just 29-of-76 the rest of the way. Teams like the Nuggets though, when they start badly on defense, they stay bad, with benchings, feuds, finger-pointing, dissension and the kind of drama you often find on immature teams.
Can the Spurs play better than they are right now? Theoretically, it’s possible, I suppose. But what more can they realistically ask for, with Aldridge looking like a top-15 player again, Gasol rejuvenated and Parker summoning career-high performances? They’re rolling, man, and watching them right now makes me feel like Jerry Krause the first time he saw film of Scottie Pippen at Central Arkansas.
Up Next: Saturday Vs. Charlotte Hornets (20-17)
The Spurs return home for their second and in all likelihood final meeting of the season with the Hornets, the franchise whose single-season three-point shooting record (42.8 percent in 1996-97) they’re gunning for. Check out that roster sometime, it’s like opening up a Topps basketball card set from the 90’s. They had not only Glen Rice and Dell Curry (Steph’s dad) making threes, but also Tony Delk, Muggsy Bogues, Ricky Pierce and somebody named “Anthony Goldwire” all making over 40 percent. Actually the more interesting names on the squad were the guys not shooting bombs. They had a 37-year-old Tom Chambers, a 22-year-old Malik Rose, Anthony Mason and Vlade Divac, who’d been traded by the Lakers for some teenage random. Just a fascinating team.
As for the current Hornets, they lost a squeaker to Detroit on Thursday with a pair of former Spurs heavily factoring into the outcome. Boban Marjanovic finally got some playing time and rewarded Stan Van Gundy with 15 points and 19 rebounds, the first Piston to grab at least that many rebounds off the bench since 1999. Marco Belinelli didn’t shoot well for the Hornets, but he nearly canned a game-winning banked three. He tried a street-ball move as an inbounder, bouncing his entry pass off a defender to himself before shooting, but didn’t have Derek Fisher’s timekeeper so he couldn’t get the shot off within 0.5 seconds.
Belinelli was better on Nov. 23 against the Spurs, scoring 12 on 5-of-11 shooting, but San Antonio prevailed 119-114 that night behind 30 from Leonard and 23 from Aldridge. This will be the first of a three-game homestand for the Spurs and they might not be seriously challenged again until they visit Cleveland on Jan. 21st.