Twice this year the Spurs have gotten obsessive attention from the national media. On opening night they beat the Warriors and everyone was hailing the Spurs as a dominant team who can manhandle the pretty Warriors any time they want. Their next media spotlight was just a few day ago when they retired Tim Duncan’s jersey. In between those two events has been a black hole of nothingness. The Spurs are forgotten. The Warriors and the Cavs and the Clippers and even a little Celtics thrown in there has captured the media glow. There is plenty Dwight Howard talk and is Kemba Walker going to be on the All-Star team? The Lakers have gotten a few trends as has the 76ers and Rookie of the Year Joel Embiid. The Rockets and D’Antoni ball are doing what they do and James Harden has turned into a nice point guard, so that is discussed ad infinitum. Did I leave anyone out? Oh yeah the Clippers and Blake Griffin and DeAndre shade by Hassan Whiteside. The Bulls and their zero perimeter game. DeMar Derozan’s scoring, Lou Williams three point shooting, Kevin Durant fitting in rather nicely. That is the NBA diet. Oh and the new CBA and max players able to sign for $210 million. This is the talk or the social media trends or the talk radio arguments. The only thing missing is mention of the Spurs.
The Spurs are the same old thing. Old like 39 year old Manu Ginobli. 34 year old Tony Parker. 31 year old LaMarcus Aldridge. 36 year old Pau Gasol. 33 year old David Lee. But old enough to go into Houston and end their 10-game winning streak and furthermore force D’Antoni ball to play the Spurs game and not the other way around.
Tim Duncan or no Tim Duncan, the Spurs are the 4th best defensive team, keeping their opponents under 100 points. It’s amazing how they get it done year in and year out. They are a pretty bad rebounding team. But they make three point shots. They defend their position. They are a top-10 assist team. And they play a system with a head coach that demands team play.
They are not the same without Tim Duncan, no getting around that. And it is not unreasonable to think the Spurs may get tripped up because LaMarcus Aldridge has never led a team to the Conference Finals. But Aldridge has so much help. He can count on 37 points from his bench. And he can also count on none of the Spurs panicking. They are seasoned and mature. How else to explain trailing the Rockets on the road by 10 with four minutes left and winning the game. When there is stress the Spurs fall back to what they know: defense.
The Spurs have lost five games this year. Yet, Kawhi Leonard’s shooting is off his torrid 50% pace of last year and his threes and rebounds have dipped too. His defense has taken a small step back, from extraordinary to very good while his 24 points a game is a career high.
Tony Parker’s numbers are down in all categories. His 4.6 assists are the second lowest of his career. His 10.1 points is the second lowest of his career. His defense is the worst it has ever been and he is shooting 22.2% 10-16 feet.
LaMarcus Aldridge had been above average while Pau Gasol has been a pleasant surprise considering his age. Gasol’s defense has been solid while his shooting has been on the mark, over 50%. But the thing about the Spurs is that stats don’t define them. What defines them is their identity and what you know.
You know they will win 55 games. You know in the last three minutes everything will tighten up. Their defense gets stronger.Their offense is more patient. You know Kawhi is their first option but he isn’t selfish. Against the Rockets he was doubled and then he pitched out. Danny Green to Paddy Mills and a three to take the lead. It would be the game winner. You know the Spurs don’t make mistakes. They don’t turn the ball over. They don’t make needless fouls. They don’t try to do everything themselves. You know they have this regular season wining thing down to a science. It is what they are good at.
But the playoffs is the San Antonio unknown. They are an older club being asked to defend space the floor teams with players who have young legs. The Spurs won a title in 2014. Every player who played a significant part of those Finals with the exception of Tim Duncan and Boris Diaw are still on the team, still doing the Spurs gut it out with defense thing. But can these aged Spurs stay with young talent for three series in a row to get to a NBA Finals without Tim Duncan?
It is the without Tim Duncan part that puts everything we know about the Spurs come playoff time up in the air. Duncan’s best ball of the year happened in the post season when he led his teams somewhere. Who is the Spurs leader now? Who are they going to follow? Kawhi is quiet and LaMarcus can disappear. It is the only mysterious thing about San Antonio as they do the same old San Antonio thing, resting players, defending in the last three minutes, hitting open shots for game winners.
Playoff basketball is the ultimate equalizer. For the first time in 20 years Tim Duncan won’t be there to save the day.
photo via llananba