Throughout the middle portions of the decade, the San Antonio Spurs were a powerhouse, capturing three titles during the middle of the 2000s to add to the one they captured in 1999.
And it’s hard to forget the Boston Celtics’ championship captured the season before last.
But as the Lakers, Cavs, and Magic have ascended to the NBA’s forefront, Boston and San Antonio have played like eidolons of their former selves—phantoms of those past championship teams that lack the talent to ultimately wear this season’s championship crown.
San Antonio’s 96-73 victory over Boston was filled with petrified performances by some of the most dominant players of the 2000s.
Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Rasheed Wallace, Ray Allen, Antonio McDyess, and Michael Finley all played like shells of themselves Sunday night, the main reason why few expect either team to come close to the NBA Finals this season.
However, one player was able to reach back into time and recapture the magic.
And it’s precisely Manu Ginobili’s rediscovered ability to electrify on a consistent basis as to why the Spurs are as much a threat as anyone to reach the Conference Finals, while the Celtics look like second round fodder for the Cavs, Magic, or Hawks.
What The Spurs Did Right
Manu Ginobili was spectacular. Richard Jefferson had taken a seat on the bench after two fouls in 32 seconds. Tim Duncan’s ventures into the low post were fruitless against Rasheed Wallace (starting for an injured Kendrick Perkins).
However, Ginobili turned in a vintage performance that allowed the Spurs to hang tough for a half before running away in the third quarter.
The Spurs loved to give Ginobili brush screens in early offense and let him go to work, where he was much too quick for Boston’s sluggish rotations.
Wallace and Garnett actually did a halfway decent job of walling off Ginobili’s penetration attempts, but Ginobili carved up Boston’s second unit early in the second quarter, particularly Sheldon Williams, who isn’t fluid enough to wall off quick penetrations.
If Ginobili’s speed was always on display against Allen’s fleeting attempts to stay in front of him, Ginobili flashed his strength by finishing through Wallace for a plus-one layup; his creativity with a number of no-look assists and near-assists; his smarts by executing two classic screen/rolls with Tim Duncan, one going each way, and his creativity by hitting a running three to beat the third-quarter buzzer.
His defense was just as explosive as his defense. The Spurs assigned Ginobili to Rajon Rondo and used Manu as their primary helper.
As such, Manu was free to flash into driving lanes and prevent quick penetrations, dug in on screens to prevent curls, and recorded innumerable deflections based on his quick hands.
Ginobili’s two best defensive plays were a pair of immaculate baseline rotations, the first when he met Garnett before the rim, skied, and swatted the ball from KG’s hands—knocking the Ticket Stub to the ground in the process—without making any body contact.
The second came when Ginobili anticipated a pass into the strong side post, rotated, and intercepted the pass.
If Ginobili’s three-point shooting was a little off—2-8 3FG, he’s proven to be one of the game’s fearless big moment shooters. His other numbers were pristine—9-19 FG, 8-8 FT, 3 REB, 7 AST, 0 TO, 1 STL, 28 PTS.
He’d have a block, but for some reason, the scorekeeper doesn’t recognize Garnett having the ball stuffed out of his hands on the dunk attempt as a shot.
Regardless, Ginobili gives the Spurs the prime time inside-outside playmaker that all the great West teams have, from Kobe Bryant, to Caron Butler, to Kevin Durant, to Brandon Roy, to Carmelo Anthony.
And it’s only Ginobili—not Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, or Richard Jefferson—as the reason why the Spurs are as safe a bet as any to reach the Conference Finals.
San Antonio’s defensive gameplan was flawless. Aside from Ginobili being a pest as a helper without being burned—Rondo shot 2-4 on jumpers, 1-3 before fourth quarter garbage time—San Antonio was exceptional in other areas.
George Hill stayed attached to Ray Allen’s hips, preventing him from freeing up for curls around down screens. Under distress when shooting, or asked to create off the bounce, Allen was neutralized—2-9 FG, 7 PTS.
The Spurs are known for never crashing the offensive boards and always protecting their transition defense first.
