San Antonio Spurs: Rodeo Road Trip Report Card and Stretch-Run Outlook
The San Antonio Spurs are supposed to ride plows and tractors to the finish line like patient farmers tending uncooperative soil and stubborn crops that refuse to grow. Gregg Popovich paces his plodding, methodical squad until February, when cowboys and livestock serve the Spurs a rude, three-week eviction notice. The NBA club sporting silver and black then shakes off the rust and remembers how to win at a championship level again.
The Spurs have finished with a losing record in the second half of the season just twice in the Tim Duncan era. They grind it out, muck it up and put more people to sleep than NyQuil.
So, inquiring minds want to know, who brought the jet packs, Showtime-esque emphasis on fast-breaking and caffeinated jolts to town? The franchise known for January slumps and a tempo that makes molasses look like it travels at the speed of light remains on a 68-win pace. The last time a San Antonio outfit scored like this, with such a startling wins-losses ratio, some guy with the name "Gervin" on the back of his Spurs jersey finished finger-rolls and acrobatic lay-ups.
Flattening the rest of the NBA like a steamroller, the 2010-2011 edition has given new meaning to the phrase former PA announcer Stan Kelly made popular, "Here come the Spurs."
Analysts who watch a mere handful of San Antonio games each season have always taken the cliches to the extreme. Insert your favorite one here.
The Spurs never coasted on purpose, nor did GM R.C. Buford suddenly acquire athletic employees who know how to score in transition. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have been doing that in breathtaking fashion since each entered the NBA. A confluence of factors, though, has allowed the Spurs to erupt on a 46-10 tear fit for the history books.
When San Antonio embarked on its nine game Rodeo Road Trip, some wondered if the extended sojourn might give the Dallas Mavericks and L.A. Lakers a chance to overtake South Texas' juggernaut. Instead, the Spurs emerged with a 6-3 mark and a grip on the league's best record as firm as when they boarded a plane at San Antonio International Airport three weeks ago.
So much for that.
Even after Thursday's 109-99 loss in Chicago, the Spurs line the NBA's observation deck, looking down on the 29 other franchises. When Derrick Rose drops 42 points and his teammates deliver a thunderstorm of difficult jumpers and drives, can anybody topple the Bulls? Chicago owns the league's second best home mark, so a defeat at the United Center should not cause opposing fans to surrender hours of sleep.
The team with the best home mark? The Spurs, with just two blemishes on their AT&T Center resume, host the Oklahoma City Thunder next Wednesday in their first post All-Star break action.
Which players earned the highest marks on the mythologized trek? What grade did the defense Gregg Popovich demands merit? Do the Spurs get an A+ for health? Can they procure home-court advantage throughout the playoffs?
Keep reading to discover one writer's answers.
He's The Manu and The Spurs' MVP: Ginobili's A+ Determination Fuels Record Start
I saw it in Michael Jordan. I have witnessed it burn within Kobe Bryant and other rarefied competitors.
The conflagration inside Manu Ginobili has erupted like Vesuvius. His recent shooting percentages, which dipped into the mid-30s at times, appear meager. His 18 points per game average does not recall any of Jordan's worst seasons. Yet, he has been the relentless engine behind a furious start.
Even when he misfires, he can contribute in so many other ways. The Spurs amassed this 46-10 tear because he beseeched Popovich to win more in November and showed his coach and teammates how to do it.
He produced a 2-10 clunker, a 5-17 brickfest and an eight-minute 3-5 outing on the just concluded rodeo trip. It says a lot that he still deserves an A+ after some hideous shooting performances and one instance of limited daylight. His increased leadership role and inexorable persistence have powered the Spurs, and for that, he makes the dean's list.
The coaches rewarded Ginobili with his second All-Star berth, but the real payoff will come in April and May, when the postseason pressure he espouses affords him the chance to shine.
Old reliable keeps plugging away at 35 and still knows where to go and how to get there. He tipped in a Tim Duncan miss to save the Spurs in L.A., but his impact goes far beyond one game-winning moment. Has any player averaging five points, five rebounds and one assist ever meant more to his squad's title hopes?
Casual hoops fans looking for a reason to cheer the Spurs should consider McDyess. The veteran yearns to end his career with that elusive title, and he has provided so much on both ends in limited minutes that he told San Antonio Express-News beat reporter Jeff McDonald he will return next season.
He handles mop-up duty with the appropriate professionalism and attitude. The Spurs signed him as an emergency fill-in guard when an injury sidelined George Hill for a few games. He played significant minutes in Hill's absence and did not embarrass himself. There are worse 11th or 12th man options on the market. If he saves some mileage on the odometers of Ginobili and Tony Parker, he has done his job.
He was all over the map, much like the Spurs' rodeo itinerary. He resembled everything from a blue collar employee at a Detroit auto factory to a Capitol Hill star to a lost kid swallowed by Chicago's vastness. Yet, each time it seems safe to write off Blair, he responds with a workmanlike roar and a double-double.
