Tony Parker buries Suns as Big Three continue to carry Spurs

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SAN ANTONIO — It’s a good thing the Spurs still have three future Hall-of-Famers, because the young supporting cast has yet to make the impact most expected before the season began. But hey, it’s still very early. Also, it’s ALWAYS good to have three future Hall-of-Famers whenever you can get them.

Tony Parker scored 15 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter, including four in the final 32 seconds, and a Gerald Green three-pointer sailed long at the buzzer as the Spurs snuck out of the AT&T Center with a 99–96 victory over the Phoenix Suns. It was the second night of a back-to-back, and San Antonio is in the middle of a stretch of five games in seven nights, a situation Gregg Popovich called “ridiculous” prior to tip-off.

But they’re now 2-0 during said stretch, and at this point in what has been a tumultuous NBA season, you take the wins whenever you can get them. That doesn’t mean they always have to be very pretty, though. The narrow victory was hectic and ugly at times, but one of the things the Spurs did more often last year than in years past was grind out close games. All the close fourth quarters necessitated familiarity with different situations, and that paid off for San Antonio down the stretch.

And Pop is always tinkering. Boris Diaw got his second start of the season, but this time it was via a coaching decision, not an injury to Tim Duncan. And whether it was a matchup move or a performance-based switch, it was defensible. San Antonio’s first quarters have been dreadful thus far.

Prior to Wednesday’s game, the Spurs had posted a first-quarter average shooting percentage of 37.4 percent and and scored 75.8 points per 100 possessions. It had only been four games, but there was a trend that needed to be broken. They shot 60 percent and dished out eight assists in the first 12 minutes against the Suns. The touch-up job worked, and not just on the offensive end.

The starting lineup of Duncan, Parker, Tiago Splitter, Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green was as good a defensive five-man lineup as there was in the league last season (87.7 points allowed per 100 possession), but that hadn’t been the case through four games. This lineup owns a whopping 118.6 defensive rating in 28 minutesmore than twice as much time as the five-man lineup with the second most minutes—and it helps partially explain why San Antonio has had to battle back from so many early deficits. On top of that, this lineup is allowing opponents to shoot better than 50 percent, it’s grabbing just 63 percent of all available defensive rebounds … and it hasn’t called its mom in weeks! Just Terrible!

And as was the case through stretches of the Finals, one of the quick fixes for the Spurs defensively this season has been Diaw. His contributions on the offensive end have been documented (and they have been very good), but San Antonio’s defense was a different animal on Wednesday against the tricky Suns.

Again, Pop did some tinkering, which made for inconsistent samples. He threw out 14 different lineups in one game, and not a one played more than seven minutes together. But the starting lineup—including Diaw and sans Splitter—registered a 92.6 defensive rating, and Diaw’s individual DRtg of 93.5 was the best of the five starters. So, it worked for one night, at least.

This was a matchup with a team that’s supposed to be tanking, and without Goran Dragic in the lineup their offense is going to struggle at times. Phoenix will have some good nights along the way given all the matchup problems they cause, but they’re going to end the season as a lottery team quite easily. If they even push for a playoff spot it’s safe to say it’d be a sizable shock to most who follow the league.

But, as Pop always says, that’s an NBA team. They get paychecks, too. Diaw’s production has been one of the early constants, but Green’s has been the opposite. His performance on the road trip prompted questions in the pre-game presser about his struggles, but Popovich made it clear that was the least of his worries. And Danny responded. The Spurs sharpshooter went for 19 points, five rebounds and four blocks (!!!), and he didn’t do it all from deep.

Five of Green’s eight field goals came from inside the paint, which is a major development if it comes with any regularity in the future. He scored just 75 baskets from five feet and in throughout the regular season last year, and teams have been blitzing him on the perimeter because of the difficulties he has off the dribble. But he was aggressive against Phoenix, and once he got inside he never missed a shot. His only three misses—he was 8-of-11—came from outside the 3-point line.

Little by little, maybe this team is beginning to round back into form. I say that like they aren’t already 4-1, but I digress. The problems that normal starting group are encountering defensively are probably more of a fluke than anything, given all the long-term success they experienced last season. They at least deserve the benefit of the doubt to this point. And as the systematic timing begins to sink back in, this offensive should begin to flow a little more easily. One thing’s for sure: Popovich is spreading the love around.

Parker is the only Spur to be averaging at least 30 minutes a night (33 mpg), and they’ll be looking great come playoff time if this team can continue to win while regulating minutes to this extent. Much of this has to do with Pop moving lineups around and certain players not performing well, so once the experimenting dies down I’m sure things will regulate themselves. It will be interesting to see how the Spurs respond with the Golden State Warriors in town on Friday, because we may see Diaw in the starting lineup again against a perimeter-oriented team that sits near the bottom of the league in terms of points in the paint.

Stats courtesy of NBA.com.

  • Colin

    The Warriors are coming in looking to make a statement, no doubt about it. I’m hoping the Spurs meet the challenge, GSW is definitely out for blood this season. Kawhi and Green will need to pick up Curry/Thompson at half court like in games 3-6 last playoffs.

  • Graham

    Wonder if Curry will play. Obviously that makes a MASSIVE difference.

  • Colin

    I don’t know about massive difference, it’s the 6th game of the regular season. If it were the playoffs then yes. Given the way he spurs handled Denver/Phoenix it wouldn’t matter whether he plays or not because we obviously aren’t to speed.

    Btw, I’d prefer the spurs don’t hit their stride until March/April anyhow

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