1. In 10 words, what’d you think of the game last night?
Amin: It made watching bad teams for 82 games worth it.
Ian: Everything I wanted and more, filler, filler, filler, filler, ten!
Jack: These teams are fantastic and this series will be, too.
Jared: Tony Parker: good at basketball. The series is not over.
Jordan: Basketball gods, please give us six more games of that
2. Please describe, in as vivid detail as possible, your reaction to Tony Parker’s game-winning shot.
Amin: “HOLY [EXPLETIVE] HE MADE THAT????”
Ian: Dulled by red wine and the Eastern Standard Time Zone, it still merited a pretty significant snort of surprise.
Jack: I snorted. Or chuckled. Perhaps it’s best described as some combination of a scoff and laugh, actually. What great defense when Miami absolutely needed it, and what an even greater shot when San Antonio had the chance to put the game away. Still, I wasn’t surprised. That’s the brilliance of Parker in a nutshell.
Jordan: No. Instead, I shall give you my father’s reaction: *Dad jumps out of his chair* “WHOOOOOOOOOA”
3. LeBron had 18/18/10. Holy crap.
Amin: I don’t understand how someone can so understatedly dominate the way he did. Eighteen rebounds and ten assists? Great googily moogily.
Ian: It’s an impressive line, but watching him accumulate it wasn’t nearly as impressive as it would seem. The curse of being the best is the accompanying absurd expectations.
Jack: Ridiculous. No disrespect to Parker or Duncan, but LeBron was far and away the best player on the floor last night. And he shot 1-8 from outside the basket area! That’s as true a testament to his dominance as anything else, and one of the main reasons why this series is still a 50/50 bet. Simply, he can be better going forward – it’s a make or miss league, remember? – and he will.
Jared: It’s ridiculous that we’re probably going to spend the better part of the next few days listening to garbage about whether or not he was too passive rather than talking about how he became one of only 7 players to put up those numbers in a playoff game, and the first since Tim Duncan in 2003 to do it in the Finals.
Jordan: BUT HE DIDN’T WIN TEH GAME BECUZ HE’S A CHOKER. Seriously, though, that’s just ridiculous
4. Dwyane Wade was alive last night. That was fun.
Amin: I especially appreciated Doris Burke asking him right before the half something along the lines of “so how much of your play so far has been shots falling vs. your body cooperating?” We’re at a weird place in our NBA-watching lives when reporters are rightfully allowed to ask players about their waning health and the players don’t even bat an eye because it’s true. But as has been the case throughout these playoffs, coulda used a bit more Wade.
Ian: I prefer the hobbled, limping version serving metaphorical penance for the tracks that were laid for him straight to the free throw line in the 2006 Finals. Ball Don’t Lie.
Jack: Wade was active and energetic offensively, but I’m not sure his solid individual numbers paint an accurate portrayal of his impact. All too often he pounded the ball after receiving a high screen, getting the Heat out of rhythm and rendering LeBron spot-up bystander. That won’t be good enough against the Spurs, as Wade’s team-worst plus/minus (-11) properly indicates.
Jared: Was he? 17 points on 15 shots, 2 rebounds, 2 assists. I didn’t really “feel” like he had a huge impact on the game, either.
Jordan: That was fun! And I’m sure LeBron appreciated the help. Now, Miami hopes Wade can keep that production up.
5. Duncan’s halftime buzzer-beater or Manu’s curveball bouncepass to Bonner: which made you feel more like you wanted to be a basketball player when you grow up?
Amin: While Ginobili’s pass was something I still can’t comprehend, Duncan’s shot was so nuts to me. There were 0.8 seconds left in the half, and he got the ball off the inbounds pass, created space, took the jumper, nailed it, never broke a sweat. It was the moment when I knew, for a fact, he was an automaton.
Ian: Curveball. Even Pedro Martinez thought it was ridiculous.
Jack: Curveball, but I was just as impressed by several seemingly more routine passes Manu made last night. Miami’s aggressive pick-and-roll defensively strategy will give Ginobili ample opportunities to show off his passing flair. What a joy to watch.
Jared: Manu’s bounce pass. That thing was inhuman.
Jordan: curveball curveball curveball curveball. Oh my god I needed a cigarette and a change of pan–too much? Too much.
6. After last night, the Big 3-era Heat have now lost four Game 1s in the playoffs. They have gone on to sweep the following 4 games. Do you see that happening in this series?
Amin: I have zero clue how to factor last night’s game as some sort of projection point. Certainly, the Spurs outplayed the Heat down the stretch. Part of that was due to Duncan checking in right as LeBron checked out. They made up for some lost ground there, and the Spurs never ceded it. Assuming Wade plays with the same level of energy through the whole series, and assuming that Kawhi Leonard will eventually make another corner three sometime before the world ends, the Spurs are not getting run over in 4 consecutive games.
Ian: No, and also no.
Jack: No way. This series is going six games at least, and we should all hope for longer. It might be a classic.
Jared: No. This is going 7.
Jordan: Absolutely not. This is going to be a long, terrific series.
When the Spurs made their last appearance in the NBA Finals against LeBron James in 2007, it drew the lowest TV ratings in Finals history. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that if we continue to get games like we saw last night consistently throughout this series, the executives at ABC won’t be upset with the numbers that come in from the folks at Nielsen. What. A. Game. Usually it isn’t difficult to identify an equal amount of Lion Faces and Lemon Faces over the course of the night, but last night’s contest was so well played that the Lemon Faces were more challenging than usual. Let’s hit the highlights.
Lion Face: Tony Parker
To quote John Starks, “Did this dude just did this?”
The Heat played excellent defense for approximately 23.9999 seconds on the most critical possession of the game, but Tony Parker somehow, some way found the smallest crack of daylight possible in order to make Game 1 a two possession game in the waning moments. Parker finished the game with 21 points and 6 assists, but it’s that shot that will be remembered for years to come.
