For a game that was supposed to be more prelude than main event, the matchup between the Spurs and the Cavaliers sure was plenty dramatic. The Silver and Black managed to come back to get a 116-110 win on Manu Ginobili’s big night, but they had to fight for it down to the last seconds.
From the start it was clear that something was off about the Spurs. Maybe the players were still feeling the effects of the long minutes they logged in the painful loss to the Hornets on Tuesday or maybe they too were convinced that the event that mattered was coming after the actual game, but the energy was lacking. LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan simply weren’t assertive on offense while the entire team looked a step too slow on defense. Through most of the fist half the Spurs were happy to take the shots the Cavaliers were forcing them into instead of attacking, and in the rare opportunities in which they did, they made lazy passes when facing help that were picked off. The Cavaliers, meanwhile, were playing loose and aggressive. With Collin Sexton in attack mode and a sharp Kevin Love, they were carving the Spurs up. San Antonio trailed by nine at the half, but the deficit could have been larger.
Changes were needed, and Gregg Popovich made a big one. Rudy Gay started the second half for Jakob Poeltl in a move likely geared to unclogging the paint. It worked. A suddenly dynamic DeRozan carried the team to a quick run to delete the Cavaliers’ lead at the start of the third quarter. The Spurs seemed to had figured things out, as the bench also started to play better. Their big pushes got them a six-point lead of their own in the third quarter and then a nine-point one in the fourth. Unfortunately the Cavs never went away, like everyone in the arena were surely hoping they would. They just kept capitalizing on mistakes and attacking a defense that remained passive for most of the night. Love faded in the second half, as his teammates inexplicably didn’t find him more, but Larry Nance Jr. and Brandon Knight picked up the slack. The teams traded buckets for a while, as neither could string together enough stops to create separation.
It was fitting that in Manu’s night, two of his biggest friends on the team would end up playing huge roles in giving the Spurs the win in the final minutes. After Love cut the lead to one with under two minutes to go, Marco Belinelli hit a jumper to keep San Antonio ahead by three. Following a pretty Nance bucket and a couple of misses by Gay and Cedi Osman, Patty Mills hit a corner three of a gorgeous DeRozan feed to put the Spurs up four with just 14 seconds to go and essentially seal the game.
The eruption from the Big Three in the stands after that clutch bucket made an otherwise frustrating performance by the Spurs worth it. I’m sure we all wanted a relaxing blowout that allowed for nostalgia to fully take over, but watching the AT&T Center rocking in a close game while Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker celebrate from the stands was an even better ending to the basketball portion of the night, without a doubt.
- DeMar DeRozan had 21 of his 25 points in the second half. He was instrumental in preventing the Cavs from extending their lead in the third quarter and in waking up a team that looked shockingly lethargic early on. DeMar also had eight assists, including the two that led to the Spurs’ last two field goals. Just a fantastic performance by DeRozan when the team needed him the most.
- The same can’t be said about LaMarcus Aldridge. He scored inefficiently, couldn’t control the boards and was largely ineffectual on defense. More consistency from LA would be nice, but as long as we get it in the playoffs, I won’t complain.
- Bryn Forbes and Marco Belinelli kept the Spurs alive in the first half. It’s good to have guys that are always looking to score, especially in games like Thursday’s in which everyone else was hesitant. The two combined for 20 of San Antonio’s 44 first-half points and finished with a combined 35 points an six assists.
- Another tough night for Derrick White, who got into foul trouble early on and played under 20 minutes. He was still useful in the time he was on the court. but we’ve seen him do so much better on both ends that six points and four assists to go with so-so defense feels like a bad game, even though he was plus-17 on a six-point game. Crazy how expectations change everything.
- Jakob Poeltl had a stretch of dominant defense but couldn’t really coexist with Aldridge in this game. They just couldn’t control the glass on defense and allowed the Cavs to help and pack the paint on offense. It’s fine. We knew that there were going to be nights in which the Spurs were going to have to adjust and go with just one big. Thursday was one of those nights.
- Davis Bertans was a complete mess in the first half, especially on defense, to the point where I could kind of, sort of, at least partially understand why Pop gave Dante Cunningham some minutes. Fortunately Davis was better in the second half, hitting three big three-pointers and playing with more focus.
- Rudy Gay was big in the second half, after Pop decided to start him in the third quarter. When he plays with energy — which has not always been the case recently, in my eyes — and hits his outside shots, he’s just a game-changer for the Spurs. His versatility allows them to adjust on the fly. Without him, they wouldn’t have gotten the win.
- The Spurs closed the game with Mills and Belinelli as their backcourt and DeRozan, Gay and Aldridge as their frontcourt. That unit is one of the best Pop has been able to find this season. It’s good to have some veterans around. Mills in particular has been huge for this team in terms of leadership and providing some continuity. I know for a lot of you that’s not worth his salary, but I disagree.
Up next: Vs. the Kings on Sunday
The Spurs will have the chance to punch their ticket to the playoffs with a win over Sacramento on March 31 at 6:00 pm.