The math behind the multitude of playoff scenarios still up in the air can get complicated fast. Even with just a week to go in the regular season, there are enough teams in the 3-through-9 morass – and enough if/then questions to play against each other – to leave you cross-eyed thinking over the possibilities.
The simplest solution for the Spurs: win. That’s what they did on Saturday against a potential first-round opponent in the Portland Trail Blazers, 116-105, as they kept pace with the handful of other Western Conference opponents also jockeying for a spot in the postseason.
The Blazers came into the night looking to solidify their own place in the standings, with a chance to lock up the third seed with a win. Helping their odds was the return of All-Star Damian Lillard, who came back from an ankle injury to score 30 points through the game’s first three quarters and look very much like one of the NBA’s best point guards. They also got a big lift from Evan Turner, who scored 18 points on 8-of-12 shooting, constantly seeking out mismatches in the post and off the dribble, and another 17 from C.J. McCollum. The trio were a handful to stay in front of off the dribble, but credit to guys like Patty Mills, Dejounte Murray, and Kyle Anderson, who remained active and gave up few open looks throughout the night.
The Spurs have come to routinely count on the primary scoring production of LaMarcus Aldridge this season, and against his former squad it was no different. The All-Star big poured in 28 points on 13-of-22 shooting, to go along with eight rebounds, four steals, and a game-high plus/minus of 18.
What the team hasn’t been able to rely on as much is what happens Beyond LaMarcus, an unknown expanse of offensive territory in 2017-18. Aldridge has now led the Spurs in scoring 58 times. The next highest? A three-way tie between Pau Gasol, Kawhi Leonard, and Bryn Forbes, who have each paced the team in points four times. There are many cases for Aldridge to garner All-NBA votes, but the sheer hegemonic value that he’s been for the San Antonio offense is among them.
One of the brightest spots on Saturday was the continued ascendance of the much-needed Option B in Rudy Gay, who anchored a number of offensive possessions throughout the night and complemented Aldridge’s scoring output with 16 points. There are certain things that Gay may not be built for – he doesn’t rotate defensively like Gregg Popovich may always like, and you can see him still lose himself on offensive sets. But Rudy. Can. Get. Buckets. And it looks that the team is settling him into that microwave, bucket-attaining role just at the right time. It was encouraging to see his shot attempts up and to see him on the floor in the fourth quarter.
Speaking of timeliness: Manu Ginobili, a man who is as resistant to the concept of time as he is ever-cognizant of a game’s moments and how to perpetually rise for them. In just 19 minutes, Ginobili scored 17 points, eight of which came within a magical minute in the fourth quarter that featured two three-pointers, a determined drive to his right, and a steal which helped push the San Antonio lead into double figures for the first time.
What was behind his 8-0 run? Manu summed it up as intuition.
“It’s really unknown. I was just feeling good. A couple shots went in, and I was feeling that type of rush, that type of excitement – ‘flow’, they call it. So, I was trying to use it. At a point I saw Rudy wide open next to me and I said, ‘No, not this time. I go.’ I was feeling really well. Very happy that it happened in a game like today in an important moment. It felt good.”
Some on the team claim to not be following the standings or what San Antonio needs to finish where. Not Ginobili, who spoke about the Thunder and Pelicans wins after the game and what he felt was on the line on Saturday:
“If we would’ve lost, we’re pretty close to being out, especially with what happened today... We’re playing like there’s no tomorrow.”
For the 40-year-old, that No Tomorrow Feeling could mean something even greater, a bitter possibility no fan wants to mull over (again), and one that we can all cast aside – at least for another day or two.
A few more game notes…
Win and you’re in
A win against Sacramento at home on Monday gets the Spurs a playoff spot. It’s that simple now for SA. One former King is certainly looking forward to the opportunity:
Rudy on his play in the 4th, Manu’s play also asked about game vs #Kings Monday... #Spurs win, they’re in. “Me getting to the playoffs and beating the Kings all in the same day...” pic.twitter.com/ZZwsANv5P6— Jabari Young (@JabariJYoung) April 8, 2018
The right kind of shot distribution
There will obviously be variance here, but this is probably as close to the ideal offensive balance as it might get for San Antonio.
Aldridge: 22 shots
Gay: 15 shots
Ginobili, Mills, Murray, Gasol: each with between 7 and 11 shots
Rudy-LaMarcus pick and rolls
The Spurs closed out the second half with three consecutive Rudy Gay-LaMarcus Aldridge pick and rolls. Against basically any pair of defenders, who aren’t used to guarding a 4-5 pick and roll, this can be trouble, and with Gay finding his bounce again, this could be a nice play for the Spurs to turn to more (knocks on wood) come playoff time.
Age is just a number (if you’re immortal)
For being productive after forty: There's Manu and MJ and no one else. pic.twitter.com/86qyBdCDAC— J.R. Wilco (@jollyrogerwilco) April 8, 2018
Manu joins Vince Carter and John Stockton as the only 40 year olds to ever go 100% from the field on 7 FGAs or more— Bruno Passos (@bouncepassos) April 8, 2018
No place like home
The Spurs have now won nine straight at home, improving to 32-8 at the AT&T Center this season.
A token reminder from Pop
“There’s really no happy in basketball,” the coach reminded a reporter after he playfully honed in on his word choice regarding Rudy Gay’s performance. “You execute or you don’t. You play harder than the other team or you don’t. I thought Rudy was very aggressive offensively; he made some good defensive plays, too. He had a steal that was very important in the fourth quarter. He gave us a lot.”