AT&T CENTER — Before the playoffs started, an hour before their last game of the regular season, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich intimated who the Spurs were over the last month of the regular season would not be the team that opened up a playoff series against the Los Angeles Lakers.
In Game 1 the Spurs shook off a month's worth of rust and bandages, riding a dominant defensive performance and a well-timed scoring burst from Manu Ginobili to victory. The Spurs looked better, but one game does not a trend make.
“I thought that was the first time in a while that we looked like the team that played the first 70 or so games defensively. We had done a good job of getting into that top tier of defensive teams, and then for a variety of reasons it dissipated," Popovich said before Game 2. "But that was our best defensive performance in a while and I’m anxious to see if that’s really our team or not."
In systematically ripping a depleted Lakers team apart in ways the 102-91 final margin doesn't do justice, the San Antonio Spurs began answering some of the questions surrounding the team heading into the playoffs.
1.) Would the Spurs previously top-five defense reemerge from its doldrums, and if so, would it hold up in the playoffs?
"I thought we played two pretty good games on the defensive end of the court back-to-back," Popovich said. "That was our goal at the beginning of the season and we did it for most of the year–as I said–until maybe the last three weeks of the season it dissipated.
"We got it back for these two games. We'll see if we can continue to play good defense both individually and team-wise when we get out to L.A.."
The Los Angeles Lakers are a woefully depleted team with Kobe Bryant out with an Achilles injury, Steve Nash receiving epidurals just to stay upright, and Steve Blake now tweaking his hamstring. But their vaunted front line still exists with Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard presenting difficulties for any team.
Given the sorry state of the Lakers, it's hard to just point to the numbers and get a clear picture of how locked in the Spurs defense is right now. This team would struggle to score against plenty of defenses. But look closely at the process.
In post isolations, when the Spurs aren't knocking entry passes loose, Tim Duncan, Tiago Splitter, and even Matt Bonner have done an excellent job of denying Howard and Gasol the middle of the floor, forcing a spin back to the baseline, away from the basket, and into shots that drop their efficiency precipitously.
They're fronting the post, sending weak side help to deny any lobs over the top, and then recovering to close off the most dangerous driving and passing lanes with the defense-on-a-string rotations that had been effective all year. At every spin or turn, Howard Gasol were stymied by two or three Spurs defenders.
"It is frustrating," Howard admitted of the Spurs swarming defense. "I just have to trust my teammates to make shots. On whatever they do defensively, I have to be aware of my arms and try not to get tangled up."
2.) Which Tony Parker would show up?
Duncan forms the foundation for everything the Spurs do, but it is Parker that makes the team truly elite. No coincidence then that many of the team's struggles occurred after Parker ran into a myriad of injuries.
Popovich said that Parker was improving every day, moving closer to being one hundred percent. In Game 2 it took a half for Parker to assert himself.
After going 1-for-6 for four points (though he did have five assists), Parker went on one of his patented scoring binges in the third quarter, scoring 15 points on nine shots. He was once again turning the corner on defenders, accessing his full repertoire of moves from floaters to spinning lay-ups at the rim. Parker finished with 28 points and seven assists with no turnovers.
"We're getting our rhythm back," Duncan proclaimed. "You see Tony tonight and that's probably the best part of the whole game. He's getting his rhythm back. He felt good tonight. He shot the ball well tonight. He looked like the Tony of mid-season, and that's great for us."
3.) Would the Spurs get contributions from their bench?
One of the Spurs biggest strengths over the past two years has been their depth and ability to send wave after wave of rotation quality players to supplement their three stars.
It is, however, a conditional depth. It relies completely on the abilities of Manu Ginobili to make the rest of the second unit, a team of shooting and pick and roll specialists, make sense.
After not playing for a month, Ginobili has turned in back-to-back quality performances in the 15-20 minutes Popovich has allotted him these first round games. Ginobili's 13 points and three three-pointers were helpful, but the seven assists have reinvigorated a second unit.
Alongside Splitter or Blair, with Bonner spacing the floor, defenses have to respect the dive man far more in Ginobili pick and rolls than they do with Parker. As defenses collapsed on Blair or Splitter, passing lanes opened up all over the perimeter, ultimately ending in a 7-for-14 shooting performance from behind the line.
"They have so many guys who can make baskets," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said. "It's either Matt Bonner doing it (10 points, five rebounds), and Kawhi Leonard (16 points, seven rebounds) did it tonight. It's always Parker, Ginobili, and Duncan, but then somebody else picks up the slack and tonight was Leonard and Bonner. Both of them played a terrific game."
Bonner has been a quiet revelation in the first two games, doing many of the little things that add up to big wins. Physically overmatched–an understatement–Bonner has done an excellent job of fronting the post, fighting for position, and fouling when necessary.
Offensively his spacing has been invaluable for the Spurs, and he has been able to supplement his three-point shooting with a few drives and running floaters and hook shots.
"He was a key player for us today. He was very active defensively. Of course he's giving Dwight a big advantage in size, strength, and quickness; I could keep going. But he did a great job getting around him, fronting him from behind," Ginobili said. "He was very active getting rebounds too, and being a threat from the three-point line. We should have given him the ball more today, he was open a few times. We had Tiago in foul trouble so it was huge for us to have another key contributor from the bigs."
The Spurs will fly to Los Angeles where more questions await. The difference is they will be arriving with more than a few more responses.