San Antonio Spurs 97, Houston Rockets 95: These games are always fun, even in the preseason
AT&T CENTER — Two games into his career, two preseason games at that, Kawhi Leonard has already hit a game winning shot. Leonard his a step-back jumper with a foot on the 3-point line with 5.3 seconds left to give the Spurs a 97-95 win.
Nevermind that it doesn’t count in the standings, games between the Rockets and Spurs always seem to be entertaining. This one was solid throughout save for a few minutes in the third quarter that slowed to a pace that molasses laughed at because of an annoying number of fouls.
The Spurs started the game with a big man tandem of Tim Duncan and DeJuan Blair as many expected. Blair aappeared more aggressive defensively on Wednesday night, possibly because he had Duncan to back him up or because Blair was simply in better shape than four nights ago.
One play in the third quarter typified Gregg Popovich’s reasoning as to why it is possible to play Duncan and Blair next to each other. Duncan and Blair set a double screen for Manu Ginobili that came more because of miscommunication than strategy. Blair rolled to the basket as Ginobili swung the ball to Duncan. Duncan fed Blair down low with a nice bounce pass and DeJuan whipped the ball out from under the basket to Richard Jefferson spotted up in the corner. RJ nailed the 3 and all was right in San Antonio for a moment.
The starters were everything that was expected. We’ve seen these guys together before. The second unit is where the intrigue and mystery lies. There’s also a helluva lot of fun there. For all intents and purposes, the second unit consisted of TJ Ford, James Anderson, Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter and Gani Lawal. Matt Bonner didn’t dress for the game.
This Spurs second unit, even with (or in spite of) Bonner, has the potential to become a defensive force, at least when it comes to matching up with other second units. When James Anderson is on the floor, you know it. He has the activity to take center stage even when he shouldn’t be. He climbs trees for rebounds and defends two guys in an instant. Anderson seems acutely aware of what is happening around him, something not easy to come by for young players. When he’s defending a shooter in the corner, he knows the right moment to help off and stop penetration and when to get back and smother the player in the corner.
Teamed with Tiago Splitter who shows the footwork needed to defend the post and big men on pick-and-rolls, the Spurs second unit is able to change momentum quickly. In the third quarter, Anderson checked in at small forward for Richard Jefferson and changed the game. The Spurs immediately came alive and went on a run that helped them take control of the second half, even if the lead eventually evaporated when both teams emptied their benches.
The major concern for this second unit is who will score. While Anderson is an excellent defender for this second unit, it remains to be seen who will lead the charge offensively. While Anderson is aggressive and willing to take the shots, he hasn’t shown playmaking chops yet. In the second half, the Spurs fed the ball to Splitter in the post several times and made cuts off of him, taking advantage of his passing abilities.
This may make Varner’s opinion that Anderson should start and Manu Ginobili come off the bench more plausible. Anderson hit only one 3-pointer on the night but could slide into the two spot with the starters, leaving Manu to be the playmaker on the second unit. Ginobili returning to his sixth man role may give more balance to the Spurs’ lineups in the regular season.
If not, the second group may rely heavily on its ability to force stops and turnovers in order to get easy baskets in transition. TJ Ford has a knack for pushing the pace and could be primed to lead that charge. Either way, there are some definite variables that should be fun to keep an eye on as the season gets started. Until then, we have Kawhi Leonard’s game winner and the thoughts of what could be.