Spurs lose to another elite team, but please don’t lose sleep
SAN ANTONIO — And so the narrative continues…
The Trail Blazers rode a 32-22 fourth-quarter surge to walk out of the AT&T Center with a 109-100 victory, overcoming a brilliant season-best 29-point performance from Manu Ginobili and blockading the Spurs from that ever-elusive ‘statement game.’ San Antonio is now 1-8 against Portland, Oklahoma City, Houston, Indiana and Los Angeles with the one win coming against a CP3-less Clippers squad.
So dust off the torches and pitchforks you likely just put away from that Christmas Day game against the Rockets (or perhaps the Knicks game); it’s time to hit the streets again! Tonight, we riot! (And then after that let’s just chill out again because it’s the weekend and it’s no good to get your stress levels up and the Spurs are still 31-9 this season.)
There was frustration in the Spurs’ post-game locker room. And understandably so. The interviews came quickly and furiously with Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili overlapping one another’s media availability in an obvious effort to bolt the premises. Gregg Popovich, on the other hand, seemed calm. It could’ve been because he’d been watching much of the second half from his arena office after being ejected by Bill Kennedy in the third quarter — and he earned it — or it could’ve been because the league’s best offensive team just snuck away from his shorthanded squad in the game’s final minutes, a result he could handle.
But San Antonio made some killer defensive mistakes late in the fourth after being solid all night on that end, considering the circumstances. The Spurs were playing without two of their top four defensive players, and against the fire-breathing Blazers at full-strength, you need good luck even when you’re completely healthy.
Wes Matthews was cold-blooded, too. With the game squarely in the balance, Damian Lillard put up a three that clanged off the rim and bounced directly to Nic Batum, and it all fell apart after that.
Then a short time later after a timeout on a dribble hand-off that left Manu in the dust.
And finally, out of desperation, the Spurs tried to double LaMarcus Aldridge, and the ball-movement that ensued was a thing of beauty we’re accustomed to seeing around here.
A somewhat battered and bruised San Antonio squad fell short after one hell of an effort that featured an amazing 18-point third-quarter outburst from Ginobili, but the strain was too much to withstand without the likes of Danny Green and Tiago Splitter. Not to mention a hurting Parker.
The Spurs’ point guard played on one leg then limped painfully out of the locker room at the end of the night to recover. He went 5-of-12 from the floor in 35 minutes while chasing the destructive Damian Lillard around all over the court, which is not an ideal situation for a beat-up 31-year-old.
“Well I have to give Tony a lot of credit. He was in a lot of pain; the (shin) was bothering him,” Pop said post-game. “He got through the first half fairly well, but I think halftime hurt him badly. It stiffened up and got pretty painful.
“But he wanted to go and it wasn’t a thing where he was going to injure himself further. If it would have been a hamstring kind of thing I would have made him sit,” he continued. “But he wanted to do it, so he did. He showed some good guts.”
Parker’s presence at least represented a reasonable chance for success with Green and Splitter out of action. But against the best shooting team in the league, the best offense in the NBA and the monster it just can’t ever seem to beat, San Antonio needed much more than what they could throw on the court on Friday.
It’s a similar situation the Spurs face against the Thunder: they need the Green – Kawhi Leonard tandem fully engaged to beat the Blazers. The scheme doesn’t change, but (from the depths of Captain Obvious’ cranium) when the personnel does it becomes problematic.
When matching up against Portland, Leonard takes on the responsibility of guarding Nic Batum for the most part. Batum notched nine boards and seven assists, but he only took six shots and scored just nine points. That team is loaded in the backcourt, though. Between Lillard, Matthews (who hit six threes) and Mo Williams, the shooting comes in waves. While Leonard was occupied with Batum, that aforementioned trio put up 43 shots and combined for 58 points. It wasn’t the greatest shooting performance you’ll ever see, but the assault on Parker, Ginobili, Marco Belinelli and Patty Mills was constant. Every time they looked up they were under attack.
Despite the troughs and valleys he’s navigated from the arc this season, Green remains a consistent wing defender, especially against smaller guards. While Leonard deals with the larger small forwards of this league, Danny’s role is to chase the ‘ones’ and ‘twos’ and disrupt their flow with his length. It’s a key dynamic in the Spurs’ defense, and it’s absolutely compromised when one or the other is missing.
Still, Popovich explained after the game that San Antonio’s strategy against Portland is to first and foremost run shooters off the 3-point line, and the Spurs did that for the most part. But the explosiveness of the Blazers was too much.
