Boston 90, San Antonio 83
The Spurs beat the Celtics on the boards 55-32. A plus 23 rebounding edge is usually enough to secure a victory, but not last night, and not against the Celtics.
The Spurs may have won the rebounding battle, but they lost in every other phase of play. The Celtics controlled the game from the outset.
“Itâ€™s a 48 minute game and you have to play all 48 especially against a team like Boston. Tonight we played a quarter and thatâ€™s not good enough. We didnâ€™t shoot well, but thatâ€™s really irrelevant. The turnovers and missed free throws those sorts of things really hurt us to start the first and the third quarters.” Or so said Popovich after the game.
Taking our talking points from Popovich, there is no doubt the Spurs played sloppy basketball against the Celtics. Consider that the Spurs committed 18 turnovers and shot a laughable 41% from the free throw line, and it’s easy to make Popovich’s case. But the most intriguing storyline of last night’s game is not about who was on the court and how they played, it’s about who wasn’t and why they didn’t.
Manu Ginobili played 18 minutes of mediocre basketball against the Celtics ; he didn’t play at all during the Spurs’ 4th quarter comeback attempt, unless you count the few possessions of desperation three point heaves in the final minute. He shot 4-12 in the game and was part of the third quarter defensive break down that led to Rasheed Wallace’s buzzer beating three.Â From one perspective, it seemed like Gregg Popovich benched–gasp!–Manu Ginobili during the game’s most important stretch.
Upon closer examination, it’s difficult to make this case. After the game, Popovich indicated that Ginobili’s minutes were intentionally limited as the team works him back into shape after his most recent injury, a gimpy hamstring. Ginobili played 18 minutes against the Celtics, but he had only played 17 against the 76ers just 4 nights before.
It’s also worth noting that Popovich didn’t reintroduce Tim Duncan into the action until the 4 minute mark of the 4th quarter, which seemed odd considering how tight the game was in the minutes immediately preceding Duncan’s return from rest. Duncan only played 32 minutes, which is right at his season average. Unlike Ginobili, Duncan was having a fine game. There was no reason to sit him other than exercising a coach’s prerogative–and especially this coach’s prerogative–of managing his best (and most fragile) players’ minutes.
If one looks at Ginobili’s “benching” in that way, it creates a window through which to view Popovich’s mantra about health being the most vital aspect to winning a championship, but it also begs a couple questions about the Spurs’ confidence in Manu Ginobili’s body.
Put differently, the Spurs are trying hard to win in the regular season, and they’re not. They won’t lose sight of the finish line by becoming distracted by the race. But when does the necessity to manage minutes go from coaching wisdom to a crippling constraint? And, of course, how does one gather assurance that the body can withstand the rigors of heavy play? It’s a question I ask myself with increasing frequency.
But it’s not all bad. The Spurs played very poorly and still hung with the Celtics. Richard Jefferson hurt the team more than he helped it, the team missed the majority of its free throws, Pop limited the play of his two best players, and the team turned the ball over far too often. It’s a loss, but not a lost caused.
And the Spurs learned something about themselves, as well.
DeJuan Blair’s season has come and gone in waves. He’s currently riding a wave that deserves a heavy dose of minutes. Blair is an incredibly instinctive player and it’s curious to watch him intuit basketball. Ten games ago I wouldn’t have trusted his post defense to guard my niece.Â But while there are still noticeable mistakes on that front, he’s starting to figure how to best use his body to defend bigger players. It sounds cliche, but he’s improving with each game.
Offensively, he has the best in-air balance of anyone on the team not named Tony Parker. Blair is a case study on how to properly transform hard contact into shooting space. And his understanding of space is remarkable for such a young player. Strangely enough, Blair reminds me of Fabricio Oberto in his uncanny ability to move into empty space around the hoop and dutifully present himself to the passer. This helps explain why Blair and Ginobili play so well together. DeJuan is practically Argentinean.
Blair’s rugged style of play gives him a brutish reputation, but he continues to show me that he’s more brain than brawn. He’s a smart basketball player. I’m confident that his natural feel for the game will diminish his most glaring shortcomings as a defender. The fact that he was an overwhelming net positive against the Celtics frontline is encouraging.