After guiding the San Antonio Spurs to a win on Monday over the Chicago Bulls without the “Big Three” of Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, and Manu Ginobili in uniform, Spurs sophomore Kawhi Leonard was once again the playmaker of the fourth quarter on Wednesday as the Spurs narrowly defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers 96-95 in a thrilling game that went down to the final possession.
With 9.5 seconds left in the game just after Cavs rookie Dion Waiters had made a step-back jumper over Leonard to give the Cavaliers a 95-93 lead, Tony Parker (24 points, 7 assists) drove into the lane from the left baseline, drew in the Cavs’ defense, and dished a pass to the right corner where Leonard hit the game-winning 3-pointer with 2.9 seconds left to give the Spurs the eventual winning basket.
On the final play of the game, Parker would shut down Cavs star Kyrie Irving from getting a decent look at the basket, just as Parker had been doing all evening. The “Big Three” were back in action on Wednesday, but it was a game that the Spurs almost lost before Leonard saved them in the fourth quarter on the final play.
Here are some key points from the Spurs’ narrow victory that sends them into the NBA All-Star break as the number one seed in the NBA at 42-12 and the hottest team, as they’ve won their last 14 of 15 games.
Leonard continues to grow
Leonard finished the game with 13 points, but it wasn’t about his scoring where he was a major factor on Wednesday, it was his overall play on both ends of the court, especially defense. Leonard grabbed 10 rebounds on the night, the most of any of his teammates while also blocking four shots and stealing one pass.
Parker vs. Irving – All-Star vs. All-Star
With Irving making the All-Star team for the first time this season, his play against Parker on Wednesday was the marquee matchup. After 48 minutes of basketball though, it looked like Parker won round one as he was once again the leader for his team. Though Parker only scored four points in the final quarter, his production in the third quarter where he scored 12 points was huge for the Spurs as it was their largest scoring quarter of the night (28 points). Parker was also instrumental in being the one to draw in the defense to set Leonard up for his eventual game winning shot.
As for Irving, the Spurs’ defense gave him fits all night. Irving finished the game with just six points on 2-of-15 shooting; however the young star did dish seven assists. Had it not been from a big night from the Cavs’ starting five, an Irving game like this would have probably meant a blow-out.
In the fourth quarter, anytime the Cavs would gain between three and five points of separation, Neal would do what he does in closing quarters: not lose his confidence and chuck up shots from the outside as long as he thought it might have a slim shot at going in. Neal was the Spurs’ second leading scorer on the night with 15 points, but he was most lethal in the fourth quarter where he produced eight points in the quarter that matters most.
The final Blair showcase?
When the Spurs return to action on February 19 from the All-Star break, there will be just two days remaining before the NBA Trade deadline. Over the All-Star break is when trade rumors kick into high gear and so could it be that Wednesday might have been Blair’s last game in the silver and black? Only time will tell. If it was Blair’s last game, he was impressive in the first half where he scored 10 of his 12 points mainly off pick-and-roll plays from Ginobili. Blair was so efficient; he shot 6-of-7 from the floor and grabbed five rebounds in just 18 minutes.
Welcome back Timmy and Manu
It seemed as if Ginobili was put on another minutes per game plan, as he only tallied 9:43 in the game. Though he played limited minutes, he was very productive when on the floor. He shot 2-of-4 while scoring five points and dishing six assists in less than 10 minutes of basketball. No play was more sweeter than his no-look behind the back pass to Blair for a dunk.
Duncan on the other hand played roughly 25 minutes in the game where he was out of rhythm since it was his first game back (6-of-15 shooting for 13 points), but his rebounding and defense are the intangibles the Spurs lose when he’s on the bench. With Duncan back, the team was barely got outrebounded 48-44 on the night, as opposed to being outrebounded by almost double-digits when he doesn’t play. Controlling the paint was also something the Spurs missed without Duncan, and he indeed controlled the paint with Leonard as Duncan also tallied five blocks on the night.
The rook can play
One of the most impressive players on the opposing squad was Waiters. He finished the game with 20 points, six rebounds, and four assists on 8-of-15 shooting. It wasn’t really about his numbers, but more about his aggressiveness in attacking the paint and continuing to give the Cavs the lead throughout the night.
A well-deserved break then out to California
The Spurs have reached the NBA All-Star break having already played 54 of their 82 games. Head coach Gregg Popovich, Duncan, Parker, Leonard, and Matt Bonner will all be in Houston over the weekend participating in several All-Star events.
When the team comes back together next week, it’ll be on a Tuesday where they’ll resume the Rodeo Road Trip in Sacramento against the Kings. The Kings are 19-35 on the season, but the Spurs mustn’t overlook them as they have a 14-12 home record.
Where they stand
Here are a few stats showing the where the Spurs stand in certain categories and where they rank amongst all NBA teams.
Season record: 42-12 – “Best in the NBA.”
Rodeo Road Trip: 4-1
Road Record: 20-10 – “Best in the NBA.”
Vs. Below .500 teams: 23-3 – “Best in the NBA.”
Vs. the Eastern Conference: 20-4 – “Best in the NBA.”
In games decided by 3 points or less: 5-2
Follow Paul (@24writer), Michael De Leon (@mdeleon), and Jeff Garcia (@sa2ny2004) on Twitter as they will be covering All-Star Weekend live from Houston beginning Friday through Sunday.