The Bucks are in the rearview but the rolling Thunder loom ahead
The chasm that exists between the NBA’s top tier and the tar pit that is its cellar is pretty startling, and the difference in competency level between the best and worst of the league was on full display last night in San Antonio. The Spurs, without their best player (Matt Bonner) and three top role players in Tony Parker (I kid), Danny Green and Tiago Splitter, rolled over the Bucks, 110-82, with impressive energy and effort after falling to the Trail Blazers in disappointing fashion just two nights earlier.
It would’ve been easy just to coast. Poor Milwaukee is just terrible, and this being a game sandwiched between two matchups with the other two top squads in the West (Portland and Oklahoma City) had all the makings of a ‘trap’ game. Not that there was much danger of San Antonio losing, but would you have been shocked if their short-handedness had resulted in a few extra unnecessary minutes for Tim Duncan or Manu Ginobili in like a 12- to 15-point game on a quiet (basketball-wise, at least) Sunday night? I wouldn’t have been.
But that wasn’t the case. The Spurs just f***ing killed them, and in doing so had a chance to find significant playing time for three players who’ve spent time in the D-League this season. Nando De Colo, Aron Baynes and new call-up Malcolm Thomas combined for 24 points, 19 rebounds, four blocks and a couple of steals in 55 minutes between the three of them, and San Antonio won by 28 points. That’s really the bulk of what you need to know.
Very quickly on the Bucks: For an organization that hasn’t seen success in such a long time, this is tough to watch. I’m not meaning to pile on when I say these things, but it’s borderline amazing that team has won seven games. It’s been ravaged by injuries, its newest big-contract player (Larry Sanders) is wildly underperforming and constantly involved in negative off-court occurrences, and there have been locker room rifts between players to boot. But all this losing means there’s a great chance at revival on the horizon.
The first step — which often comes with a little luck — toward revamping a sleepwalking franchise is finding that franchise-changing superstar; and for a team that was paying waves of role players over the offseason in an effort to sneak into the playoffs, only to get destroyed by Miami or Indiana, this whole season might be that little bit of luck for which they were looking. Without all this awfulness, the Bucks’ perpetual state of mediocrity was likely to continue. Perhaps that’s no longer the case, but there’s still time to screw it up. Don’t do that, please, Milwaukee. Not only for your sake and for the sanity of your fan base, but for the NBA. These kinds of games are miserable entertainment, which is what professional basketball is and why fans pay outrageous prices to watch your players play a game. Please continue to be bad this season so the chances of you being so in the future decrease significantly.
I have just few more items from the game itself before we move on, since our player grades were screwy last night and I had to take them down due to formatting issues.
- The Kawhi Leonard – Giannis Antetokounmpo matchup is as gangly, handsy, youthful and fun as it gets in the league right now. These dudes’ wingspans push 15 feet combined, there might be — MIGHT be — one player in the league with bigger hands than either of them. (Apparently Greg Smith of the Houston Rockets has the biggest hands in the NBA, per DraftExpress.) It’s like two praying mantises dribbling, rebounding, shooting and swallowing basketballs whole in the passing lanes. Just aesthetically amazing from a physical-attribute standpoint. Basketball was created specifically for these unique human beings, or is it the other way around?
- Malcolm Thomas’ 15 minutes were fun. Nothing really special, but fun, simply because we don’t get to see a lot of new faces around here very often. And as you’ve seen with the development of Jeff Ayres, we get REALLY REALLY pumped for any player that has a semblance of plus athleticism on top of dunking and shot-blocking ability. Thomas’ greatest attribute is his rebounding, and he turned in nine of them in a little more than a quarter of action. He also found his way to a couple of blocks and almost spectacularly swatted his way to a third on a play that was whistled dead just a fraction of a second before. He’s improved his perimeter shot over the last year or two, though that was not readily apparent last night. Still, I challenge you all to make this an exercise in restraint. It’s easy to get excited when a player whose position is one of need (to a degree) for the Spurs shows up and puts up a nice stat line while showing some impressive physical tools at the same time, but that was against the Bucks. I’m exaggerating a bit when I say this, but that team has some players not much better than those Thomas faced in the D-League. And oh yeah, the Spurs were injury-depleted. It’s likely he’ll see more action at times over the next several weeks while Green and Splitter heal, so it’ll be fun to watch him when he does get opportunities. He’s guaranteed for the rest of the season, so he isn’t going anywhere soon, and he’s got a non-guaranteed contract through next season. Thomas is viewed by scouts as a guy with decent potential who could become a nice NBA role player in the future, but just be patient for now.
