This season has been a crazy one. This past week, Spurs lost two road games, but beat the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets at home. In that span, LaMarcus Aldridge has continued to be the rock on which this season’s Spurs have landed. But Dejounte Murray’s development and Manu Ginobili’s inability to play anything but all-out have the Silver & Black looking like formidable contenders for the first round of the playoffs. Future rounds can and will be determined by rampant injury throughout the league.
This week, PtR contributors Bruno Passos, Mark Barrington, Marilyn Dubinski, Jesus Gomez, and editor-in-chief J. R. Wilco tackle the imminent playoffs, the difference between home and away games, the Spurs transition to playoff form, and some individual accolades that came to light since we last met.
Questions were posed to the panel after the Houston game and reflect the last week. For the Los Angeles road trip and Portland home game, check back next Tuesday.
The Spurs racked up their tenth consecutive win at home on Sunday. They have been much better at home than on the road. Do they need home court advantage in the first round to have a chance or will their postseason experience help them get some road wins in the playoffs?
Bruno Passos: They’ve been pretty bad on the road this year, but it feels like that’s also when more players have sat and Pop has been forced to turn to go deeper in the rotation. Their odds are better if they get home court in the first round, but I’m not sure it’s as pronounced as the differing home/road splits would suggest.
Mark Barrington: I don’t think home court matters as much in the playoffs when you have time to prepare in depth to play the same team for a series of games. But the role players who have been playing poorly on the road will need to step up. Patty is showing signs of life, so I say they have a chance to win a road series, much better than Jim Carrey’s chance in Dumb and Dumber. But I think the ceiling is a second round exit with the current roster.
Marilyn Dubinski: I think home court is all but required for them to win in the first round. I have seen nothing from this team that suggests they will suddenly flip a switch and figure things out away from the AT&T Center once the playoffs start. Maybe winning their two games in L.A. and the finale in New Orleans will help boost their road confidence, but the fact that they’re 2-9 over the last two months on the road and continue to this day to be an entirely different team on the road doesn’t give me much hope for them without home court.
Jesus Gomez: I’d be much more bullish about their chances of getting past the first round if they get homecourt advantage. They have simply been overwhelmingly better at the AT&T Center. Getting the fourth seed would also mean they finished the season strong. Winning the last few games would get the entire team believing they can actually make some noise in the postseason. That confidence could be as important as an extra game in San Antonio.
J. R. Wilco: What they need to make it out of the first round is some consistent scoring outside of LMA. If they get that, then their defense will carry them regardless of whether they’re at home or Jack Kerouac. If they don’t get it, then not even a series with home court advantage will save them from getting bounced.
Assuming the Spurs make the playoffs, who would you like to see the Spurs match up with in the first round and why?
Passos: Even if Jimmy Butler comes back and is close to 100%, give me Minnesota. The inexperience of two of their stars, combined with the reintegration of Butler and the awful defense they’ve been playing as of late make them the most preferable opponent for SA. If not them, probably New Orleans.
Barrington: Warriors! There would be some kind of poetic justice about a team that used a key injury to get past their most serious competitor being bounced by the same team in a role reversal. I want retribution. As far as a winnable matchup, I think the Wolves are the best opportunity for a win among the teams that are likely to face the Spurs.
Dubinski: Without home court I’d say Portland (although the Steph Curry-less Warriors wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world), but if the Spurs remain in fourth then probably the Timberwolves. Along with the obvious fact that we won the season series, they just don’t give the Spurs the match-up issues other teams like the Jazz and Pelicans do, plus you never know what chaos will ensue in a series against the Thunder. (Although if the pattern is to continue — OKC in ‘12, Spurs in ‘14, OKC in ‘16 — then the Spurs are due a win this year.) The Nuggets and Clippers would also be favorable match-ups for the Spurs, but the odds of one of them getting as high as fifth are slim-to-none at this point.
Gomez: I want that fourth seed, so the Rockets, Warriors and Blazers are out. Of the teams currently below the Spurs, I’d take the Thunder. They arguably have the highest ceiling out of all the potential matchups, but they also have the highest likelihood of imploding. For some reason George has struggled to score against the Spurs. He also might be thinking about his next stop. Melo has been a non-factor recently. Russell Westbrook is volatile enough to attempt to take over if things go awry, likely shooting his team out of a series. Maybe everything clicks for the Thunder and they come alive in the postseason, destroying the Spurs in a hypothetical first round matchup and going deep into the playoffs. But right now, they seem very vulnerable.
Wilco: I love symmetry, so Marilyn’s “OKC in ‘12, Spurs in ‘14, OKC in ‘16...” Spurs in ‘18 idea appeals to me. I also love early-round easy wins, this season more than most, so I find Bruno’s case for Minnesota compelling. But if we’re assuming that SA makes the playoffs (still not a mathematical certainty) then I’d love nothing better than a 2-7 matchup against GSW with a chance to play 2011 Griz to their top-seeded-but-injured 2011 Spurs (yes, I know the Dubs lost the 1 seed, but they would have it if they’d stayed healthy) and pull so hard for the upset that I burst a blood vessel in my face or something altogether epic.
But Steph will be pushing hard to come back for the 1st round, so gimme the easy win and call me happy.
