For all that went wrong, this reminded us of what went right
The record has been as good as ever, but for some reason the level of confidence hasn’t. That crappy number against the rest of the NBA’s elite (3-11 against the other top six teams in the league prior to Thursday) has been hanging over the team’s collective head, and not just because of any sort of media-created reminder. Players have felt it, coaches have alluded to it, and uncertainty — even for a group that’s been together for so long — had formed a sort of cloud over any list of minor accomplishments.
But a 111-87 shellacking of the defending champion Miami Heat was a statement the Spurs needed to make, if only for their personal psyche. This team isn’t into pursuing validation at random spots during the regular season, but everyone, no matter how experienced, needs a little boost sometimes.
Just ask Tim Duncan, who went for a nearly silent but typically wonderful 23 points and 11 rebounds.
“It’s getting to the end of the season where we need to start winning games like this, start building our confidence and just knowing we can win games like this when it comes down to the playoffs against teams of this caliber,” he said. “So, great win for us.”
Or Manu Ginobili.
“We needed a game like this. We’ve been talking (about it) all season long. So we needed a big one, and today we played well. We got big things from a lot of players,” he explained. “It’s one of those wins that really gets you going. Hopefully we keep improving. We still have 20 games to go, but we’re on the right track.”
San Antonio has put up several wins over top teams in recent weeks, with important shorthanded victories in Los Angeles (Clippers, not the Lakers … they’re the worst) and Portland. But this was different. This was a nearly full-strength Spurs team — Jeff Ayres injured his hand in practice on Wednesday and did not play — cruising out in front of the Heat, thwarting the multiple waves and runs with which Miami inevitably hits back, and maintaining a significant lead throughout rather than letting the game slip from its grasp.
And for a second there, it kind of looked like it had a chance to do just that. We’ve seen the Spurs give up leads to lesser teams; the Heat are not to be screwed with.
Much of it was a result of the Miami swarm. When that defense is cranked up all the way it’s just a different animal. It’s complete chaos. They trap or hedge hard on every pick-and-roll, and where the Spurs can generally move the ball enough to find weakness in the rotations of most teams, there’s always one or two extra help guys you never see coming with the Heat. And they come from anywhere — from behind, from the side, from your blind spot or just right in your face.
It’s the reason Miami is so difficult to handle, regardless of its smallish front line: their players are intelligent, long and athletic, and they force offenses to constantly make pressure-packed, instantaneous decisions. If you can’t dribble and handle the ball, consider yourself cooked. If you can’t pass, you have no chance. Fortunately, the Spurs are great in one capacity, and they’re legendary in the other.
Gregg Popovich said the Spurs got “stuck in mud” offensively during that third quarter that saw Miami climb back into it. But it wasn’t just the offense’s fault; the Heat turned up the pressure. In the first half of the game they were sagging off a bit on ball-handlers, presumably saving energy for the chaos that would come at some point. But it came too late, as the Spurs had already established themselves early in the game.
I talked with Danny Green afterward about the Heat defense and how the Spurs like to attack it, especially when they get into that ultra-aggressive mindset. Green explained San Antonio’s strategy from the start was to attack the interior, to get in the paint and force that defense to break down.
The one thing that separates the Heat from almost every other team in the league — Green named the Thunder as another one — is that overall length and athleticism on the perimeter, and the farther away the offense is from the basket the more impactful that defense becomes. So the Spurs made a concerted effort to get inside, find the open creases and set up shots from the arc, ideally from the corner. Green mentioned this team also likes to look for those short- to mid-range floaters and runners against the Miami defense, and the strategy worked well last night.
But because the Heat just weren’t on the attack from the start, the Spurs were able to get almost anything they wanted, settle into a nice groove and build a solid cushion for the remaining three quarters. San Antonio shot 79 percent and scored 37 points in the first quarter, and it just set the tone for the rest of the night. The Heat pulled back within five points in the third, but never got closer than that.
We saw the Spurs attack that Heat defense pretty effectively in the Finals last season, and the fact of the matter is they’re even more well-equipped to handle it this time around. San Antonio lacked a true backup point guard presence last season, forcing Ginobili into the role when Gary Neal wasn’t trying to fill it. Beyond Ginobili and Tony Parker, this team lacked the sort of side-to-side, secondary ball-handling ability that gives the Heat issues, and it put a ton of stress on the initial execution of the offense.
And while that is still important, the emergence of several players has made this group a little different — and I think potentially more dangerous — than the one we saw nearly win another ring. San Antonio has replaced Neal with Marco Belinelli (a significantly better ball-handler), Boris Diaw has become a legitimate threat and offensive weapon — he had 16 points on five shots to go along with eight boards and five assists on Thursday — and Patty Mills has locked down the job as Parker’s in-game replacement.
Those three players have combined to produce 12.7 win shares this season, per Basketball-Reference. Diaw, Mills, Neal and Cory Joseph produced just 8.7 all of last year. Given that the Big Three really haven’t regressed much, if at all, and the other role players are one year older and wiser, this team has to really like where it finds itself at the moment.
We saw glimpses of what this rotation could be early in the season, before the injury bug hit, but the combination of defense and offense we saw against Miami was as ruthless as the Spurs have shown this season. San Antonio held Miami — the top offense in the league at 110.2 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com — to just 87 points and handed the champs their worst loss since Game 3 of the NBA Finals.
And man Kawhi Leonard looks good. His offensive game still has its ups and downs, but he’s playing defense at as high a level as we’ve seen from him yet in his career. I talked about the chaos Miami brings to the table, but Leonard is a one-man wrecking ball at times. He had five steals last night, four of which came in 17 second-half minutes, and he frustrated LeBron James into a 6-of-18 shooting night — 1-of-11 on shots outside the painted area.
Still, take this win at its regular-season value. Just as many of the earlier losses shouldn’t be fully digested or used as a gauge for the team’s standing, this victory is just one of relatively small immediate consequence. It meant a lot to the players, as you could see in the quotes above, but they each stressed that this is more of a boost, not necessarily a sign of how good they are.
Because, really, we already know how good this team is, and it knows how good it can potentially be. It’s a mistake to look at the victory on Thursday and conclude this team suddenly ‘figured things out.’ This process has been ongoing, and even through all the injuries the Spurs have been building rhythm. San Antonio isn’t suddenly good again; it’s been pretty damn good all season long.
But sometimes it takes beating the best to recognize what your team’s best actually looks like. Even through all the brilliant passing performances and blowouts of lesser teams, the Spurs’ amazing Finals performance is still etched in our memories as the standard. Not once have we seen THAT team back on the floor since it left Miami, and if we have it’s difficult to notice against the Clevelands and Milwaukees and Bostons of the league. Against the Heat on Thursday, we were reminded of just how dominant San Antonio can be, and so was that locker room.
Look around the Internet today. It’s filled with ‘The Spurs are back’ headlines and subplots to the rest of the NBA narrative. That’s what happens when they beat the defending champs, or any elite team for that matter, which is something they hadn’t done yet this season. But this team never went anywhere. Its record against the other elite teams is what it is, but so is the overall count.
San Antonio is now 4-11 against Indiana, Miami, Oklahoma City, Los Angeles, Houston and Portland, but at 45-16 is now tied with the Thunder — who lost to Phoenix on Thursday — in the loss column for first place in the conference, and just one game back of the Pacers for best record in the league. After all the injuries and all the concerns, the Spurs are right in the hunt as they always are.
For all that went wrong in the Finals for San Antonio, this was a reminder of what went right, and that the Spurs are still every bit the title contender they were last season.
Hell, they might even be better. But only time will tell us that.