On Monday night, the San Antonio Spurs went into Oracle to play the most anticipated game of the NBA season. It was the first meeting between the two teams who are far and away the best in basketball right now, and the buzz was inescapable all week. It had all the makings of an epic battle; an unstoppable force vs. an immovable object, the Defensive Player Of the Year and his historically good defense against the MVP’s high flying offense, and the last two NBA Champions both with a legitimate shot at 72 wins. Fans were instead subjected (or treated) to a one sided blowout as the Spurs came out flat and the Warriors came out looking to prove a point. This game will help the Spurs though, because they don’t have a point to prove, just a championship to win.
Let’s face it, the Spurs are not the best team in basketball right now. Golden State shattered that illusion in a 120-90 spanking that felt even more lopsided than the final score. The Silver and Black Machine got a taste of its own medicine, and for the first time this season, fans, players and coaches were reminded of what it feels like to be on the wrong end of a blowout. Pop started his postgame presser with a very sarcastic, “We almost got em,” and after expressing thankfulness that he wasn’t fired (@Cavs), he gave the Warriors credit and said, “In every facet of the game, it was men and boys.” Manu Ginobili echoed that, saying, “They outplayed us in every single aspect of the game. Aggression was one, shooting was another one, defense, everything. It was the whole package. I don’t think there was one area in which it was close.” He also spoke to the current gap between the teams, adding “At this point, they are better than us, I’m not embarrassed to face it. They’re much better. They wanted it more.”
It would be time to hit the panic button if these were the comments after a Western Conference Final game, but that seemingly inevitable matchup is months away. That loss was tough to swallow, but it might be the motivation this team needs for a late season push. Pop loves teachable moments, and this came at a time in the season where the Spurs can use it to learn, grow, and improve. They came up short in a measuring stick game, but there’s still a lot of time left in the season for San Antonio to re-calibrate, re-focus, and close the gap between themselves and Golden State. It’s not about where this team is in January, it’s about where they are in March.
San Antonio bounced right back and hammered the Rockets in the friendly confines of the AT&T Center on Wednesday night. They started a new win streak, extended their home win streak to 34, and looked like a completely different team than the one that got throttled in Oracle just two nights before. They took care of the ball and confidently executed their game plan. After only shooting 3 shots in the first half against the Warriors, Kawhi Leonard led the Spurs to their highest scoring first half of the season, shooting 5/9 from the floor. Leonard scored 14 as Danny Green, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Tony Parker also contributed double-digit scoring in the first half. Houston was never able to make up the 69-49 halftime deficit as the juice unit took care of business down the stretch. An energetic Aldridge put together a 25/10/5 game and led all scorers while Kawhi contributed 18. Boban Marjanovic even put up a double-double with several slams in the 130-99 undressing of the Rockets.
The Spurs got back to what they do best; bringing more effort and composure than their opponent. That was an issue on Monday night, partially because they haven’t faced a team that brings it like the Warriors do. The Dubs were intense and focused in a playoff atmosphere, and the only player wearing silver and black that looked prepared for that to start the game was David West. Tim Duncan’s stand-in calmly hit mid-range jumpers and led his team’s scoring in the first half, but nobody can fully replace the rim protecting defensive anchor. The Warriors shot 53% from inside the restricted area thanks to the wide open cuts and drives that Timmy usually limits by communicating with his teammates and affecting shots at the rim. Duncan’s absence also meant a shorter bench and unfamiliar spacing for Aldridge, who shot 2/9 and promptly deleted all of his social media accounts (not a joke). The news that Duncan will miss more games to rest and rehab his right knee hopefully just means that the Spurs are being extra careful with their veteran leader. There’s technically “no timetable for his return,” but that’s just because Pop hates timetables.
The Dubs treated Monday night as a statement game while the Spurs treated it as an opportunity to learn more about the biggest hurdle on their championship run. The Warriors got straight to executing their game plan and pounding right from the jump, and it looked like San Antonio was experimenting for the whole game. Project Spurs’ Jose Grijalva astutely mentioned in the last Spurscast that the first play drawn up out of the gate was an LMA corner 3 which we haven’t seen much of this season. Not a single Spur played over 25 minutes, and guys like Boban, Rasual Butler and Ray McCallum played a lot thanks to the short bench and the uncompetitive score of the game.
The Spurs didn’t play like they usually do against the Dubs, and that might have been intentional. This was the first meeting between the teams this year, and it only counts as one regular season loss or win. Why tip your hand in a game that doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things? Pop knows that Spurs vs. Warriors 2016 may very well be an 11 round bout, so don’t be surprised if San Antonio spends much of the first four feeling out their beastly opponent. Not much else can be guaranteed about this clash of titans, but it definitely won’t matter until round 5, and there won’t be a knockout until at least round 8.