Just as quickly as the San Antonio Spurs surprise us with their annual resilience, Gregg Popovich's veteran squad is once again giving us reason for pause when the games matter most.
Who are these Spurs?
Since their last NBA title in 2007, San Antonio's regular-season track record has been absolutely unimpeachable. Unfazed by universal concerns about Tim Duncan's age, Manu Ginobili's durability and the team's suddenly uneven defensive output, this club remains a perennial title contender.
And yet, something about this team continues to scream "mini-dynasty"—something that leaves a readily apparent chip on every Spurs fan's shoulders. As much as the San Antonio faithful insist on being heard—and notwithstanding the lengths some have gone to do just that—nothing would speak louder than another championship.
Easier said than done, to be sure. After sweeping the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers from the 2011-12 playoffs, the Spurs forfeited a 2-0 series lead to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference finals, seemingly passing a torch that had been shared with the Los Angeles Lakers since the late '90s. Were it not for a season-ending injury to Thunder star Russell Westbrook, a similar fate would almost certainly await them this season.
That would assume, of course, that San Antonio has what it takes to return to those conference finals in the first place—an assumption that appears rather dubious after two games against the upstart Golden State Warriors.
It took an improbable 18-2 run in the final four minutes of Game 1 for San Antonio to force overtime. Then it took a clutch double-overtime trey from the struggling Manu Ginobili to win it. Behind the euphoria of escaping with a victory, the subtext for San Antonio was bittersweet at best.
The Spurs could blame some rust for a slow start after comfortably dispatching the Lakers in Round 1. Shots were a bit off and defensive rotations a bit slow. But even so, winning Game 1 shouldn't have been so hard, right?
What We Learned From Game 2
The Golden State Warriors are more than a thoroughly entertaining piece of Stephen Curry performance art. If anyone hadn't figured that out before this series even started, well, shame on them. The likes of Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and Jarrett Jack have resolutely reminded us otherwise, something they have been doing all season (along with injured All-Star David Lee, of course).
All the same, the Spurs didn't lose Game 2 on account of failed defense. They lost because they only scored 91 points, a full 12 fewer than they averaged in the regular season. On most nights, holding the Warriors to 100 points should be good enough.
If there is a crisis in San Antonio, it isn't just a defensive one.
Nor is it because the Warriors are young and athletic. The Charlotte Bobcats are young and athletic, too. This isn't NBA Jam. The Spurs' emergent problems are mostly of their own making and perhaps nothing another win can't fix.
But yes, there are some problems.
It was easy to forgive Manu for his 5-of-20 Game 1 shooting performance. Tacking on 11 assists and an unforgettable game-winner made mea culpa unnecessary.
The egg Ginobili laid in Game 2, however, was less benign. San Antonio's all-important sixth man was 1-of-6 from behind the arc, headlining an atrocious 5-of-21 group effort from long range. Maybe he was just off again. Maybe this is simply what you come to expect from a guy who's perplexed us with his shot selection since the dawn of San Antonio's Big Three.
This much is certain, though: In a series where there's a premium on matching Golden State's three-point buckets, the Spurs can't afford to wait on Manu to get right.
When a rhythm shooter loses his rhythm, it ain't pretty. So it should come as no surprise that Ginobili took more than seven field-goal attempts just once in four games against the Lakers. Prior to that, he played a total of 14 minutes in San Antonio's final 11 games of the regular season. In this instance, ensuring a healthy Manu may have come at the expense of having a fully-functional Manu.
Whether the Spurs can right their ship depends largely on Ginobili's ability to strike from the perimeter, where he shot 41 percent in December and 38 percent in January. If he gets hot, it would alter the complexion of this series.
The Other Guys
Game 1 against the Warriors was hardly an example of the Spurs at their very best. Nevertheless, a win is a win, and San Antonio's supporting cast had a lot to do with it. Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Gary Neal combined to score 50 points, and an efficient 50 points at that (going a combined 18-of-34 from the field).
