Spurs win in Parker’s return as the engine starts to warm up again
SAN ANTONIO — The starting lineup of Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter and Tim Duncan had appeared on the court together in just 17 games this season, totaling 137 minutes. But for the first time since Jan. 4 — when Splitter dropped out of the rotation with a sprained shoulder — the Spurs were at full strength, and it was refreshingly boring.
That starting group outscored the Mavericks by 11 points per 100 possessions in the 19 minutes it spent on the court Sunday night, the “Foreign Legion” got its chance to fully reunite, and everything just felt normal again for the first time since the calendar year turned as San Antonio went on for the 112-106 win.
No more three-point-guard lineups. No more guessing games as to which big man would get the start or whether or not Green would come off the bench. No more waiting for a Patty Mills explosion to save the team from itself. Just the starting lineup we watched pick apart the Western Conference last season — the same old Spurs.
Parker returned to action after missing six games due to a “variety of maladies” to score 22 points and dish out seven assists, and all felt right in the world. There was no specific injury listed next to Tony’s name in the box score over the past 19 days, but he was beat up. Shins, calves, groin, hamstring, back — you name it, it was likely sore. So I’m not sure if Parker is “back,” but he sure seemed healthy.
“He looked good. He really looked fresh and didn’t lose any rhythm it didn’t look like,” Gregg Popovich said. “He played a good floor game and he delivered offense at the same time. On the defensive end I thought he worked very hard.
“He looked focused. He looked fresh.”
And it was a sight for sore eyes and body alike, as Parker had barely been able to make it through a complete game as the Spurs limped into the All-Star break. On this night, he had that familiar burst, and it helped the Spurs secure the win. Instead of wondering who would take control in those late-game situations, that familiar hand was at the steering wheel.
“I’ve been practicing the last three or four days. We talked with Pop about playing Friday,” Parker said. “I felt I was ready Friday, but Pop said, you know, ‘One more game and you’ll be super fresh for Sunday.’”
And there’s a palpable sense of relief in the locker room that the pieces have come back together, as well as a feeling of disbelief they were separated for so long.
“I can’t even remember the last time we all played together. It feels great to have everybody back,” Parker said. “Hopefully everybody can stay healthy, and we can try to make a run at it.
“Everybody recharged their batteries. Everybody should be fresh. I like our chances,” he continued. “As long as we stay healthy and we play our best basketball when the playoffs come, that’s the main thing.”
That’s another underrated aspect of this whole situation: Everybody who missed significant time over the last couple of months has also been given the unintentional opportunity — except in Parker’s case, perhaps — to rest their legs. During the doldrums of the NBA’s winter months, they were able to sit while players at the end of the bench took advantage of valuable experience.
But with only 23 games remaining, this team knows it has to kick into gear and “start feeling confident,” as Manu put it. Sunday was a good start, though the Mavericks match up horribly with the Spurs.
Dallas has put together a nice season thus far, and Dirk Nowitzki has mustered a renaissance of sorts via a new-look pick-and-roll offensive attack that actually resembles a little of what San Antonio likes to do. But you don’t see that 36-25 record reflected in the way they play when they take the court against the Spurs.
San Antonio has now won eight straight games against the Mavericks, the longest such streak against Dallas in Duncan’s career. And they appear to be coasting at times against their rivals up I-35. The Mavericks can score, but their defense has real issues against the Spurs’ level of execution. A first-round matchup against the silver and black is probably the last thing they’d want beyond a meeting with the Thunder, so grabbing that No. 6 seed is crucial to Dirk and Friends.
Before Sunday night, the Spurs were 18-8 in the 26 games since Splitter went down against the Clippers. They successfully treaded water in the mean time, managing to come out on the other side just one game back of Oklahoma City at the top of the Western Conference standings. It’s actually sort of a minor miracle.
But now they’re back to full strength, and the rotation looked familiar for the first time in what feels like forever. There’s a little more than a month and a half remaining before the start of the postseason, and the Spurs have a few things left on their plate to finish before then. They’ll have another opportunity to face off against the league’s elite soon enough, and the games are much more important now than they were in December.
All year long I’ve written about remaining patient as San Antonio deals with its various maladies, that it’s not worth judging this team by its success or lack thereof over the first couple of months of the season. It’s just about time to start judging now. Players told me in the locker room before the game that they’ve been able to find a rhythm within the offense despite all the injuries, but it’s not the same until the real thing is out on the floor. Now they’re back, and finding that required level of rhythm and confidence — not just for the players, but for the coaches as well in terms of their rotations — is of the utmost importance.
That team we watched cruise through the 2012-13 season — we haven’t seen it since it left the floor after Game 7 in Miami. Physically, it’s been there, but the machine that came within seconds of grabbing the franchise’s fifth championship hasn’t been humming along so smoothly. The injuries have finally subsided, paving the way and greasing the wheels for a stretch run that’s going to play a major part in the conference standings; and if any team in the league can find synergy over the next month and a half, it’s the Spurs.
It was a quiet win Sunday night, but for San Antonio (43-16) it was the flipping of a switch that had been off for quite a while. Whether the engine runs the same way it used to remains to be seen, but at least it’s still got a chance to warm up.