Forget about the late Jazz comeback, the Spurs are starting to ignite

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SAN ANTONIO — For the first time since Tiago Splitter went down with a shoulder injury, the Spurs had to survive a serious test in the paint. Against the Jazz on Wednesday night, they barely did.

San Antonio had to thwart yet another dramatic late-game run just eight days after Memphis came back from 12 down in the final 95 seconds of regulation to force overtime. This time, the Jazz cut a 10-point deficit in the final two minutes of the fourth to two with just four seconds remaining; and much like they did against the Grizzlies, the Spurs managed to hang on for a narrow 109-105 victory.

But there’s one line of reasoning that might hold some water as to why the Spurs allowed another near-comeback. The lineup of Tony Parker, Marco Belinelli, Kawhi Leonard, Boris Diaw and Jeff Ayres was the five-man group on the floor during the Utah surge, a unit that spent a total of three minutes together on the court for the entire season prior to Wednesday night.

Once the wheels started spinning, they nearly fell off at the hands of Enes Kanter and Trey Burke (who combined for 25 fourth-quarter points). Had Gregg Popovich not packed Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan in for the night already, that may never have happened. But after the injury Manu suffered on a game-winning layup against the Grizzlies, Pop probably wasn’t about to risk it. The two entered in the final seconds to ensure the ball was properly inbounded, but that was the extent of their effort.

“(Pop) probably thought it was over; Tim was already stiff,” Ginobili said with a grin. “Then it got complicated, and once you sit for so long — especially at 37 or 36 — it’s a little harder to get back in.

“It was an uncommon lineup at the end, but it happens.”

As for Utah’s late run, Popovich basically shrugged it off. Hell, who can blame him? I feel pretty confident saying that’s not the lineup we’ll see playing in crunch time when the games mean something more than this.

“It happens. It’s an 82-game season, and that’s why you play the games. You never know what’s going to happen,” he said. “It’s played by human beings. It’s not a computer where you dial it in. Anything can happen.”

Speaking of human beings: Kanter and Derrick and are sizable ones. The two Jazz beast-men combined to score 44 points and grab 23 rebounds, and Utah dropped 70 (!!!) points in the paint — a season high for any Spurs opponent.

This, my friends, is the kind of matchup that will give San Antonio fits without Splitter inside.

“Kanter was playing great. He’s definitely improved, making some great moves,” Parker said. “Tiago is one of our best defenders with the post-up, so we’re going to miss that.”

Splitter is only giving up .7 points per possession on post-up plays, allowing opponents to shoot just 37.5 percent in these situations, according to mySynergySports. But the Jazz went right after the skinny Spurs interior, taking 24 more shots in the paint than San Antonio. Utah put up 39 shots in the restricted area alone and made 25 of them.

Luckily for the Spurs, however, the Jazz had no way of dealing with Parker. The potential All-Star went for 25 points and nine assists, spinning and darting his way in circles around poor Burke; and the point guard may finally be finding his footing.

Parker is averaging 22.8 points and 8.3 assists on 57 percent shooting in just 32 minutes a night over his last four games. He’s converting at a 63-percent clip from inside the restricted area during that span — a spot from which he’s been uncharacteristically underwhelming this season — and he’s knocking down 54 percent of his mid-range jumpers. It’s a small sample-size, to be sure, but there seems to be an extra spark there.

“Since the beginning of the season (Pop) was playing everybody, and lately he’s been calling my number,” Parker said, explaining that Popovich hadn’t been using him as often as he had in the past. “I don’t mind. The team is playing great and everybody is all about the team, so whatever he wants me to do.

“If Pop’s calling plays, I’m not going to break plays,” he continued. “I’m going to stay in the system and play for the team, and if he wants me to be more aggressive … I’ll be ready.”

Since we’re on the subject, Parker has been utilized a little bit less this season than usual. His usage percentage (percentage of team plays used by a player when he is on the floor) has dipped this from 28 to 26 percent this year, which isn’t much; but over the last four games it’s skyrocketed to above 32 percent. Granted, some of that was because of Manu’s recent absence, but he was used on nearly 34 percent of plays against the Jazz. So that is certainly trending upward.

The discipline Popovich has displayed over the course of his tenure by resisting the temptation to play his stars more significant minutes is amazing. He has a read on the pulse of his team like no other coach in the league does, and he knows just when to put his foot on the gas; this is the time he usually switches Parker’s turbo-boosters to ‘on.’

The point guard averaged 21.9 points and 7.9 assists on 56.3 percent shooting in January of last year, the difference being he had a pretty spectacular month of December as well last season, albeit in several more minutes per game than he’s averaged this year. But he’s got a little more burn on the tires after a long Finals run and a EuroBasket title over the summer, and Popovich has been noticeably holding off on the throttle.

But as I wrote about this morning, things, they are a-changin’ with the rest of the starting lineup as well, and Leonard has been a big part of that recent success.

Kawhi matched a career-high six assists against the Jazz to go along with 15 points, seven rebounds, three steals and two blocks as his own January surge continued. The third-year small forward is averaging 14.8 points, 6.6 rebounds, two steals and a block over the last five games while shooting 63.8 percent from the floor, including 50 percent from the 3-point line.

The assist numbers have been better for Leonard this season, and his vision has noticeably expanded, but that’s not something the Spurs are concerning themselves with at the moment.

“We don’t think of (Kawhi) as a passer right now like (Belinelli) is. We’ve concentrated mostly defensively, rebounding-wise, make him feel comfortable in the offense,” Popovich told me. “And I think once he gets comfortable in the offense and he knows where people are, his passing will become better.”

And Leonard is becoming a more well-rounded player in general. He’s posted 1.7 offensive win-shares this season, which is close to his two win-shares on the defensive side of the ball, according to Basketball-Reference. He was similarly close in these categories last season as well, but his efficiency has made a small leap this year. His true-shooting percentage is down just slightly, mostly due to his struggles from the free-throw and 3-point lines, but those numbers are on the rise; and with his slight uptick in his assist numbers and impact on the boards, any offensive improvement would mean big things for the Spurs.

So now the win streak has reached six games in San Antonio, and the offense that disappeared at times early this year appears to be back. For the time being, at least. While the starting lineup did post a net rating of plus-48.9 against the Jazz opening group, it came in about a half a quarter of court time, and it still remains to be seen how Popovich incorporates Splitter back into the fold once his starting big man returns.

Diaw and Ayres have filled in wonderfully, and they’ve had a positive impact on previous problem-areas of the defense— namely opponents’ 3-point percentages. But San Antonio needs Splitter, and tonight was a perfect example why that’s true. Better teams than the Jazz await the Spurs in the Western Conference gauntlet, and without adequate rim-protection they’ll have little chance to contend.

But Splitter will be back in weeks, not months; the same goes for Danny Green. In the mean time, the Spurs’ offense has sizzled since Popovich ripped into his team on Christmas Day, zooming along to a league-best 114.3 offensive-efficiency rating over the last 20 days. And if you’re buying what the team’s point guard is selling, they’re not yet at their best.

Parker is ready to go; all Pop has to do is let him loose.


  • Stephen Ritger

    The Drive for 5 rolls on!