San Antonio Spurs 96, Cleveland Cavaliers 95: Kawhi FTW
Just like you can’t judge someone’s work or school performance by the last day before Christmas break, you can’t accurately peg an NBA team by how it plays in the last game before All-Star Weekend. The Spurs prevailed 96-95 against the Cleveland Cavaliers — and won their 42nd game of the season — on a 3-pointer from Kawhi Leonard with 1.5 seconds left, but it seemed at times like both teams would be happy with a draw and to go into the break healthy.
After Leonard’s star turn as The Man against the Chicago Bulls on Monday night, the Spurs returned Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili to the lineup against Cleveland, seemingly dropping Leonard to fourth banana. Of course Leonard knocked down the game-winning 3-pointer from the corner to steal the headlines from Tony Parker, who flirted with a triple-double (24 points, seven assists, six rebounds). It makes total sense.
I wrote about this briefly in my contribution to the Daily Dime over at ESPN.com, but I’ll expand on it here. When the Spurs had the ball on their final offensive possession with 9.5 seconds left down 95-93, Kawhi Leonard passed the ball into Tim Duncan. Duncan was immediately fouled and the Spurs were forced to in-bound the ball again from the sidelines with a hair under nine seconds remaining.
This time, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich made a switch. Instead of Leonard passing the ball in, it would be Matt Bonner. Pop called Bonner over and sent Kawhi off to the opposite end of the floor in the spot the Red Rocket vacated. Bonner put the ball into play and, after a high pick-and-roll with Tim Duncan, Parker drove to the hoop, sucking in the defense and finding Leonard in the corner for the winning basket.
Obviously, I’m not in Cleveland covering the game, but I’d like to know what prompted Pop to make the switch. Though even if I was there to ask, I doubt he’d give me an honest answer. He could’ve done it because they probably shouldn’t have beat Chicago on Monday and it’s the last game before the All-Star break, so why the hell not? He could’ve done it to keep Leonard’s confidence on an upward trajectory, which I’m sure it is. He could’ve done it because it’s Wednesday, and why the hell not?
Either way, Pop made the decision to likely take the ball out of the hands of one of the best 3-point shooters in the game, a guy who will be in the NBA’s 3-point shootout in three days, and give it to Kawhi. And it totally worked out.
Oh, also, it was terrible defense by Dion Waiters.
Not only did Leonard hit the game-winning shot for the Spurs, he contributed in other areas as well. Kawhi had a double-double with his 13 points and 10 rebounds, and blocked four shots for good measure. He was everywhere and continues his ascension into the Spurs’ Big 3 as Manu Ginobili slows down.
Speaking of Manu, he played a lot better in his first game back against the Cavs than I thought he would. He only played about 10 minutes, all in the first half, but chalked up five points and six assists in that stretch. He had a good two man game going with DeJuan Blair. Ginobili would get the ball on the wings and run a nice little side screen and roll with Blair, often finding the big man rolling to the basket for a dunk. On one play, Ginobili hit Blair in stride with a no-look, behind-the-back pass for a dunk. Ginobili was a major factor in Blair finishing with 12 points on 6-of-7 shooting.
Tim Duncan’s return to the lineup, however, wasn’t as seamless. Duncan shot 6-for-15 from the field en route to 13 points, grabbed six rebounds and blocked five shots. The Big Fundamental was out of rhythm offensively, but so seemed the entire Spurs attack. There was a lot of ball stopping going on, but the Spurs made just enough plays to survive. Obviously.
The Spurs head into the All-Star break where they’ve ended the last couple of regular seasons: with the NBA’s best record. They’ve won 42 games by mid-February and are 4-1 on the current Rodeo Road Trip. The defense has been shored up and young players are growing into the roles provided for them. The Spurs are right where they want to be, the only question is whether they’ll be in the same spot come June.