Lemon Face: The Heat’s 4th Quarter
Although they entered the final period with a three point lead, the Heat went away from everything that allowed them to build that lead in the fourth quarter. Both teams did an excellent job taking care of the ball throughout the game as they combined for 12 turnovers total, but four of Miami’s eight turnovers in the game occurred in the fourth which ultimately proved to be costly. Miami also missed 13 of the 18 shots that they took in the quarter including all five three-point attempts. The Big Three contributed heavily to that as James, Wade, and Bosh combined to go 3-11 from the floor over the course of those 12 minutes. After holding the lead for the majority of a game, Miami finally surrendered the lead at the 7:00 mark of the fourth, and San Antonio never relinquished it from there.
Lion Face: LeBron James
Was that the quietest triple double we’ve seen this season? Last night from far from a game where LeBron simply imposes his will on everybody else on the floor, yet his stat line of 18 points, 18 rebounds, and 10 assists still jumps off the page at you. LeBron may not be 50 times better than he was when he faced San Antonio in 2007, as he claims, but he is certainly improved on the last Game 1 he turned in against the Spurs where he went for a 14-7-4 on 25% shooting (4-16).
Lemon Face: Chris Bosh
When Chris Bosh is hitting his threes, the Miami Heat are as unguardable as any team in the NBA. When he goes 0-4 from long range like he did last night, they are very beatable. Bosh took a contested 3 with a man in his face and 7 seconds left on the shot clock early in the first quarter, missed a wide open triple a few minutes later, missed another wide open 3 halfway through the fourth which would have given Miami the lead, and then missed yet another long range shot that would have cut the Spurs lead to one with 1:00 remaining in the game. Tack on another disappointing rebounding effort from Bosh, and it’s clear that he earned the Lemon Face. At least he scored in double digits for the first time in six games!
Lion Face: This Manu pass
GIF via @SBNationGIF
I watched this GIF over and over again, and I still for the life of me cannot comprehend the physics of this pass. I’m still not fully convinced that ABC didn’t hire a special effects crew to doctor that footage on televisions across the world. You shouldn’t be able to throw a screwball with a basketball. You just shouldn’t.
Limon Face: NBA Fans
Good news everyone! After one game, it appears that we are about to be treated to an absolutely thrilling series which is all we can ask for when it comes to The Finals. Bad news everyone! We’re only getting somewhere between three and six more games this NBA season. Enjoy it while it lasts because as a great philosopher once said, “If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
There are few other teams, if any, that affect our view of a player when they’re acquired by a team than the San Antonio Spurs. For over a decade we’ve seen the Spurs pluck valuable role players out of the bottom of the first round of the draft and salvage reclamation projects other teams didn’t know what to do with. We assume that these players are quote-unquote fundamentally sound and do all the little things while playing within the team concept. They may not all be great, but the rest of us non-Spurs fans wish our team operated similarly. We’ve seen it with Luis Scola, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, George Hill, and even Tiago Splitter.
But what do we really know about Splitter? It feels like he’s widely presumed to be a good player because he’s a Spur and that our perception of him has more to do with how much we revere his team than Splitter himself. And with Splitter set to become a restricted free agent, someone in need of a center is likely going to make a serious run at him this summer. Because of this, let’s take a look at two ways to view Splitter.
What is Tiago Splitter? Tiago Splitter is an Unsung Hero, Damn’t!
Tiago Splitter is next in a long line of savvy moves by the Spurs. First off, he’s a valuable cog in the Spurs’ offense, exhibiting a nice two-man game with Manu Ginobili and works with Tony Parker to form a formidable pick ‘n’ roll duo. In fact, Splitter posted a 1.27 mark in points per possession (PPP) in pick ‘n’ roll man situations according to MySynergySports.com, good for 11th overall in the entire NBA. Furthermore, Splitter posted an impressive 60% True Shooting Percentage this season with average usage and turnover rates. And even though he plays frequently next to Tim Duncan, he’s managed to average a 15.3% Rebounding Rate for his career, helping the Spurs get second chance points and control the tempo of the game.
Defensively, Splitter is a terrific low post defender. Last season he was posted up 35.7% of the time and still managed to post a 0.64 PPP, good for 15th in the league. Seriously, why aren’t we talking more about Tiago and how the Spurs need to retain him since he clearly makes Duncan’s life on the block much easier. His 3.5 Defensive Win Shares and a Defensive Rating that has gone down every year he’s been in the league really don’t lie, either.
Tiago Splitter is a big reason the Spurs have been able to finally return to the NBA Finals following a six year absence where they have typically run out of gas in the conference finals. He’s been the secret ingredient that makes everything go for the Spurs and a big question this offseason will be if they will be able to keep him around to continue making these runs. The Spurs have done it again, I tell ya.
What is Tiago Splitter? Tiago Splitter a Menace!
A hero? Don’t fool yourself– Tiago Splitter is a menace and he must be stopped. This blind reverence towards the Spurs needs to stop because not everything they have done has been as perfect as people make it out to be, Splitter included.
You may be tempted to fawn over Splitter’s 18.7 PER this season, but you have to remember that Anthony Randolph once posted a 17.6 PER not that long ago and you don’t see anyone praising his brilliance. You know why he’s so efficient on offense? He took 417 shots at the rim, made 68.3% and was assisted on 81.7% of those makes. And do you know what he shot from three-feet-and-out? .285 on 189 attempts. As a player who is just under 7-feet tall, you would hope that he would be able to score at the rim, but his inability to do much else anywhere else makes him rather one-dimensional on offense. If he can’t shoot, you think he’d be able to post up, but he posted a 0.86 PPP on Post-Ups this season, which is below-average.
See, his offensive production comes in part from being big and underneath the basket, and if it weren’t for Parker’s ability to draw defenders while driving in the lane or Duncan’s excellent offensive spacing, you could remove the “almost” caveat at the beginning of this sentence. Playing with Hall of Famers really makes your life easy, huh?
I can’t argue with his PPP in defensive post-ups this season, but I can argue with just about every other part of his game defensively. You can’t mention his Defensive Rating without pointing out that he often shares the court with Duncan and Leonard– two good defenders who positively affect his defensive rating as well. It’s not that he’s a bad defender; he’s just closer to being average than elite. This would be an entirely different story if opposing teams ran post-ups on him every possession, but that’s never going to happen.