His funky but rugged post game and Rodman-esque board work remain vital to San Antonio's June hopes. He can't matchup with Pau Gasol or Andrew Bynum? Maybe not, but Blair will exhaust himself trying. All he wants is a lunch pail and a defender to abuse.
Not many little-known 26-year-olds plucked from the Italian League become the most productive rookie on a championship-caliber squad. Neal overcame a lot in his troublesome, elongated journey to San Antonio.
Now, he has the trust of a future Hall of Fame coach and a license to let that orange, round thing fly. Popovich, who once showed a disdain for rookies, has given the sharpshooting Towson product a simple instruction: if you're open, shoot the ball, or I'll yank you.
Neal demonstrates a polish that befits someone with overseas experience and a history of rejections on his curriculum vitae. He has no qualms with unloading pressure-packed fourth quarter bombs, and unlike Roger Mason Jr., his defense can also impress.
A few years ago, Spurs fans asked, "George who?" When David Stern called his name, Hill was a near-anonymous combo guard from IUPUI. One other hoops executive said he was on that franchise's draft radar. If all the basketball grazers knew of Derrick Rose, only the collegiate die-hards could have picked Hill out of a lineup.
Now, he ranks as San Antonio's best perimeter stopper and its meteoric sixth man. He produced a zero baskets dud in Philadelphia and a six-point stinker in Chicago, but his 18-point outburst in Washington underscored his importance on both ends. The Spurs will not win another Larry O'Brien trophy without Hill's adhesive contributions.
The Big 12 scoring standout showed a surprising and welcome defensive aptitude in early October, but a stress fracture has limited him to a single-digit number of regular-season games. The jury remains out as to whether he can crack the Spurs' rotation in time to become a playoff cog.
Matt Bonner: B-
The Red Rocket missed January and a chunk of the trip with marrow edema in his right knee but returned to remind opponents of his value. Since his comeback midway through the rodeo venture, he is shooting better than 50 percent from the field and beyond the arc. He can mix it up underneath the hoop and delivers earnest, if flat-footed defensive performance.
He can at least admit that his vertical leap might not surpass an office chair.
One offseason and a refined corner three-point shot can make all the difference. Improvement in that one area has bolstered his field goal accuracy, his production and his reputation in silver and black. He may resemble more of a grenade launcher than a high flyer these days, but he provides the Spurs just what they need at the small forward spot.
He helped harangue Kobe Bryant in L.A. and offered another glimpse into what his offensive versatility could mean for the Spurs in a fortnight with the two-time defending champions. The only thing worse than Jefferson's 1-8 outing in Philly? Andre Igoudala's 2-15 night? Can you say, "Defensive draw?"
The Spurs tendered Novak a 10-day contract to give the oversized shooter a look. He has done nothing that should force the team's brass to make an instant decision--to keep or dump him. He is on the current roster and played 23 minutes in the drubbing of the Washington Wizards, so he makes the list.
The two-time Spanish league MVP's rookie year has been marred by a bum hamstring and an assortment of other bumps and bruises. Popovich expected to plant his Brazilian tough customer in his rotation before now.
Splitter will get several more chances to grab a postseason spot because his size and battle-tested interior toughness can make a difference. Can he matchup with Andrew Bynum? A larger sample size will yield a better answer, but in his 10 total minutes banging in the paint with the heralded but oft-injured Lakers' center, Bynum has managed just two points and three shot attempts.
Discount and dismiss an all-time great at your own peril. Duncan soldiers on, even as detractors insist he's too old and slow to check or produce against his younger counterparts. His strong third quarter in Chicago, in which he made his first five attempts, would suggest that line of thinking is imbecilic.
I will end my brief analysis of Duncan with this: If he does not deliver a 30-point game and/or a 15-rebound one, I promise to run naked down Commerce Street screaming gibberish.
His marital life might no longer fit in Hollywood, but his nitroglycerin-packed game still does. Getting to the basket remains a breeze for the Frenchman. Parker could not stop Derrick Rose on Thursday night, but did Chicago's MVP candidate ever stop him?
The bonafide All-Star snub (I argued he deserved a spot more than Duncan) should add to the motivation that fuels his speedy attack. Do you think Derek Fisher or Steve Blake wants the unenviable task of defending him in a playoff series? Would Chris Paul, Rose, Russell Westbrook or Deron Williams line up outside the AT&T Center tomorrow morning to check him for seven games?
The team's output on the uphill end of the court still needs work, but one area statistics pegged as a Spurs shortcoming became a strength on the trip. A few weeks ago, the Lakers ranked as the league's second best team defending the three-pointer while the Spurs ranked second worst.
Those numbers perplexed me to no end. In watching the two squads a lot, it seemed like those places should be flip-flopped. The Lakers surrender a lot (and I do mean a ton, because they struggle to navigate and hedge screen-rolls) of wide open triples. The Spurs make the effort to run at shooters and execute perimeter closeouts.
It seems, at last, order has begun its return to the NBA universe. In the previous 10 contests, no one has defended the three ball better than the Spurs. Opponents connected on 27 percent of their long-distance looks in that stretch.
