Gregg Popovich, the Half-Spurs and a system of brilliance
At some point, there needs to be a celebration at any point Gregg Popovich makes the call to rest the Big Three on a back-to-back against a high-profile team on national television. The Half-Spurs are as entertaining a unit as there is in the league on a random regular-season night in the NBA, and they’re showing it on a fairly regular basis — as regularly as its coach’s roster decisions allow, at least.
There’s a wonky charm to it, though that doesn’t necessarily manifest itself when you read the names on a piece of paper.
Tiago Splitter tipped in a Boris Diaw miss in the final seconds on a ¹controversial potential goaltending no-call, and the Spurs swarmed Steph Curry on a final fling from 30 feet that sailed over the shot clock.
Curry exploded for 30 points and 15 assists, David Lee put up 32 and 13 boards, and somehow, San Antonio went into Oakland without Tim Duncan, Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili and left with a 104-102 win.
Marco Belinelli went for a career high 28 points, Patty Mills notched 20, Kawhi Leonard pitched in 21 and 10 rebounds, and the supporting-cast-turned-starting-lineup was wonderful in their rare roles as leaders of Pop’s brilliant system.
Mills as the pesky, fearless, shoot-first gunner point guard; Belinelli as the pick-and-roll executor; Danny Green in the oh-god-he’s-dribbling-way-too-much-in-this-lineup-but-the-Spurs-really-need-to-get-him-going role; Aron Baynes actually playing; Boris Diaw as the go-to big man in the post; and best of all, Leonard as the team’s best player in what was a brief glimpse into the future of the franchise. It was a chaotic delight — one that still maintained the principles of the regular Spurs attack.
Though, as fun as it was, it still made for 48 minutes of insanely stressful basketball. Without the Big Three, this team teeters on the brink of a breaking point all night, which is understandable. None of these players are accustomed to being the lead banana on a title contender, and that was reflected in the opening minutes as they experimented with the situation like a puppy that just saw its tail for the first time.
Once they finally caught that foreign appendage, it all made sense. And against the Warriors, it was Leonard that wrangled the game in before it got out of hand.
San Antonio struggled mightily to get good looks in the first quarter out in Oakland, and it fell behind 34-20 at the 8:59-mark of the second. Then Leonard did his damage. It was the first game this season in which Kawhi was the clear-cut No. 1 talent, and the Spurs did a great job getting him the ball in positions to make his move. The third-year forward went for 14 of his 21 points (a season-high) in that second frame on just seven shots, and from the time he checked in to the time the halftime buzzer sounded, San Antonio turned a 14-point deficit into a two-point lead.
The Spurs survived the initial Golden State onslaught — however tame it may have been — and once the equalizer came it was clear the Warriors had become entirely uncomfortable, even in the ‘Roaracle’ asylum.
It was a semi-transparent appearance we’ve seen from other squads that have faced Pop’s ragtag crew in the past: confusion. There was no Tim, Tony or Manu, and once familiarity with the opponent was lost, uncertainty and hesitancy set in. The Dubs were troubled by the time San Antonio felt itself out, and the Spurs took advantage.
And Belinelli was relentless.
The best season of the Italian’s career continued on Thursday night, when he was better than he’s ever been. Belinelli’s 28 points came on just 16 shots in 29 minutes, including 17 points in a third quarter that saw the Spurs outscore the Warriors 29-23. It’s amazing how comfortable he looks in Popovich’s system, and all that preseason praise this team showered him with makes more and more sense.
It’s all moving in slow motion for Belinelli right now. Every move he makes is calculated and deliberate, and he’s utilizing all the tools the offense affords him — screens, pick-and-roll sets, back-picks and cuts — without having to force the issue in almost any capacity. Virtually every look he gets is a clean one, and while we keep waiting on a regression to his career mean (42 percent from the field; 39 percent from 3), it’s difficult to imagine his numbers dropping drastically if he continues to take advantage of these efficient opportunities. Is he going to continue to shoot 52 percent from the floor and 54 percent from deep? Unlikely. But when 40 percent is considered a great mark from the arc, it would take a precipitous drop for Belinelli to fall all the way back to the earth on which he’s normally operated.
But these star-less outings for San Antonio rarely go smoothly. Not only does this secondary crew of role players struggle through the process of starting games, but it wrestles with the difficulties of closing out a game against other teams — especially explosive offenses like the one Golden State boasts. As these players log more minutes than they’re normally accustomed to playing, the gas tank tends to run a little low. And as the opposition’s defense tightens up at the request of its passionate coach, execution becomes more important than ever for a lineup that isn’t used to operating under that pressure.
The Spurs hit just eight of their 21 shots in the fourth quarter, including one of seven attempts from downtown, and they turned the ball over five times. Somehow, with some late-game shot-making from Diaw and Mills (who played a part in a quick, awesome stretch of the fourth that saw both point guards going right at one another), some decent defense and some timely rebounds, San Antonio survived.
We’ve seen it go the other way before, but not this time. This time, the Spurs held on by the skin of their teeth.
It took a career night from a new acquisition and gritty effort from a group normally labeled as the ‘supporting cast’ to get the win in a hostile, but disbelieving, environment. And the faces we normally see making plays in the clutch assumed the usual roles of their teammates on the court in crunch time on this night, waving their proverbial towels all the same.
¹There was some controversy in those final moments, but it was handled correctly by the letter of the law. The NBA implemented a rule last season that made goaltending reviewable, but only when a call is made. There was no call of goaltending on the Splitter tip-in, therefore, the play wasn’t reviewable.
Fun side-note: For the first time in NBA history, three Australians started this game, with Mills, Baynes and Andrew Bogut on the floor for the opening tip.