So, which one of the above is Splitter? Likely somewhere in between. He’s a center with limited range that works well in the pick “n” roll and finishes very well at the rim, but will likely never be a featured center in an offense since he’s 28 and therefore the room for further development is shrinking. Defensively, he can defend an opponent’s best attempts to post up quite well, but is perfectly average just about everywhere else, which is still more than you can say for a lot of players. With Duncan, Parker, Ginobili, and Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter works as their complementary center in the starting lineup. As Aaron McGuire of Gothic Ginobili told me, Splitter is opportunistic in that he can catch his man off guard and was intelligent enough to develop a synchronicity with the Spurs’ best players from the get-go. Who knows how he would fare outside of the Spurs’ system where he might be asked to do more than he’s capable of, but those limitations are well-hidden in San Antonio. In fact, the Spurs’ ability to hide those weaknesses and accentuate his strengths where other teams might not is a very Spurs thing to do.
Thanks to Aaron McGuire of Gothic Ginobili for his input on this piece. Clearly Aaron knows more than the average person should know about Tiago Splitter, but I’m grateful for that. Be sure to check out his site and follow him on Twitter: @docrostov.
There should be no argument about Tony Parker’s place in the All Star game. With the way he has been playing this season, his spot was virtually guaranteed. Parker is currently averaging career bests in points per game, 3 point percentage, and free throw percentage and has been instrumental in leading the San Antonio Spurs to a Western Conference best 41-12 record.
We can delve deep into Parker’s MVP-like stats but lets paint his All Star picture with quotes from his other NBA personalities:
“Tony Parker runs the pick-and-roll pretty much better than anybody in the NBA.” – Gerald Wallace
“He’s their best player. He’s their best offensive threat. He knows their offense. If they don’t have him, I know the Spurs are always good, but they can’t win without him.” – Jared Dudley
“Tony’s the guy who makes it run. He’s the one they can’t afford to lose.” – PJ Carlesimo
“(Tony’s) carrying the whole team, especially when Tim and Manu are out. He’s doing everything on the court.” - Boris Diaw
“I think he’s played probably better than any point guard in the league if you want to be totally frank about the whole deal. It’s hard to pick somebody who’s had a better year than he’s had at that position, leading his team to this point in the season.” – Gregg Popovich
“I think he should be in every conversation for any award that’s going to be given. I don’t think that is really tough to see. I mean, there’s a group of guys, but he should be in that group as one of the guys that’s playing the best in the league.” – Gregg Popovich
Gregg Popovich is right, Tony Parker is one of the best players in the league this season and is more than an All Star.
When it comes to comparing sports and music, there are few tropes as tired as linking jazz and basketball. Hell, I’ve done it. But as it goes with most clichés, it comes up again and again because there’s a kernel of truth in it, because it can be a useful way to see the game. Like a quintet on the bandstand playing a standard, the five players on the floor in basketball are working within a structure that allows for fluidity and improvisation. The things they’re doing are all interconnected, interdependent, and when one of them shifts his approach, it affects the entire fabric of the play. There’s initiative, understanding, recognition, response. The idea of basketball players as jazz musicians rewards our conception of the game as beautiful, a work of art, even.
But there are other ways to expand our sense of the game via music. What if we instead consider the plays a team runs as being akin to the basic units of pop music: the verse, the chorus, the bridge? After all, the cagiest pop songs play on our expectations with each new section, adding wrinkles and subverting convention, much like Steve Nash does with the basic pick and roll.
Consider, for example, the chorus of Christina Aguilera’s “What A Girl Wants,” which begins at 1:11 in the video below.
The chorus to the song is essentially the same refrain repeated twice, a common enough structure for the hook of a pop tune, but there’s something a little off-kilter about this particular one. The first time, the first line is a pickup into the chorus—that is, “What a girl wants” is sung so that it’s the word “wants” that falls on the first beat of the chorus. The second time through, the line lands slightly differently. It begins on the first beat and the word “wants” falls on the second beat of the chorus. It’s a little rhythmic trickery that keeps it from being repetitive.
And rhythmic trickery is more or less what defines the relationship between the pick and roll and the slip screen. Here’s Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol running the pick and roll (excuse the ABBA—it’s just the cost of doing business):
Being one of the most fundamental basketball plays, the bread-and-butter pick and roll establishes expectations. The big man will set the pick and the guard will run his man into the pick, letting the big man roll to the hoop. It’s the first time through the chorus. But once the defense is anticipating the straight pick and roll, it’s time to bring out the slip screen. Here’s Bryant and Gasol running it:
As you can see, as soon as Cousins has bought the pick and roll and started hedging in an attempt to stop Bryant from turning the corner towards the middle, Gasol breaks for the bucket, gets the easy pass from Bryant, then feeds it to Lamar Odom under the hoop. This is the second time through the chorus, where a little wrinkle keeps us on our toes.
But that’s playing in a subtle way with expectations. In both music and basketball you can go with a giant misdirection. Consider a staple of hard rock dynamics, the quiet chorus after the bridge as demonstrated by the Smashing Pumpkins in “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” (bridge starts at 2:28 if you want to skip ahead):
At 3:06, just when the conclusion of the bridge seems to be building towards another full-blast chorus, everything except for guitar and vocals drops out, plus the vocals are down an octave from early iterations of the chorus. We’re primed for the big guns, but the song goes in a completely different direction.
Now take a look at the wide-open three-pointer Steve Novak managed to get at the end of the Bulls-Knicks game on Easter at the end of regulation:
Jared Dubin does a great job of breaking down this entire play right here, but the basic thing that made such an open look possible is that everyone was expecting it to go to Carmelo Anthony. Once Anthony gets the ball at the three-point line, he’s doubled, allowing Novak to float out to the opposite side of the floor. His shot, unfortunately, doesn’t go down, but regardless of that, it’s a great play, made possible because everyone’s expecting the big heroic chorus from ‘Melo. Instead, they get the quiet, guitars-and-vocals chorus from Steve Novak.
The thing about basketball, though, is that these patterns don’t happen in isolation, but rather overlap and affect each other over the course of the game. The pick is the foundation of several different plays and can also be part of a larger scheme in either a directly useful or misdirecting way. When it comes to layering motifs and patterns, there a few teams that do it better than the San Antonio Spurs and few bands that do it better than Menomena.