The overall defense was not atrocious, either. Here is what the Spurs' last 10 foes foes averaged: 93 points (fourth best in the league) and 44-percent shooting (seventh best in the league).
Why did the Spurs not get an A+ here? Everyone mentions health as the reason San Antonio owns 46 victories at the All-Star break, right? While the starters and top four scorers have remained upright and productive, key bench cogs have nursed various ailments.
Splitter and Anderson were expected to step in and contribute immediately, and they can still help the squad's cause. Bonner and Hill missed time, and it was evident during their absences how much San Antonio needs what they bring.
So, for that, they get a B-.
Popovich's crowning achievement in his unintentional Coach of the Year campaign has been his ability to maximize the roster's productivity and cohesion while limiting the wear and tear on his eldest players.
A quick look at the record--without any viewership of the games or other statistics--might suggest that Duncan, Parker and Ginobili are playing 40-plus minutes in each contest. In previous seasons, lackluster depth might have necessitated that approach.
Instead, the Spurs have jetted ahead of the pack despite career lows in minutes from Duncan (28) and McDyess (18). Parker averages 32 minutes and Ginobili averages 31. No one averages more burn than Parker.
That extended rest afforded the veterans should pay dividends come late April. Popovich has also structured his lineup in a manner conducive to playoff success. The active players, save for Splitter and Anderson (when healthy), know what he wants from them and when to expect minutes.
The stubborn coach's chief goal never changes. He wants to enter the postseason with all of his horses available and fresh without sacrificing too many games.
Can anyone argue the A+ here? Am I the only one who would like to climb inside Duncan's head in the above photo?
Taking Care Of Business
An NBA champion reaches that peak by taking the words of the Bachman-Turner Overdrive's 70s smash to heart. The Spurs finished seventh last year, with a Duncan era-high 32 losses, because they too often tuned out the music.
A quick scan of the 2009-2010 defeat register helps explain their thunderous mark now. The Spurs lost at Charlotte, could not beat the Utah Jazz or Portland Trail Blazers, gave away a critical home game to the Memphis Grizzlies, sleepwalked in Toronto and donated an overtime affair in Detroit. San Antonio figured to improve on its 50-victory haul if it could do Randy Bachman proud.
Each of the 10 losses make more sense now, including a once despicable loss to the Clippers. Miami, the other L.A. team, Oklahoma City and others can now relate. I have to credit myself for some summer soothsaying.
I marked several dates as probable losses the day the league released all 30 teams' schedules. Those included a back-to-back in Orlando, and road games at Philly and Chicago. Was I right, or was I right?
Moments after cameras cut from a panoramic shot of the United Center's interior to TNT's Studio J during Thursday's telecast, Charles Barkley transported an unmistakable message to viewers: "The Spurs are overrated."
If Popovich ever heard that outlandish, pointed comment, he would seek out the Chuckster, give him a bear hug and buy him lots of exorbitant gifts. Never before has Pop's no nonsense, zero-tolerance-for-arrogance approach mattered more.
When he tells his team it has not accomplished anything yet, he's right. If the Spurs want to seize a fifth NBA crown, they have a long way to go. Do not think for a second he will let his players gloat or relax in the wake of the finest start in franchise history.
Do not expect any crude taunts or petulant, fatuous sideline dances a la LeBron James' Cavs from a year ago. The San Antonio players on recent record say they view the remaining 26 jousts as an opportunity to validate a historic takeoff, not a reason to feign superiority.
And when Popovich says the Lakers and Mavericks rank as better Western Conference teams than the Spurs, he does not intend to play nice or exude class. He will believe it until his squad vanquishes one or both in a seven-game series.
Why The Spurs Will Sew Up The League's Best Record
Barring a catastrophic injury, or an elongated funk and a miracle run by the Mavs or Lakers, the Spurs will head into the playoffs with the West’s top perch. They remain five games ahead of the Eastern Conference-leading Boston Celtics. The current cushion—more than six ahead of the Lakers and Mavericks—should allow the Spurs to deviate from their torrid pace a bit and still secure home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
The Miami Heat, Celtics and the Chicago Bulls will mount stretch-run challenges for that reward, but the Spurs can still create extra distance. They face the Celtics at home and the Heat twice.
Those single-digit leads may not seem insurmountable, but a peak at each team’s remaining contests suggests it will prove tough for anyone to tally enough victories in a row against Spurs losses to overtake San Antonio in the standings. The Lakers face the toughest closing slate of the bunch, while the other four should encounter enough turbulence to make it interesting.
Yet, the Spurs survived the rodeo eviction and maintained the league’s best home and road records. Can anyone amendable to reason expect such a dramatic collapse from San Antonio?
If the Spurs protect the current standings advantage, all they have to do to win the West is wrestle it away from Dallas' stingiest defensive team of the Dirk Nowitzki era and the two-time defending champions. Then, any one of four East behemoths will await. Breezy, eh?
Maybe not, but for a record start, the Spurs get an easy A.