“Of course Danny is more athletic than Marco and me, so sometimes we need that athleticism. But I think our goal was accomplished,” Ginobili said. “If it wasn’t for that offensive rebound, the last rotation we didn’t make that gave Matthews another shot, they shot (16) threes, and they were shooting 27 (per game) or so. So … we did good in that regard.”
Pop further explained that against the Blazers, you essentially have to pick your poison, which means you just have to let LaMarcus Aldridge do what LaMarcus Aldridge does: bury jumper after jumper after jumper. And it really is the best approach, believe it or not. You’d rather Aldridge pop shots from mid-range than let these freaky shooters get loose on you, but the things that guy can do are mind-blowing at times.
He’s the closest thing we have to Dirk Nowitzki in this league, and unlike so many big men he doesn’t need anyone to set him up for jumpers. Watch this move. Aldridge gets Duncan on his hip, spins right, switches the ball to his left hand to set up his shot, kills Timmy with the step-back and drains the 18-footer. It’s awesome. Poor Timmy.
But with shortened bench, the biggest concern becomes stamina. The Spurs played about as good a game as they could have through three and a half quarters, especially following the Popovich ejection, but it became too much.
The rest of San Antonio’s backcourt — Parker, Manu, Marco and Patty — is tasked with a different set of responsibilities. While they still work hard defensively, their greatest strengths lie in providing the offensive boosts needed throughout the game where Green and Leonard are most valuable as defenders and floor-spacers. You saw it tonight. When the rest of the team nearly cratered in the third quarter, Ginobili scored the final 18 points of the frame, leading a 32-15 charge that followed Pop’s ejection. But then he had to turn right around and deal with the relentless Blazers guards sprinting the opposite direction.
And therein lies another major problem. Without Green and Splitter, the Spurs essentially used an eight-man rotation when they’d typically use at least 10 players in a game like this. Fatigue was a big factor down the stretch. So not only does it complicate things from a basketball perspective, it also thins out the reserves and forces an older core to expend more energy than usual.
It comes down to this: the Trail Blazers are a legitimate contender in the Western Conference, not some fly-by-night team. They rely a ton on the jump shot, but they have waves of great shooters who are playing with unmatched confidence at this point; they possess one of the most dynamic young point guards in the league in Lillard, a trio of dangerous wings, and a big man who I consider to be the best power forward in the NBA with one of the most unique skill-sets in the league; and they have an underrated defense that I believe will only get better as the season moves along. They shot 47.7 percent from the floor in this one, including 50 percent from deep, and in doing so showed that even a good strategy may not work against them.
To beat this team, San Antonio has to have all its pieces. It needs Green on the perimeter for not just his defense, but for his floor-spacing; it needs Splitter in the lineup to give Duncan a break and bang with Aldridge for 20+ minutes per night (as solid as Boris Diaw has been, LMA was too powerful for him in this one); and most importantly it needs a full-speed-ahead Parker putting pressure on a group of guards that must be forced to defend.
There’s no need to be worried yet. Frustrated, yes; concerned for the long-term, no. San Antonio lost to one of the best teams in the league on Friday night, and by noting the absence of Green and Splitter we’re providing proper context for a situation that calls for it. Leonard took only four shots and hit three of them, Duncan missed 10 of his 16 attempts, Parker went 5-for-12 and Mills went 3-for-11. You’re not going to win many games playing like that.
If these two teams face off in the postseason, San Antonio is going to need to be a lot better. The Blazers have now beaten the Spurs in 14 of their last 19 nightmarish matchups, but things change come playoff time, and a healthy San Antonio team is a different animal once that first round begins.
So if you’re upset about another ‘signature loss’ for the Spurs, just relax. They had a chance to win this game, and they actually climbed that proverbial hump against the league’s elite without two of the five starters they rolled with into the NBA Finals last season. But they couldn’t hold onto the lead, and with a hobbled floor-leader doing everything he could to play, San Antonio just ran out of gas. It was a difficult fourth quarter to manage for Jim Boylen as well, who had to finish the game in Pop’s place.
But the Spurs know that’s not the team they’ll have on the floor when the games really matter (if all goes right, obviously), and you could tell in Popovich’s post-game demeanor he was accepting of what happened to his beat-up bunch on Friday night.
San Antonio is going to be fine. But for now, as Green and Splitter heal, it’s just a matter of staying patient. And that’s always the hard part.
— This guy just continues to amaze at 37 years old.
— And really just a top-notch stank face:
Videos and screenshot courtesy of NBA.com/Stats.