Menomena, from Portland, Oregon, compose their music in a fairly unique way. One of the members begins with a part that gets recorded and then looped while the other members add new parts that interlock with the original part. The early result is reams of rough material that is then shaped into songs as parts are pulled away or added. By the time the compositions are complete and ready to be recorded as full songs, they’re often staggeringly complex songs built from the simplest pieces. Here’s an example from their 2007 album Friend and Foe, a song called “Wet and Rusting”:
You can hear the song begins with a spare melody (“I made you a present …”) repeated twice, followed by a second part sung once (“It’s hard to take risks …”). Since these lines are barely accompanied it’s hard to conceive of them as verses or choruses—they’re just bits right now. The form begins to repeat, but then extends under the second part, this time backed by a guitar line instead of the ghostly piano that backed it the first time. When the piano returns with drums and bass in tow, the words evaporate. The middle instrumental section stays at home harmonically with the first two parts but explores new textures. When the initial lyrical part returns at the 2:21 mark, there’s a new vocal line laid in under it. As the song reaches its dynamic peak, it’s not achieved with new material, but rather by juxtaposing all the previously played parts against one another. It’s an unusual way to build a song, but it’s pretty standard for a basketball offense.
Take the San Antonio Spurs. In a recent game against the Lakers, they hammered the pick and roll with Tony Parker and either Tim Duncan or Tiago Splitter early, probably because the Lakers are notoriously weak defending it. They like to mix it up a bit, with Parker often dishing the ball off before running through the paint to emerge on the other side to receive it again and run the pick and roll. But eliminating transition baskets, the game on offense for the Spurs began with these three plays:
The first one is simple enough: Duncan steps out to set a screen, Parker gets separation from Ramon Sessions (who goes over the screen) and Andrew Bynum is too deep to defend the jumper. This is the first verse, the “I made you a present” of their sets. In the second play, Sessions tries going under the screen, but that still gives Parker room to shoot and he sinks it. This is the repeat of that first melody (“And when you unravel …”). In the third play, Splitter sets the pick and tries to roll, but Pau Gasol closes out and bothers the shot enough to force a miss. The Spurs have established the pattern and now the Lakers have reacted well enough to defend it.
So the next time they run a pick and roll, they run it a little differently:
Here, Splitter sets the pick twice and Bynum and Sessions both follow Parker while trying to shield Splitter from the pass as he roles. But in the meantime, Duncan has slipped away from his defender into the open space by the free throw line extended. He catches the pass from Parker and makes the jumper in rhythm. This is the development of the initial melody into the second melody, the “It’s hard to take risks” part of the Menomena song. It exists in the same general tonal world (that is, it’s not a key change or a big dynamic change), but it’s a little different approach, and just enough to throw us off guard.
But the Spurs haven’t forgotten about that first part. They go back to it, with Parker running a simple pick and roll again on the wing:
Sessions doesn’t want to leave Ginobili, so Parker has an open shot. It’s interesting to note that even as Parker makes the open jumper, Bynum has dropped too low in the post to defend Duncan if Parker had passed it off. This return to the fundamental pick and roll is not simply a rehash of the initial action, but instead is colored by the results of the earlier pick and rolls and Duncan’s made jumper. It is, effectively, the first melody supported by the xylophone and acoustic guitar from “Wet and Rusting.” It’s not just a play, but instead a play that’s been opened up by the plays preceding it.
As the game progresses and the Lakers try to counter the Spurs, the sets become more nuanced and layered. Look at these two possessions:
What begins as a pick and roll turns into multiple screens as the double comes on Parker. In both examples, Bonner’s initial pick is basically a decoy. It draws Gasol and Sessions to the ball and Bonner floats out to the three-point line on the opposite side of the floor. In the first clip, he dribbles closer before handing the ball off to Stephen Jackson and screening his man to allow Jackson the elbow jumper. In the second, Splitter steps out to set yet another pick that Gasol has to go around to get to Bonner, whom Bynum can’t effectively cover. Bonner drains the three. My favorite part of that second one is that Splitter’s screen is actually a slip screen and he’s rolling wide open to the basket as Gasol and Bynum try to close out on Bonner. If Bonner had wanted to, he could have dished it right to Splitter for an easy dunk or layup.
To me, this is the full development of what started as a basic pick and roll at the beginning of the game. That verse melody is now being layered against the secondary melody and a new melody on top of that while the rest of the band provides support. The Spurs have forced the Lakers to adjust and then adjusted to those adjustments. Looking at the second clip, by the time the play has gotten to this point:
… the Lakers are pretty much done for. Look at all the space that Bonner and Jackson have now on the right side of the floor. By the time it gets to here:
… Devin Ebanks has closed out on Jackson in the corner, creating space for Splitter to roll to the basket while Bonner lifts up for a three he’s more than capable of hitting. The Lakers have been manipulated into playing the Spurs’ game.
And by the end of “Wet and Rusting,” the listener has been suckered into Menomena’s game. We’ve heard each of the pieces that have come before in isolation and we’ve heard them pressed against each other, but by the time they all come together into a multiphonic rush of voices and instruments, we’re hearing something greater than the sum of its parts, something greater than that first melody, greater than a simple pick and roll.
We close the third act of our tale with the most unfamiliar of turns. The unknown to many but familiar to his kin, comes forth in a blaze of fury with rod and whip in hand, and drives the horses beyond the horizon. We approach the climax of our story, suddenly, much faster than we anticipated, stunned at how this progressed. Seriously, this has gotten out of hand, fast. We’re now facing a reality where the Suns… the SUNS, led by Steve Nash, could sweep the San Antonio Spurs, led by Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili. It’s a bizarre landscape, and I find myself seeking shelter. I had abandoned all hope for a Suns victory in this game long ago, as soon as the buzzer sounded to end Game 2. No way a Spurs team lets one go at home down 2-0. And then they won.
Dragic was taken with a draft pick acquired from the San Antonio Spurs and looked absolutely lost his rookie season. He seemed likeÂ another lost draft pick by the Suns to many (and by many, I mean me, who constantly mocked the pick). And Dragic was insane tonight. He started heating up, and then this happened:
That kicked off a surge of confidence where Dragic essentially took over the game. He relentlessly took whoever was guarding him to the rack, and thanks to a bizarre strategy by Gregg Popovich to religiously switch, he found hmself guarded by players who had no business trying to check him on the outside. Like, oh, say, DeJuan Blair. There was a play late where the Suns set the offense in motion, made three perimeter rotations and when Dragic was chased off the three, he didn’t settle for the mid-range J. He lunged straight for the rim and banked it in off-glass. He was fouled on the play but no call was made. Instead of complaining to the refs, he simply sprinted up court.
