San Antonio Spurs Go One Louder: Five Reasons for Early 11-in-a-Row Surge
Manu Ginobili knifed one through the Orlando Magic defense last time, sending play-by-play commentator Bill Land and the AT&T Crowd into delirium. His off-balance floater sealed the Spurs 106-97 victory and brought smiles and elicited roars from those South Texas residents who swear by silver and black.
The fun times and jubilation keep rolling in San Antonio, where the team has managed the best start in its more than 36-year history. The victory was the Spurs' 11th in a row, matching their longest streak since 2008.
Does anyone still possess the cojones to question this squad's commitment to title contention? The New Orleans Hornets handed the Spurs their lone loss on Oct. 30. San Antonio can avenge that rare 99-90 defeat, in which the team had a chance to knot the score in the final minutes, Sunday night in the Big Easy.
Next up on the buffet line: the pathetic, defenseless and cooked Minnesota Timberpuppies. If the Spurs can avoid overlooking a 4-11 opponent, they will enjoy a pre-Thanksgiving feast of layups, dunks and more good vibrations.
There will come a time this season when fans wonder if the Spurs can win another game. It might arrive as soon as this weekend. It happens every year. Why should this one prove different?
If San Antonio does indeed suffer through a January slide, as history suggests it will, the cushion created by this magnificent 12-1 start will help ease the damage. The Spurs have put themselves in position to secure home-court advantage in at least the first round, doing it with career lows from Tim Duncan in points, rebounds and minutes.
Here are five reasons for the victory deluge.
Spurs Dump Excuses and Mediocrity, Embrace Continuity
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When the team's new-look roster began its supposed return to championship form at 6-6 last November, the players responded with a frustrated shrug and a defense that now seems more acceptable than contemptible. The court of opinion ruled against a roster with seven new faces when it should have known better. It took time for the newbies to coalesce with Duncan, Tony Parker and Ginobili.
A year, it seems, can make all the difference. Gregg Popovich has integrated three rookies into his 2010-2011 rotation, but two of them boast substantial professional experience, if not NBA mileage, and the other will miss a few months with a stress fracture that required surgery.
Ginobili knew more than anyone else that the Spurs donated too many games early that forced an exhausting fight-to-the-finish to bypass the eighth seed and the L.A. Lakers. He approached Popovich and requested a greater emphasis on winning November contests.
Armed with cohesion and a loaded-for-bear roll call, the Spurs have taken the Argentine's plea to heart, doing whatever necessary to close out tight affairs and pull away in beatdowns.
They stymied the Charlotte Bobcats and Utah Jazz on the road with defense. Matt Bonner iced the Thunder at Oklahoma City Arena with a blazing display of three-point precision. The Spurs sleepwalked against the woeful L.A. Clippers for three-and-a-half quarters but amassed a 10-0 run late to sew up the home triumph.
It also helps the cause that Popovich has settled, for now, on a starting lineup. Every player under contract last season, except Ian Mahinmi and Alonzo Gee, had his name called during the player introductions.
Injuries and inconsistency necessitated Popovich's mad-scientist ways. Roger Mason found out he would open the regular-season finale when Dallas' public address announcer said, "Roger Mason." Even Garrett Temple took his turn in the absence of George Hill and a banged-up Parker. The incessant oscillations damaged chemistry and aggravated some supporting cast members who did not know when or how much they would see the court.
Popovich, for his part, had no idea what to expect from players not named Duncan, Parker, Ginobili or Hill. Even those regulars struggled at many junctures. Spurs' announcer Kevin Brock had to wonder if a ball boy, or worse, the Coyote, would enter the mix.
Not this year. Popovich has convened the same starting lineup in every joust—Parker, Ginobili, Richard Jefferson, Duncan and DeJuan Blair. The bench boss can thank symmetry for the smashing results. The reserves also now know when to anticipate daylight.
Spurs Space Out Again
Many of the franchise's hallmark moments since Duncan's arrival have involved long-distance bombs.
Sean Elliott's "Memorial Day Miracle" afforded the Spurs a 2-0 lead on the Portland Trail Blazers in the 1999 Western Conference Finals. Avery Johnson sank the New York Knicks' title hopes with a legendary corner trey at Madison Square Garden. Steve Kerr led a stunning rally in Game 6 of the 2003 conference finals with four three-pointers. Bruce Bowen's Game 5 late corner triple gave the Spurs a 3-2 lead over the Phoenix Suns in the 2007 Western Conference Semifinals. Michael Finley sent the 2008 postseason opener against the Suns into overtime with a downtown hit.
Popovich has increasingly leaned on downtown accuracy as a way to spread the floor, open driving lanes and make life easier on Duncan. Proper spacing allows a team with an all-time great post player and two lethal drivers to operate at maximum efficiency.
The Spurs of last year, though, created a clogged middle and could not get out of each other's ways. Many of the team's 32 defeats might have ended differently with late three-point hits. Mason could have given San Antonio a late lead in one such loss to the Nuggets. Instead, he bricked the wide open three-pointer and Denver escaped with a devastating 14-point victory.
