AT&T CENTER– In the small sample size theater that is the opening weeks of the NBA regular season, points of emphasis seem to be, well, emphasized, in more glaring ways than one.
On one hand, there are the delay of game calls, carrying (three-to-four called on a post player attempting to back down a defender by my unofficial count), and traveling violations officials have been instructed to whistle at every opportunity. On the other, there is the frenetic pace the league has picked up out of the gate.
The Phoenix Suns entered the game as the top fast break team in the league, led by dynamic-in-the-open-court point guard Eric Bledsoe and a bevy of shooters and athletes. Of course, as new head coach Jeff Hornacek pointed out, the season is still fresh, as are every team's legs, and the trick is to maintain these points of emphasis as teams venture deeper into the regular season.
San Antonio naturally has their own points of emphasis, notably on defense. But unlike NBA officials, their approach is more of a process than unsustainable early blitz. So when San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was asked about early season struggles defending the three-point line, or Danny Green's inability to connect from behind it, he nonchalantly chalked it up to the small sample size. Of more immediate concern to Popovich is the five-games-in-seven-days stretch the Spurs embarked on with a 99-96 victory over the Phoenix Suns Wednesday night.
Phoenix opening the night with two quick three-pointers while shooting nearly 50 percent for the evening was concerning, but more pressing was managing minutes to survive the next seven days and the wrong end of a back-to-back. It wasn't a perfect performance, and a hodgepodge of different lineups likely contributed to the chaos, but it was a performance that limited all but Tony Parker, Marco Belinelli, and Green to under 30 minutes.
The break from continuity began with the starting lineup, where Boris Diaw replaced Tiago Splitter to matchup with Channing Frye and the Suns emphasis on launching three-pointers, and launching them quickly. The Suns use of small lineups, and particularly the use of twin brothers Markieff and Marcus Morris, kept the Spurs away from their Duncan-Splitter pairing, and necessitated the overuse of Kawhi Leonard as a small ball power forward in the first half (18:30 minutes in the first two quarters)–prompting Popovich to start Belinelli in his place in the second half. Markieff, in particular, was a matchup nightmare; using his athleticism to get into the paint for 23 points on 11-13 shooting and 12 rebounds.
"They created a lot of matchup problems," Parker said. "Both of the brothers, they're tough to guard; and Bledsoe in the pick-and-roll. A lot of people, they really don't believe in Phoenix. I think they're a pretty good team."
Managing minutes and the fatigue of a back-to-back led to uneven performances by all, but the Spurs Big Three remain the one constant, each player carrying the team early through different stretches of the game.
Tim Duncan (17 points, five rebounds, five assists) was aggressive early, scoring 12 of his 17 points in the first half. Early in the first quarter Duncan was seen demonstrably (for him) pointing for Parker to swing the ball to Leonard in the corner, looking for an entry pass into the post. On the next two plays Duncan isolated on the left block against MIles Plumlee, notching a turnaround on the first possession and a trip to the free throw line on the second.
Ginobili's first stint off the bench was his most productive, quickly scoring a layup in transition, getting Leonard a dunk off a steal, finding Patty Mills cutting along the baseline, and hitting a three-pointer while trailing on the break. His playmaking also got Splitter to the free throw line six times, rekindling their pick and roll chemistry in the second unit.
But perhaps the biggest performance was from Parker, who scored 15 of his 20 points while connecting on all seven of his shots in the fourth quarter. Parker scored 15 of the Spurs final 16 points, connecting on a stepback jumper to put the Spurs up for good with 31.9 seconds left following a charge drawn by Manu Ginobili.
"Tony is someone we depend on," Popovich said. "He plays a lot of minutes, we expect him to be able to give us that offense, distribute the ball, and play good 'D" night-after-night. He's been doing it for a long time now."
The NBA can emphasize as many new rules, strategies, and teams (such as the up-and-coming Golden State Warriors coming on Friday) all it wants; at the end of the day, the Spurs remain a constant.