Parker needs to be addressed here.
I pointed out last game that Dragic had the ability to rattle Parker. And it continued in this game. Parker’s obviously is hurt, dragging and trying to play through plantar fasciitis. But he’s still capable of slicing up the Suns if there’s not a perimeter defender that can check him. Dragic can. And did. Dragic blocked the Parker baseline floater that I’ve seen Parker nail on the Suns about a million times. And for him to absolutely take over on the other end, with no one able to check him, that gave the Suns a counter they’ve never had.
For years it’s been “if the Suns get Nash to have a good game, and STAT takes over, and they hit their threes, and they don’t get killed on the glass and if puppies turn into rainbows and if you clap your hands, they can win.” While with the Spurs, it was “they’ll get consistent performance from the Big 3 throughout the series and a few games where an unlikely player steps up. But their defense will consistently keep them in games.” And thus, we have the formula fully reversed and used against itself.
I cannot say enough about how much fool’s gold Matt Bonner is. At PBT, I introduced the Matt Bonner Blown Assignment Drinking Game. It’s a quick way to the hospital. What’s worse, you can actually see the Spurs cheating on their own assignments, going to try and cover for Bonner. “I’d better be ready in case Matt isn’t where he needs to be.” And yet, he played 20 minutes! At what point do you not recognize how big a liability he is on both sides of the floor, even if he is knocking down the three, and go with a more versatile player for minutes? Huge fail for Popovich.
We now face an uncertain end to our story, because if any team, if ANY team, can come back from 0-3, it’s the Spurs, and if any team can surrender a 3-0 lead to the Spurs, it’s the Suns. But the Suns have now come back twice from double digit deficits to win by double digits. We see history being unraveled before us and the light of the Suns piercing the shrouded wasteland. This will either become the final and most crushing defeat of the Suns by the Spurs, or the final, unequivocal redemption for Nash’s Suns, regardless of their Western Conference Finals result. To go from lottery to besting the Spurs? That’s better than their wildest dreams. And as the action rose, they found themselves believing in that ideal.
The future is not set. It is what we make for ourselves.
We witness, in act two of our intense narrative, the inciting action, where the tone is set for our fair tale, the players fully established, and turns safely guarded in mystery. Our story is not the continued clash of pace versus defense, stodge versus vigor, nor some sort of coming-of-age for Amar’e. Instead it’s about unity, the centralization of effort from man to man, because for the first time, since the game which ended under the cloud of THE HIPCHECK, the Suns have pushed the Spurs against the wall and landed a haymaker. They’re not dangling off a cliff, but that breeze at their back ain’t the gentle sea.
Thing was, the game was mince meat. Easy to swallow Spurs domination. And then Jared Dudley took cover completely for a quarter and things were never the same. Dudley crashed the glass and brought with him the same attitude back to the Suns they had in Game 1: “We will not be bullied, we will not be frustrated, we will not be out-worked. If you defeat us, it is because you hit contested shots and things went your way again. But we’re not losing by beating ourselves. Not this time.” And the Suns responded.
I had several conversations with Graydon throughout this game, and after the third I called and told him “The Spurs are making super athletic plays and the Suns are lying in the weeds, tracking them by making the extra pass and running efficient offense. Where the hell are we?!”
The final five minutes though, were absolutely insane. There was no sense to it. None. Channing Frye picks up his fifth foul, and the Spurs fail to capitalize on it. The Suns run the pick and roll, the Spurs take six tries to figure out a solvent for it. The Spurs turned to George Hill’s perimeter game… and it worked. But The Suns had every answer, including two huge Amar’e Stoudemire rebounds. That’s right. Amar’e Stoudemire collected huge rebounds down the stretch. Please collect your bottled water on the way to the bomb shelter.
The role reversal in this game is what has Spurs fans stunned today. It was the Suns’ blue collar bench coming in to outwork the Spurs. It was Goran Dragic doing a remarkably great job on Tony Parker for the first six minutes of the fourth. It was the Suns fighting back from a deficit. It was the Suns overcoming the Spurs’ athletic dunks by Richard Jefferson with well-timed passes and cohesion. In essence, the moon flipped to the ground, did a handstand, smoked a bowl, and then ran away with the spoon.
Up is down, hell is heaven, and the Suns have their first 2-0 lead over Duncan’s Spurs.
There is not a person, not a single one, that thinks this is over. But what has happened is relevant. Because if the Suns are to defeat the Spurs, it has to start with something. It has to start with confidence, and they have that. They took a shot from San Antonio, a Tim-Duncan-rocking, Tony-Parker-midranging, George-Hill-treying shot and beat them on the glass and from the arc.
The point where it was over? Alvin Gentry sent Amar’e Stoudemire and Jason Richardson to join Steve Nash on the bench early in the fourth quarter. Popovich stuck with Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and re-inserted Tim Duncan. From the 9:30 mark of the 4th quarter until 5:47, the Suns faced the Big 3 with not a single one of theirs. The result?
The Suns bench unit outplayed the Big 3 plus Jefferson and George Hill. Even if it’s just a point, it means the Big 3 came back in rested and ready to work the pick and roll. Which they did, to the tune of one of Amar’e fiercest dunks and a final +5 run to put the foot to the throat. The same foot that’s been missing for so, so long against the Spurs.
Another interesting sideplot to that stint without Nash was this: via Synergy Tony Parker, two turnovers, 0 field goals with Goran Dragic defending.
Goran Dragic was the counter to Tony Parker that Nash wasn’t. Let that one rattle around in your brain. Dragic has the youth to maintain speed ahead of Parker, and is bigger than Nash to keep a physical edge on LeBaguette. It may have only been for a game, but Dragic’s work on Parker deserves considerable notice.
Meanwhile, everything Matt Bonner is not, Channing Frye is. Confident, able to knock down shots with a defender closing, a good inside defender, capable, actually belonging on a professional basketball floor. If the hope is that Bonner will counter Frye, the early results indicate a knockout for the Suns.
