Spurs fall again as the pile of injuries continues to grow
HOUSTON — Will Sevening left the Toyota Center floor, following a limping Manu Ginobili to the locker room halfway through the third quarter; the Spurs’ head trainer returned several minutes later without the sixth man. He sat down in his empty seat next to Tiago Splitter and told the injured center the news, and the Brazilian’s reaction was all you needed to see.
San Antonio fell off a cliff after a blistering first quarter, scoring just 62 points on 37 percent shooting the rest of the way in a 97-90 loss to the James Harden-less Rockets. The Spurs have now lost two straight games for the first time this season, dropping their record to 33-12 — two games behind the Thunder for first in the West. But the loss on the scoreboard was trivial relative to the loss of Ginobili, whose injury just added to the heaping pile of sprains, strains and fractures that are already nailing this team to the wall.
Manu tied the game on a turn-back-the-clock dunk in traffic with 6:09 remaining in the third quarter, but he grabbed his left hamstring the second his feet hit the ground.
That would be as close as it got the rest of the way as the Spurs trudged on with yet another injury. Tim Duncan, who finished with 12 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks in just 30 minutes, said there was no ‘here we go again’ mentality during Ginobili’s conspicuous absence over the final 18 minutes.
“Obviously it hurts to hear after the game and see him walking out of here, but (it’s) nothing we can worry about during the game. We gotta play with who we got,” Duncan said. “It’s a frustrating time right now — losing games like we’re losing them, then losing people. And we’re getting slim there with bodies.
“It’s the NBA season and everybody deals with injuries, and we can’t be the one to sit here and hope that we don’t get any,” he continued. “It happens and we’ll play through it.”
The injury is the same one he suffered during the Spurs’ overtime win on Jan. 7 in Memphis, Gregg Popovich said after the game. Ginobili will have an MRI on Wednesday morning, so we’ll know more then about the extent of the damage.
Despite all of this — the pre-existing injuries to Tiago Splitter, Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, and the addition of the Manu surprise — the Spurs hung with the Rockets, and it was mostly because of Boris Diaw. The fluffy, finessing Frenchman has been brilliant as of late, and never more so this season than he was on Tuesday. He led the Spurs with 22 points and notched 11 rebounds, four assists and two blocks to keep San Antonio alive as pillars continued to crumble around them.
Diaw took advantage of Houston’s small-ball lineups, posting up whichever stretch ‘four’ took on the task of defending him. And when his shot didn’t work, he attacked the glass, put back his misses or dished the ball to open shooters. Somehow the Spurs hung in there despite the ever-increasing burden of playing with a roster that’s suddenly as deep as a kiddie pool. In the end, it wasn’t Diaw’s size advantage that decided the game, but the Spurs’ lack thereof.
We’ve discussed ad nauseum the defensive difficulties the Spurs are experiencing without their best stoppers, but the other element that’s beginning to kill this team is defensive rebounding — a problem that ruined their night against the Rockets.
Houston outrebounded San Antonio 55-39 and grabbed 19 offensive boards, including five in the final 2:30 of the fourth quarter. The Spurs managed to pull within two points with 1:47 remaining and got a much-needed stop on the ensuing possession, but they gave up two offensive rebounds on consecutive Rockets misses and Dwight Howard polished off the sequence with a two-handed dunk, rocking the basket and much of the momentum San Antonio had gathered.
The Spurs haven’t found a way to get many stops during pivotal moments of close games in recent weeks, so the defensive stands were impressive. But the possession doesn’t end there, and San Antonio was a step too slow and inches too short to deal with the length and athleticism of the Rockets.
“They played well and offensive boards hurt us,” Popovich said. “They would miss some free throws then get the rebound. We’d make a couple of stops then they would get the rebound. If we’re going to shoot as poorly as we did — 6-of-23 from three — that makes a pretty small margin for error, so you have to get the loose balls … and we didn’t get any of that.
“You can’t allow offensive rebounds, and we did that.”
One of the main tenets Popovich preaches is the importance of the defensive rebound. His teams never game-plan to attack the offensive glass, so securing opponents’ misses is vital to the Spurs’ success. They’ve regularly been one of the elite teams in the league at doing so, and before Splitter’s injury they boasted the fourth-best defensive-rebounding percentage in the NBA, according to NBA.com.
In the 11 games without Splitter, ten teams have been better in that department, and that number continues to plummet. It’s not only because of Splitter’s absence, either. All four injured players (Manu included) are good rebounders — or great, in Leonard’s case — at their positions, and now we’re consistently seeing three-guard lineups featuring combinations of Nando De Colo, Cory Joseph, Patty Mills and Tony Parker. Those guys are playing pretty well considering the circumstances, but … bleh! That’s just disastrous.
The Spurs will only have 11 healthy bodies against the Bulls on Wednesday, so they’re going to have to continue to mix and match. Chicago is another very difficult team to deal with on the glass, meaning San Antonio will have to be much better in that capacity if it would like to stop its losing streak at two games.
But help is soon on the way in the form of the aforementioned big Brazilian. Splitter said prior to tip on Tuesday that he was feeling good, and that the Spurs need to see him go through a successful 5-on-5 situation in practice before clearing him to play, per Mike Monroe of the Express-News. San Antonio has two full days off following the Chicago game, so he’ll get his chance to show whether or not he’s ready in the coming days. If things go well, we might see Tiago in uniform against the Kings on Saturday, and it’s highly likely he’ll be ready to go for the Rodeo Road Trip.
The current struggle is a real one, but the Spurs will get through this step by step, starting with Splitter’s return to the court.
“That would be very welcomed,” Duncan said with a sort of relieved look at the end of the night, his first of such kind in quite a while.
For the time being, San Antonio is going to have to work through this. They don’t really have an expendable contract on the roster to open up another spot should Ginobili be out for an extended period of time, but there’s optimism this injury will once again be short-lived.
Until then, I suggest the next investment the Spurs make be in bubble-wrap. I got five on it.
Video courtesy of NBA.com/Stats