- The not-Tony-Parker point guards were very good last night. While he can certainly be up and down, Patty Mills’ play off the bench has been consistently impactful all season long; and considering we all thought Joseph would be the de facto backup considering what was basically incumbent status, the jump from Mills has been more of an addition than a carryover from last year. Patty going for 20 points, seven assists and three steals in 27 minutes isn’t really a surprise anymore when San Antonio gets to play its bench big minutes. And how about Joseph? His 12 points, four boards and three dimes were very CoJo-ish in terms of balance, and he’s been playing confidently in whatever role Gregg Popovich sees fit for him on any given night, especially in Green’s absence. Then there’s Nando, who’s had a relatively brutal season. He has hardly played, and when he does it’s generally not good. Except for last night. His 13 points tied Ayres for second on the team, and his four rebounds, two assists and two blocks showed his ability to rack of stats against certain levels of competition. And that’s the thing with Nando: in the D-League, he’s LeBron James (seriously look at his D-League numbers), but at the NBA level he often appears to not belong in the slightest. It’s a little weird. He has an interesting, well-rounded skill-set in a vacuum, but he’s less than average athletically, he’s not very strong, he has a tendency to turn the ball over making passes that shouldn’t have been made, and at times he appears to lack confidence — it feels that way on the surface at least. But you can see the creativity he possesses and you can tell he’s an intelligent player, but on most nights he just doesn’t look like an NBA player. Last night, he did. And once that shot starts falling you can see the confidence level rise. He was stepping into threes without hesitating, attacking the rim when he could and playing decent defense. All in all, that trio combined for 35 points and 12 assists. You’ll take that any night from your point guard position.
A look ahead
We’ve made a concerted effort this season to apply context to the “losing to elite teams” narrative. While these losses have to be acknowledged, they should also be discussed from a well-rounded perspective, and at no point have I felt long-term concern stem from any of the nine defeats on the Spurs’ resume.
But I’ve got a slightly different feeling heading into the Thunder game on Wednesday night. This is not a game that should be taken all that seriously, given all the injuries the two teams are currently battling, but Oklahoma City is without Russell Westbrook right now. Kevin Durant is playing like the ¹MVP of the league and the Thunder are picking up steam because of it, but we’ve seen them go through offensive droughts without their fiery point guard at the helm.
¹He is the MVP at the moment, by the way. I don’t think there’s much of a question. It’s still a long season, and LeBron James flips that switch and the Heat go on another league-blitzing winning streak, then maybe he pulls the needle back his direction. But Durant is on another planet right now, which means Kawhi’s going to have his giant hands full on Wednesday.
Now, who knows where Parker is, health-wise? Every indication points to him playing, but that shin was bothering him in a big way over the weekend. Still, if he plays, you’d like to see this team flex its muscle at home against the Russ-less Thunder. San Antonio is missing key role players who play an integral part in defending Oklahoma City, but the other guys are missing a superstar. Again, this will be one of those matchups you keep in perspective, but you kind of expect the Spurs to win. Unless anything unexpected develops between now and the end of the proceedings on Wednesday, a loss here would safely be labeled as a disappointment. Not a shocker or some big upset, but a disappointment to be sure.
I’m still not into the ‘signature win’ thing yet, however. The Thunder do have the best offensive player in the world, and whenever a team has a guy like that on its roster they’re more than capable of winning on any night against any opponent. And while Westbrook is obviously more crucial to his team than these guys, I still can’t stress enough how significantly Green and Splitter impact San Antonio’s matchup with Oklahoma City. Green is going to be a major factor in the future against the Westbrook/Reggie Jackson point guard combo, and Splitter is necessary for what has become a pretty deep Thunder front line. Defensive rebounding is crucial against this team, and Tiago’s absence can cause problems in that capacity. Ayres, Boris Diaw and Aron Baynes are going to have to bring their lunch pails.
Oklahoma City currently sits one game back of San Antonio in the standings, even with Westbrook missing all this time. A win for the Spurs would be a temporary pushback to keep the Thunder off their backs, but we’re only halfway through the NBA season. Still, OKC has already taken the first two matchups, and another win would give them the tiebreaker should these teams finish the year with identical records.
This will be one of just three home games over the next 37 days for San Antonio, so it might be a good time to take care of a little business before heading off on the Rodeo Road Trip in a couple of weeks.