All this, and Lopez still didn’t play.
There is plenty to be concerned about. Ginobili is still creating havoc, and while the Suns have done a good job of focusing on not allowing layups at the rim like the Mavericks rolled the red carpet out for, the weakside clean-up by Duncan is pretty devastating. There’s still a lot of work to be done, and all of that is before the fact that George Hill is getting his feet under him and knocking down threes, both of which can be devastating if they become consistent. But also recognize that after all the talk of D’Antoni’s super-tight rotations and their failure to win in the playoffs, Popovich only had seven players play double digit minutes last night, and one of those was Matt Bonner. So really, he only had 6.25 NBA players play double digit minutes last night.
So now our scene changes and we begin the rising action, wherein the conflict is introduced. Whether that conflict will be the vicious response of a wounded Spurs team in front of a home crowd or the crescendo of Phoenix’s finest hour on the road, we honestly don’t know. The question as to the result of this series has been re-opened. Hope, glorious hope is on the horizon. But beyond it lies the same dark cloud of history. As I told Graydon, “All this means is the Spurs are bent on finding a new way to kill their souls.”
And so we begin, with exultation, confusion, and a tone of both contest and determination. Wrapped in a newer context we’re not entirely convinced of, there exists the same elements we know. The same characters we’ve come to know and love or hate, depending on the colors we wear on our backs. The Cyrano De Bergerac, Manu Ginobili, complete with distended nose, slicing and dicing, but seemingly left wanting by the body’s inability to compensate (or in this instance, close out). The shrouded monk, Tim Duncan, simply forcing the story along by sheer exposition of the plot: slow and steady Spurs vs. rampant and intense Suns.
And then there is Nash. 30 points, 10 assists. An allusion? How about the Count of Monte Cristo? Driven by revenge, even as he publicly plays the braggard count simply indulging in luxury and refinement. Nash said prior to the game repeatedly that it was a failure on our part to invent new stories that creates the questions of this non-rivalry or rivalry or whatever it is.
But what did we see?
We saw Nash, drive, as we haven’t seen him this year drive. Attacking the basket relentlessly, endlessly, fiercely, with singular focus. PUSH THEM BACK. And let them know that the Suns have not come meekly to surrender again, but with full intention of mindlessly attacking as if there were not just another series, nor a desperate fight against an unbeatable foe, but a death match upon which our survival hangs. Because honestly, there’s no other approach.
Richardson is described as the barometer, but really, he’s fate in this instance. If he fires, and it drops, if he’s plugged in and successful, the Gods have shown favor. If the threes rim out, if the dunks don’t drop, if his first step to cut off Parker or Ginobili is a half-step short versus a half-step long, the Suns are doomed, as doomed as they’ve ever been.
If I wereÂ to tell you that our heroes depend on the new breed, on Dudley recognizing from the film he’s covered to snake out and cut off the baseline wrap-around pass by Hill or Parker, on Frye swinging for the fences at both ends, for Amundson bull rushing to close out in a way you never see from the Suns, that would be part of it. But it’s not. Their survival is dependent on Nash doing what he did tonight, holding no quarter, not thinking, not considering, not smiling or enjoying it. He has to remove all the things that make his life fun for those few hours and he’s got to kill them with the same silent monstrosity they’ve brought his brilliant seasons to an end time after time. And Amar’e's got to keep rebounding the f*cking ball.
Is this wankery? Of course. But that’s because Suns-Spurs has become our opera. It’s the only familiar battle we have. Spurs-Lakers? The commencement ceremony at the end of the school year. Dramatic, with nice music and clothes and you can appreciate the care that goes into it but it’s just a formality. And while its conclusion is more in the air than Suns-Spurs, even now, even after Game 1, Suns-Spurs still fulfills our need for drama. Spurs fans may not think it’s a rivalry, and they may be right. But they want to keep it not a rivalry. They may 100% believe that even after tonight, with all the favorable odds of a team after winning Game 1, they have this in the bag. But they want to maintain that domination. They want to be able to look a Suns fan in the eye and say “SCOREBOARD.” And Suns fans? Three more wins, three more performances just like tonight and they will have had as good a season as they can hope for. They could be wiped from the face of the playoffs like the Egyptians by God’s Lakers in the WCF and be happy as a clam. Because their last game would still be later than that of the citizens of San Antonio.
There are warning signs littered throughout this game. The way Parker did what he’s always done, made Nash completely incapable of responding on defense, which puts him out of position in transition on offense and tires him out. The way Antonio McDyess was able to squeeze in through the cracks. The way Tim Duncan was a few more things going his way from dropping one of those games where you just shrug and ask the Fates how they could invest so much power in one tree trunk. The way Ginobili was in full effect. Lunging out of bounds, often running completely through players and not only avoiding a reach-in, but gaining possession. Dropping like a sack of bricks as soon as he was touched on defense. Slicing up and through to the other side if no one attacked the ball on the perimeter. The Suns seemed to be half-successful, half-not against Ginobili. What I mean by that is sometimes on defense, you get lucky because the guy just can’t make shots. The Suns? They devoted themselves to running him off on offensive-rebound-scramble-dish threes and occasionally doubling him hard on the perimeter. It kick started the Spurs rotation, but the funny thing? Their shooters are not great at catch and shoot, like Bowen and Finely were. They hesitate, consider, reset, and waste clock. Which enables the Suns to regroup. It’s the best of both worlds. Force the ball from Ginobili’s hands and recover. They only have to do that for four more games and withstand Popovich’s numerous adjustments including what I can assure you will be several more pick and pops with Antonio McDyess and they’re home free.
But the Suns won. They have the series lead. For a day, a few days, a few hours. And at least now they can remember something they haven’t known since the exact second Horry brought that hip into Nash. The Spurs for all their greatness and legacy, are still human. They will still bleed, they will still get tired, and if you attack them, they will still recoil. But you must not let them understand they are your superior. Once they believe, the series is already over and the confetti hasn’t even dropped.
George Hill was a factor in round one. He’s a liability now, unable to stay with Nash’s moves and lacking the shot that blessed him in Dallas.