Against the Celtics, the Spurs were always waiting for Pierce and Allen at the wing above the three-point line, preventing the bevy of transition threes the Celtics feast on.
The tactic of always protecting the basket first worked wonders in the fourth quarter when individual rebounders—Dejuan Blair, Matt Bonner, Ginobili—were able to grab offensive boards while the rest of the Spurs scurried back.
In the second half, San Antonio converged hard on Boston in the paint, forcing them to finish through heavy traffic.
San Antonio’s perimeter defense and closeouts were textbook throughout.
While Paul Pierce tortured Keith Bogans, he found the going much tougher against Richard Jefferson’s size and length.
Duncan, Bonner, and McDyess did credible jobs on Garnett, while San Antonio’s transition defense prevented Rajon Rondo from probing and finding points in early offense. Frustrated, Rondo played sloppy and careless as a result.
Jefferson, Duncan, and Blair owned the glass.
McDyess—3-8 FG—and Bonner—2-5FG—made enough of their jumpers to be threats. Bonner was even able to have success taking Garnett off the dribble.
When the Celtics overplayed San Antonio’s baseline and backdoor cutting action, Hill was open in the corners—2-4 3FG.
If Duncan isn’t as effective as he once was at creating his own shot, he’s still a tremendous passer and help defender.
Still, the Spurs showed several serious holes.
Duncan isn’t the dominant post presence he used to be, and was swallowed up by Garnett and Wallace.
Jefferson was opportunistic for his 16 points, but isn’t as consistent a threat as he’s asked to be.
Hill struggled against Rondo’s Gumby-like defense—5-15 FG, 3 AST, 3 TO, 15 PTS.
McDyess and Bonner need to make at least 50 percent of their jump shots for the Spurs to function harmoniously on offense.
Roger Mason has been a season-long dud.
Blair’s defense isn’t up to snuff.
Tony Parker needs to be healthy to provide more firepower to an often stagnant offense.
San Antonio has almost no length or shot blocking up front.
Still, with Ginobili playing the way he’s been playing, the phrase, “Will go as far as he takes them” looks to be pretty far.
What The Celtics Did Wrong
Finish. The Celtics missed 16 layups that doomed them against San Antonio. Kevin Garnett was the main culprit with five, while Davis (3), Tony Allen (2), Ray Allen (2), and Marquise Daniels (2) all missed multiple layups.
Garnett’s inability to finish through contact has always been a detraction against him. With his knees shot, he can’t explode and beat contact like he used to.
He also doesn’t elevate well, and was late on numerous interior rotations. Indeed, Garnett has gone from The Big Ticket to The Used Ticket Stub.
Wallace’s defense ranges from average to slightly above average, but he gives Boston nothing in the post, and even less from the outside—1-4 3FG.
It was assumed by me and others that Boston’s fiery personalities would convince Wallace to bumping and battling more around the basket. My mistake for ignoring the historical tendencies of a loser of a player.
Ray Allen looked old and slow, while Rondo played with no focus or vigor.
Boston got nothing out of its bench.
Sheldon Williams made himself a nice target under the basket, but his inept defense gave back everything his offense took.
Nate Robinson missed two threes, one of them a force job, and is clueless as to what to do in any kind of structured offense. In other words, he’s providing a similar lack of production to last year’s hopeful mid-season Knick acquisition Nate Robinson.
Finley showed the Spurs they’re missing nothing without him, while Tony Allen and Marquise Daniels couldn’t finish at the rim.
Once San Antonio jumped out to a big lead, Boston quit in the fourth, and wound up with only 30 points in the second half.
Only Pierce played with any kind of enthusiasm and forcefulness, but even that waned after the opening minutes of the game.
It’s clear that Boston isn’t as good as its previous versions, and there’s a strong hint that Boston assumes they can quit on tough games in the regular season because it can flip the switch when it needs to in the playoffs.
Neither bodes well for Boston with a possible date with the surging Milwaukee Bucks on the horizon.
Unless Allen and KG find what Juan Ponce de Leon couldn‘t, and unless Boston starts to get meaningful minutes from its bench, its chances of winning a title will be ancient history.