Manu Ginobili keeps making Spurs history at age 40 as he became the franchise leader in steals this week. Which Manu-moment has made the greatest impression on you this season?
Passos: The more I think about all of them, the more I’ll overthink this. The first one that comes to mind is the game-winner against Boston, especially because it came after he hit a buzzer beater to end the first half.
Barrington: This is a really hard question, Jeph. He impresses me every night not just with his play, but with his intensity and leadership. But the thing I’m going to go with is watching him play with his sons before games. He’s such a good dad.
Dubinski: There have been many. The game winner vs. the Celtics (among others), the dunks, the time he made the refs look like complete morons in NYC, but if I had to pick just one moment it would be the one when he made the biggest impression on himself:
Gomez: I’m tempted to go with the lob he threw that went in the basket without the officials noticing, just because it was so weird. Instead I’ll go with the sequence in which he drew two extremely questionable fouls on Anthony Davis in a short span, angering both Davis and Alvin Gentry into getting technicals. That was Manu at his most his most annoying or his most canny, depending on whether you are a Spurs fan. It was likely one of the last times a fanbase will truly hate Manu, who used to get booed at several arenas. I’m happy that most fans have come around to appreciating Ginobili, but I sometimes miss the days in which only we loved him. That sequence reminded me of those days.
Wilco: Can’t choose one to call my favorite, but the one I was most recently smitten by was this one. (Explanation below.)
This play is equal parts tenacity, creativity, hustle, and sheer bloody-minded determination. It perfectly encapsulates his refusal to NOT try something that could result in a winning play, and it’s why we love him so much.
"This was Dejounte's best game as a pro," - Coach Popovich pic.twitter.com/8Cdoy6GTLl— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) March 31, 2018
Gregg Popovich lauded Dejounte Murray’s effort against the reigning MVP last week. What does Murray need to focus on as he continues to face the greats in the postseason?
Passos: Playmaking and decision-making in the pick and roll. The outside shooting will come in time, I think, but to really shine as an NBA point guard you need to be able to reliably execute the most fundamental play of modern basketball, and not just through the simple reads that Pop is giving him right now. That means not only knowing how to react to defenses, but being some sort of threat to score yourself. I don’t know if that’ll be aggressively attacking the rim or pulling up from 18 feet, but either one would greatly help him.
Barrington: He’s already a good defender and a superb rebounder. He needs to concentrate on that part of his game and the offense will eventually come. His shooting needs to improve, but that’s an offseason project.
Dubinski: Just take care of the ball and run the offense. He has shown that the defense is there when he doesn’t foul too much, so now he just needs to keep taking steps on the other end. While I blame Pop more than Murray for the botched final possession in Milwaukee, odds are a play would have been called and executed had Tony Parker, Manu or even Patty Mills been out there. Learning from moments like that will take him a long way not just against the greats, but as an all-around player.
Gomez: I’d love to see him do a better job of fighting over the top of ball screens. He might not be strong enough to do it yet, but it would help the Spurs a lot at the point of attack. They are comfortable switching, but if they could avoid doing it so early in the possession, their defense could force shots later in the clock. It’s a small thing, but it’s one I think he has a reasonable chance of improving in the next couple of weeks, since it’s mostly about effort and awareness. Oh, and please, Dejounte, for all that it’s holy, stop fouling three-point shooters.
Wilco: He needs to focus on making his layups. He made them against Houston so often that he helped keep the Spurs ahead so that Mills’ 4th quarter detonation turned it into a blowout instead of just keeping San Antonio in it. Given a tiny opportunity, Murray can get to the rim — that’s not the problem. The issue has been finishing. If he does that, then the defense will have to pay attention to him, whether he has a jumper or not.
How much of the Houston Rockets’ bad shooting in San Antonio was due to bad luck and how much can the Spurs take credit for?
Barrington: The Spurs did a good job closing out on the Rocket shooters, and they didn’t get as many good looks as they usually do. Part of that was due to the Spurs defense, part of it was due to Chris Paul not being on the court. CP3 kicks their offense into overdrive, so while I think that Sunday’s game was a great win for the Spurs, I’m not so sure it’s repeatable in the playoffs.
Dubinski: There’s no doubt the Spurs played some excellent defense. The Rockets missed some open looks, but the Spurs didn’t allow as many as they’re used to. Maybe about 25% of the credit can go to the lack of Chris Paul (who is much better at running an offense than James Harden) and the Rockets being a bit relaxed with the best record clinched, but the Spurs wanted and needed that game more, and they played like it (which hasn’t always been the case). There’s certainly no reason to take credit away from that effort.
Gomez: The Rockets missed Chris Paul and they clearly weren’t as sharp as they’ve been throughout the season. The Spurs still deserve plenty of credit for shutting down their long range attack, though. The closeouts were pristine, the guards fought through screens to bother pull-ups and the help came from the right places. It was great defense, the kind that makes me optimistic about their chances of keeping the fourth seed.
Wilco: The defense was great, and on some possessions it bordered on the sublime. But without Paul, and right after they’d clinched home court throughout the playoffs, there are just too many mitigating factors to take much away from the game. I’m glad they won, but I’m not going to expect them to play the Rockets well until I see them deliver a performance like that when something’s on the line. Of course, that would require them making it into at least the second round, so ... yeah, that’s what I’ll need to see.
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