There was a Suns run late in the third quarter, where every miss fueled the crowd, and Nash, sensing the moment, pushed as hard as he could. The euphoria on every made three pointer as the Suns rattled off an 18-6 run was astounding. It was like a church tent revival. The crowd could have been screaming in tongues. We were one more made three from Beatlemania. It was basketball at its apex. The Suns touched the ceiling tonight, for the first time since 07. Let’s pray the landing is at least softer than it was that season, even if it’s not in the clouds.
There was a time where the most apt metaphor to describe the San Antonio Spurs was the three-legged stool. Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker were completely symbiotic, facilitating each others’ games in a way that other teams of co-superstars could only dream. It was a team where the offense and defense were engineered perfectly to the talents of the personnel and the expected environment of the post-season, and I don’t know if you heard, but it kind of worked. They won a ton of games, a few championships, and are/were a damn dynasty if I have to go to my grave repeating it. That model marked San Antonio as one of the two most successful franchises this decade, and it’s anyone’s guess as to whether they deserve to top that list or merely be second best.
Needless to say, that’s changed a bit. The Spurs are no longer a fixture at the top of the Western Conference standings, and “the Big Three” as we knew them are dead. Duncan aged and slowed, Ginobili had entered a new phase of his career, and Tony Parker looked to be taking on a bigger scoring role before regressing this season and succumbing to injury. Nothing anyone does or says will revive the model that was and worked, and it’s become very apparent that all of the Richard Jeffersons in the world won’t breathe new life into a system that is now defunct.
Now, the Spurs are not dead. But the three-star system that relied on Parker, Ginobili, and Duncan to bring out the brilliance in one another as equally important parts? Like a doornail. It’s rotting, maggoty (I don’t think I mean Maggette), and frankly starting to smell a bit ripe. The fact that Ginobili has absolutely taken over since Parker’s injury isn’t a mistake or a mirage. With Duncan and Parker’s respective declines, the first due to age and the latter to injury, Manu is simply being given the proper outlet to do what he’s always been capable of doing, even if the system never properly called for it. Ginobili has had his rough patches, sure, and there were times both this season and last where he didn’t exactly look himself. But this is the man who could have and should have been doing more for the San Antonio Spurs, and finally is. The answer wasn’t importing RJ, but figuring out what on Earth went wrong with how the Spurs were utilizing Manu Ginobili, what ailed him, and why the product wasn’t the same as it used to be. Even the great Gregg Popovich comes up short from time to time, and though some have chalked up the Spurs’ drop-off to the inevitabilities of age, I don’t think that tells the whole story.
Manu may not be the spitting image of the player he was five years ago, but to say that he isn’t talented enough to be a top player in this league or that he lacks the flair that once made him a must-watch is absurd. I think that’s been made pretty apparent by his decision to completely dominate the month of March. However, his recent tear has done two very interesting things:
Manu’s ability to run the San Antonio offense without Parker is improving his value as a free agent.
Manu’s ability to run the San Antonio offense without Parker is proving his value as a Spur.
Now we’re getting somewhere. The Spurs are in a tough spot because they need to move forward without moving backward. Trying to replicate the Parker-Ginobili-Duncan model by replacing Ginobili is just foolish; not only does SanAn’s cap situation not allow for it (unless they convinced some other team to a bizarre sign-and-trade swap that has way too many moving parts to even consider), but the combination that Pop and Buford struck gold with was equal parts basketball genius and luck. Who could have predicted the evolutionary paths of both Parker and Ginobili? Duncan’s been a can’t-miss player from the start, but I don’t think anyone within the Spurs organization could have properly appraised the other two pillars of Spurdom. After all, even great scouting teams have to happen upon some luck once in awhile rather than make their own. Yet the more important element of Pop and Buford’s design — or really, of the luck involved — is how well the pieces fit. The Big Three complemented each other in a way few cores really can, and the only reason the Spurs have been so successful for so long is because of the synergy that those stars forged together. It’s incredibly specific and won’t be re-created by plugging in another name where Ginobili’s once was.
As I said before, the Big Three design in San Antonio is deceased, and to drag it out any further would only halt the Spurs’ potential progress. Don’t misunderstand my meaning here, though; just because the model is dead does not mean that the players themselves are done as a viable core. Perhaps the balance of the offense simply needs to shift in a way that better accommodates the change in effectiveness of the Spurs in question; a healthy Parker is capable of carrying an offense, and has developed a diverse enough game to be the primary offensive option for a team. Manu would be a crucial part of that offensive framework, though, as a team relying on a scoring playmaker like Parker would be best served with a player alongside him who can do more of the same…even if he accomplishes that “same” in a completely different way. Consider this the Joe Johnson model, where a team can find offensive effectiveness by relying on two players in the backcourt who are “combo guards” in some respects. Manu may not be thought of as a point guard, but he’s shown during Parker’s injury that he’s capable of fulfilling that role within half-court sets. Parker may not be thought of as a shooting guard, but is the purest example of a championship-level point that relies mostly on his ability to score. Obviously Pop wouldn’t dive into Mike Woodson’s isolation-heavy offense which makes the Joe Johnson comparison almost invalid on principle, but from a more abstract perspective, it makes sense.
So by Manu proving that he is, more or less, still Manu, he’s shown just how essential he is to what the Spurs look to accomplish. I shouldn’t need to tell you that when Ginobili plays, he tends to do some pretty amazing things in terms of individual plays and on a game-wide scale. When he doesn’t play, the Spurs tend to do some pretty crazy things. Like lose to the Nets. Manu’s resurgence simultaneously tears him in two separate directions, both as a valuable commodity and upcoming free agent and an integral part of the Spurs’ present and near-future. Such a development may be pretty obvious if the aforementioned free agent was, say, a 24 year-old emerging star, but for a 32 year-old shooting guard thought to be stumbling toward mediocrity? It’s a bit more rare. That’s because Ginobili isn’t just proving that he’s still producing at a high level, but proving that he might be completely irreplaceable for a Spurs team not looking to waste what precious years Tim Duncan has left. San Antonio might not have the time to twiddle their thumbs until Richard Jefferson’s contract expires, but luckily for them, he’ll be renamed “Richard Jefferson’s expiring contract” next season.