That figure dropped to just 27 points in Game 2. Sure, there were fewer minutes and shots to go around absent the two overtimes, but all three wingmen found themselves missing open looks at the worst possible junctures—including late fourth-quarter baseline bombs that would have put the game within reach.
The danger for San Antonio is that this absent clutch shooting becomes a trend.
Last postseason, Danny Green went from averaging 12.3 points against the Clippers in the Western Conference semifinals to becoming woefully irrelevant against the Thunder, playing a combined eight minutes in the final two outings.
Not to be out-embarrassed, Neal followed up a 55-percent shooting mark against those Clippers by making just 37 percent of his attempts against the Thunder—including 3-of-11 and 0-of-6 performances in Game 3 and Game 5 losses, respectively.
Leonard remained a factor against OKC, but more because of his defense in a rookie year where scoring wasn't a significant part of his job description.
When the shots aren't falling for San Antonio's supporting cast, an otherwise electric offense sputters toward mediocrity.
And this is where the Warriors deserve their fair share of the credit. They're disrupting offensive flow, denying San Antonio the spacing, pick-and-roll opportunities and ball movement that typically translate into such precise passes and clean looks.
Such is the flip-side of "system" basketball. Sometimes, throwing a wrench in it doesn't take much.
Only Hoping to Contain Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson
If you told the Spurs they would hold Golden State to 100 points in Game 2 and get away with a 7-of-20 shooting performance from Stephen Curry, they would almost certainly have liked their odds. Adding that Klay Thompson would nail eight three-pointers en route to 34 points might have changed those odds, though.
It's all too easy to blame late defensive rotations or uninspired close-outs, but to some degree, it's also true. Somehow, Thompson continued to find daylight in Game 2. Even with the San Antonio fire department alarmed that something truly combustible was going down at the AT&T Center, the ever unflappable Spurs took Thompson's flurry in stride.
And they did so to a fault, giving shooters space in an attempt to keep the paint Warrior-free.
Sure, there's a logic to not overreacting. Even the best shooters go cold, and it's not as if the Warriors weren't also scoring in the paint and getting to the free-throw line. If there's a poison to be picked, conventional wisdom might suggest rolling the dice with Golden State's long ball.
That said, don't be surprised to see the Spurs pressuring Thompson more throughout the remainder of the series. Popovich elected to switch Kawhi Leonard's assignment from Curry to Thompson during a stretch in the fourth quarter of Game 2, and that could well be a harbinger of strategy to come.
If all else fails, they might want to check in with the Memphis Grizzlies about borrowing Tony Allen for a game or two.
Is It Time to Panic?
No, not quite. And not just because these Spurs are so averse to panicking.
We know the Spurs can score points in a hurry, and we know that more often than not, the shots fall more frequently than they did in Games 1 and 2. Any hopes of reaching the NBA Finals unscathed have been officially dashed, but some perspective is in order here.
As poised as Golden State has looked in these playoffs, this is still a young team without substantial postseason experience on which to rely. That didn't stop the Thunder last season, but it's probably still too soon to anoint the Warriors as the West's next great contender.
Moreover, the Spurs are still working big men Tiago Splitter and Boris Diaw back into the rotation. After suffering a 10-rebound deficit in Game 1 and giving up 13 offensive boards in Game 2, this team could use some stability along a front line that has its hands full with the burly Andrew Bogut.
Finally, we've yet to see any of San Antonio's stars really play like stars. Tim Duncan struggled from the floor in Game 1 (6-of-15) while recovering from a flu-like sickness. And while Tony Parker has been productive thus far, he hasn't been on top of his mid-range game, and he isn't finding teammates (just three assists in Game 2) as well as he could be.
Reasons for optimism aside, there's still an all-too familiar sense that Golden State will pick up where Oklahoma City left off. If the Spurs still have a torch to pass, they could very well find themselves relinquishing it once more.
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