The injured Mason could not relocate the suave, sizzling perimeter touch that made him a first-year hero. Keith Bogans, an average contributor at best, drew more iron than a bodybuilder. In short, the Spurs roster lacked sufficient firepower beyond the arc.
That tune has also changed this year. After converting in the low 30s in the 2009-2010 campaign, the worst mark of the Duncan era, the Spurs lead the league in three-point shooting percentage (a ludicrous 44 percent). Bonner leads all players in making 69 percent of his triple tries.
A perusal of the rest of the roster further explains the downtown turnaround. Rookie Gary Neal, a gem unearthed from the Italian League, impressed the coaches enough in Las Vegas to earn a guaranteed contract. He rewarded their faith early by hitting more than 50 percent of his attempts. He has cooled off since but remains a vital supporting cast member.
Rookie James Anderson hit at a similar clip before scans revealed the stress fracture that will cost him several months of his NBA debut.
Hill should rebound from an antarctic start and reclaim the corner he owned last year. He will, of course, need to negotiate dominion of that territory with Jefferson, swishing from the opposite sides at the best rate of his 10-year career.
When the Spurs require late three-pointers to take leads or balloon them, Ginobili can still deliver. Parker, a world class penetrator, has bagged all three of his attempts.
The team's preposterous exactitude from distance will come down, but its place amongst the leaders in that category does not figure to budge much.
Bench Delivers Sans Ginobili
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Ginobili has been jerked around in the Spurs lineup more than a family on a Fiesta Texas ride. Popovich tinkers with his Argentine's familiar sixth man role and toys with starting him "on a permanent basis" every season. Forgive Ginobili if this old act has convinced him not to trust his coach's promises and to disavow constancy.
Popovich, for once, might not be pulling his star guard's legs. Ginobili has started in all 13 games and figures to stay there a while. Why mess with something that now works like never before?
The Spurs rank as the league's second best scoring unit, at 107.6 points per game, while the Big Three averages its fewest combined minutes in five years, because the bench brigade can build leads and maintain them. Previous reserve combinations appeared mislaid without Ginobili's stewardship, scoring and playmaking.
This edition is doing just fine. The reserves average 37.9 points, one of the NBA's five best totals. Hill, Bonner, Neal and McDyess can reach double figures in a hurry, and heralded rookie Tiago Splitter broke out Saturday with 18 points in a pick-and-roll festival.
Popovich might swap Blair with Splitter or McDyess, if a development warrants that change, but the remainder of the depth chart, barring catastrophe, looks set.
Jefferson's Career Renaissance
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One factor in the 11-game win streak, Jefferson's new found silver and black comfort, makes the rest possible. His engagement has allowed Popovich to use the same starting five in every game, and his sweltering shooting beyond the arc has boosted the Spurs' overall three-point accuracy. He drained a huge triple in Monday's win against the Orlando Magic and has been a consistent participant in second-half and fourth-quarter runs.
He showed he could contribute Monday night, even when missing five of seven shots. He averages 15.6 points, five free throws (up from three last year), and his fast break efficiency puts him in elite company with Parker and Ginobili.
The overlooked reason for his resurgence: Duncan, Parker and Ginobili now recognize his existence by delivering him the ball in better spots and looking for him in transition.
His raptness also matters on the defensive end, where he helps Parker and Ginobili pressure the ball and create turnovers that yield run outs. He is not the creator some imagined he would become, but his facility to finish makes him a championship-level contributor.
Yahoo! Sports famously used this headline to describe his surprise decision to test free agency: "Jefferson opts out of contract, mind." The insane folks, it turns out, were the ones who decried or questioned the wisdom of his summer return.
Parker and Ginobili Take the Reigns
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It would not be presumptuous or inaccurate to say the Spurs now belong to the Parker-Ginobili backcourt duo more than Duncan. The greatest power forward to ever play the game will come in handy in May and June, if San Antonio gets there, but the Frenchman and Argentine have become as difficult to stop as he once was on the low block.
A team can win a championship with a penetrator and slasher as its top performers when the names on those jerseys read "Parker" and "Ginobili." The pair combined for 49 points and 19 assists in Monday's victory.
Parker's seven assist average ranks as the best of his career. Ginobili's 20-point average ranks as the best of his career. Scary thought for Spurs opponents: has this duo ever been better?
Duncan will erupt for 30 in a few marquee matchups, and he will become a focal point when the postseason arrives. The Spurs offense now roars instead of hums, though, because the gents who start at the point and off guard have managed to outplay or break even with their finest counterparts.
Parker outdueled Russell Westbrook and Deron Williams and stood toe-to-toe with Derrick Rose. Ginobili topped Vince Carter and Stephen Jackson. Another scary thought: has their defense ever been better? Together, they average 3.85 steals and terrorize ballhandlers with active hands and sterling anticipation.