Moving Jefferson is going to be the key. The drop-off in the Spurs’ core may not be enough to justify blowing it all up, but it certainly doesn’t mean that they can be surrounded by a batch of random role players anymore. The fourth best player can’t be a DeJuan Blair, an Antonio McDyess, or this year’s Richard Jefferson. They need something better, and there’s nothing wrong with that. For all of the talk about two stars or three stars winning championships, a group of productive role players can be just as important. The Celtics wouldn’t have gone all the way without Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins, and the dynasty Lakers would have had trouble without guys like Derek Fisher or Robert Horry. I’m not saying these players were absolutely essential to the degree of a Duncan or a Garnett or an O’Neal, but they’re an important part of the championship puzzle and without them the picture is incomplete. That’s where the Spurs of the future need to depart from the mold of the past. It’s what they’ve tried to do but couldn’t with RJ, and it’s the path they need to keep pursuing if they’re going to stay competitive.
Believe it or not, Jefferson could actually be worth something on the open market next year…or not. It all depends on how the ongoing labor negotiations proceed or more importantly, how they’re perceived. If owners and managers around the league anticipate a lengthy lockout (lasting more than one season), RJ’s deal will be worth less than those that expire in 2012. In that case, teams will be trading for a year of production and then will be off the hook for at least a fraction of the following season (if not more). If, however, the negotiations progress to the point where managers don’t anticipate 2011-2012 to be lost entirely, contracts like Jefferson’s would be quite valuable. Especially so for any franchise looking to take advantage of the new, likely more favorable contract terms of the upcoming CBA. That could put a lot of small market clubs in the bidding for Jefferson’s expiring deal, particularly those looking for a reboot.
But before San Antonio can look to move Jefferson, they have to retain Manu Ginobili. Otherwise they call it a day, surrender their ability to compete for a playoff spot next season, and have a go of it post-lockout. You could hardly blame the Spurs if they did, but what message does that send to Parker, who is sure to attract interest as a free agent in 2011? I know there’s a lot of trust between the Spurs’ management and their principals, but that has always come with a well-constructed plan and a commitment to winning. You have to believe the plan will still be there as long as Popovich and Buford are, but what of the commitment to winning when wins aren’t so easy to come by? When the Spurs are looking at a team next year that features Duncan, Parker, Jefferson, McDyess, Blair, and who? Will George Hill’s natural progress be enough to fill the void at shooting guard? Not bloody likely. Internal improvements aren’t going to save the day if Ginobili isn’t around, and losing him turns Parker into a bit of a wild card.
While San Antonio’s salary situation is actually quite flexible on paper (the only committed salary in 2012-2013 goes to Blair and likely Hill, and the only additional players on contract through 2011-2012 are Duncan, McDyess, and possibly Malik Hairston), their reality is a bit more complex. I don’t think it’s going out on a limb to say that Duncan doesn’t want to play for a losing club. Even if he’s the farthest thing from a troublemaker, that could be a problem. I don’t see him rousing rabble, but the only way the Spurs can approach their plans for the future with any certainty as to whether Duncan is a part of that future is to hold on to Parker and Ginobili. It all starts this summer, and though clinging to the past hardly seems like the best way to usher in a new era, the safest bet for San Antonio might be to proceed with a similar roster but a renovated approach.
While any win against the defending NBA champions is a welcome result for a team incorporating three new starters Jefferson, Keith Bogans and rookie DeJuan Blair into its lineup, it’s the progress of the incorporation — and not their W-L record in January — that matters to this Spurs bunch.”Hopefully we’re not that far,” Tim Duncan said after going for 25 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks against Andrew Bynum, who is an inch taller, 25 pounds heavier and 11 years younger than The Big Fundamental.
“Hopefully we’re starting to turn the corner. Every little win counts and hopefully this solidifies something for us.”
San Antonio head coach Gregg Popovich wants his team ready to compete for a title, come June. That’s why Mr. IV to Phil Jackson’s Mr. X, knew that he couldn’t read much into a win when his team let a 22-point third quarter lead slip down to six in the fourth against a Lakers squad that was missing Pau Gasol strained left hamstring for the game and without Kobe Bryant lower back spasms for all of the fourth quarter.
“We played well tonight,” Popovich said. “They obviously were wounded. Both facts are true. We’re happy to get the win.”
(Brief aside: You can find two pieces I wrote for the Daily Dime last night via a click through. They’re brilliant, BRILLIANT, I tell you!)
Let’s break this down to it’s simplest components, and then work our way back up.
This loss meant absolutely nothing to the Los Angeles Lakers.
This win meant a ton to the San Antonio Spurs.
The game was supposed to be about whether or not the Spurs can contend with LA on a meaningful level with the way these two rosters are assembled. Injuries made that an unattainable assertion either way. Los Angeles can slub this off. Bryant’s not going to have an injured back or broken fingers come May. And Gasol’s purposefully not coming back to not create a lingering issue. If you’re not at your best, you don’t have to look in the mirror about why backdoor cuts were so effective, why your bench sucks so much, why Ron Artest, injured or not, continues to have problems with focus. You can simply put a check in the “I was injured and unable to live up to my high expectations” box and move on to getting healthy and still probably going .500 during this stretch.
But for San Antonio, usually in situations like this, it’s nothing, it means nothing, it has no value. But instead, it was a different kind of win. Not a “we beat the team we’ve been chasing” but “we’re getting it. We’re finally getting it.”
You can see some relief, in Popovich, in Ginobili, in Jefferson, that this team is gelling, coming together, that the experiment in aggressive payroll is not going to result in a full-blown detonation. Duncan? Duncan was never worried at all. But Blair is now a functioning component as opposed to a freak sideshow. Jefferson is starting to meld and find his spots on defense. George Hill really may be good enough to not only backup Parker ably, but play next to him. Trey and I were both impressed by what it looked like with dual Parker clones on the floor at the same time, like some sort of French mime duo that could kill you and leave you bleeding before you knew you were hit. Hill literally ripped the ball away from Artest on rebounds last night. Twice. Just took it away. I was scared. For Ron, for Hill, who may end up as dinner for Artest one day because of this. But the point is, the complete team component for the Spurs is hitting their stride.
Expect them to go on a huge run through the next two months before putting it on cruise control, just like they do every year. As long as their star point guard doesn’t have plantar fasciitis, they should be fi…