SAN ANTONIO — When most people think of the hard-nosed defense in a playoff series between the Grizzlies and Spurs, the images that come to mind are the steely gaze and the locked-in intensity of Tony Allen, the quick hands of Mike Conley or those long arms and smothering style of Kawhi Leonard.
Then there’s Matt Bonner.
Don’t snicker. None other than Kobe Bryant nicknamed him the Red Mamba for Bonner’s ability to fearlessly knock down big shots in big situations. But in the playoffs, Bonner has also been part boa constrictor for helping to put the squeeze on opposing big men.
It was a team effort with Tiago Splitter, Tim Duncan and Boris Diaw all sharing the rugged duties. Bonner’s main responsibility in Game 1 was to front Randolph and try got prevent him from getting the ball in the first place. The eight shots by Z-Bo were his fewest in a game since April 15 and the single bucket scored was his career playoff low for any game in he’s played at least 10 minutes.
“We found something that works for him,” Duncan said. “He’s comfortable doing that. I think when the whole team is locked in knowing he’s going to do that, we feel pretty confident.”
The added bonus of Bonner’s defensive contribution is that it allows Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to give him more playing time and take advantage of his outside shooting ability that stretches Memphis’ defense. Bonner drilled four 3-pointers in Game 1 as the Spurs set a franchise record with 14 3-pointers.
SAN ANTONIO — It was early in the third quarter when Zach Randolph simply did the kind of thing that he does.
Mike Conley had driven into the teeth of the Spurs defense and had his layup attempt pop out. So there was Randolph, all 260 pounds and city-block wide of him of him, rising up out of the crowd in the paint to tap the ball back into the basket. It was notable only because Randolph had taken seven previous shots and not made a single one.
Z-Bo had been Z-B000000.
When itwas finally over, Randolph had just those two points to his name, which meant that he was outscored by all but two players on the Spurs’ 12-man active roster — and that’s using the term quite loosely, since Tracy McGrady hasn’t truly been relevant in half a decade. It took Aussie Patty Mills, cuddly as a koala, just 66 seconds off the bench to pop in a 3-pointer and move ahead of Randolph on the day’s scoring list.
All of which goes a long way toward explaining the ugly 105-83 thumping the Grizzlies took from the Spurs and why Randolph chose to enter the post-game locker room and express regrets to his teammates.
“He tried to apologize first off, and we wouldn’t accept that,” said the point guard Conley. “We said, it’s not you, it’s all of us.”
There were so many things wrong with how the Grizzlies came out and played the opener of the first Western Conference finals game in franchise history that Z-Bo might as well have been holding a bucket to catch the water when the dam broke.
Tony Parker merely took the ball almost from the opening tip and drove it anyplace he wanted toward the Memphis basket, finishing at the rim and stabbing in mid-range jumpers. The Spurs’ wing men set up residence in either corner and all they had to do was wait for the ball to find them for open shots. The Spurs finished the day making 14 of their 29 attempts from deep, setting a franchise playoff record for 3-pointers. It was hardly the kind of performance you might have expected from the No. 1-rated defense in the NBA during regular season and more like playing a game of keep-away with a class of kindergartners.
“We didn’t play well,” said Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins. “I mean, it’s not anything specific.”
However, it can specifically be said that Grizzlies will be done if Randolph doesn’t even bother to show up. Z-Bo and his partner Marc Gasol punished the Spurs with their inside game two years ago when the Grizzlies became just the second No. 8 seed in history to knock off a No. 1 seed.
But that was a different Spurs team, one that was not as healthy, not nearly as deep and not as remotely capable of coming at Randolph with the overwhelming force of a tsunami.
“They were disrupting my rhythm,” Randolph said. “It was just one of those nights. I played like I did against the Clippers in L.A.” (more…)
SAN ANTONIO – When asked about the prospects of his band of wounded Warriors getting up off the floor following a 109-91 haymaker to win two straight games, Golden State coach Mark Jackson didn’t blink.
“It’s doable,” he said.
So is juggling chainsaws while walking across a greased high wire.
The trick now for the Warriors, darlings of the 2013 playoffs, is not just to reignite the shooting spark in their backcourt, rediscover the offensive harmony that comes from sharing the ball, cutting down on turnovers and restart the defensive intensity that cuts off penetration into the lane, but to do it all while limping.
Stephen Curry and Andrew Bogut have been like sculpted sand castles at the beach in this Western Conference semifinal series, their games steadily eroding with the passage of time. It’s not a failure or shortage of will, but reality when a couple of bum ankles limit Curry to 4-for-14 shooting and Bogut to just 19 1/2 minutes of playing time in Game 5.
With Bogut’s motion and ability to pound away on the inside limited, the Warriors are missing the rim protector, shot alterer and jostler who kept the Spurs away from the basket in the first two games.
With Curry’s left ankle weakened, the Spurs have gone on the attack offensively, trying to run the ball right at him and through him, which has worn him out and cut into his effectiveness at the offensive end.
Toss in David Lee making a reappearance in the rotation with a torn hip flexor and you have a big man who was never known for his defensive skills being even more of a liability on the floor.
So it is that Harrison Barnes and Jarrett Jack have had to shoulder more of the load and it is taking a toll, along with the defense of San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard on Klay Thompson.
Things got so bad on Tuesday night that in a series that has been known for unexpected and improbable last comebacks, Jackson chose to play the final 8-plus minutes with Curry and Bogut sitting on the bench.
“It got to a point where they had made plays and we hadn’t, and I had to look toward Game 6,” Jackson said. “It was just being smart, that’s all.”
But practically bites.
This is a veteran Spurs team that smelled blood in Game 5, and reacted like sharks in a feeding frenzy. Tony Parker pulled up at the rim like he’d been delivered in a stretch limo. Tim Duncan kept right on attacking even though he can’t find his shooting touch. Leonard, Tiago Splitter, Boris Diaw, Danny Green and Cory Joseph rarely missed a chance to make something happen. And the often inexplicable Manu Ginobili poked at the Warriors wound until it burst open.
Over in the Eastern Conference bracket, the injuries piled up high enough on the Bulls until what’s left of the disparate parts could muster up only 65 points on Tuesday night. The Warriors are not that broken, but the cracks are evident and sometimes you just come to the end of the road.
The Warriors, who are 4-0 after losses in these playoffs, will be back at home Thursday night at the earsplitting Oracle to face elimination for the first time this spring. But for the first time in their entertaining and inspirational run, the Warriors also looked worn down if not worn out in Game 5.
“You hope not,” Curry said. “I don’t think that’s in anybody’s head right now.”
It’s not the heads that should worry the Warriors, but those sore ankles and other aching body parts that seem to be finally leading to an inevitable end.
SAN ANTONIO – Sometimes young players make a splash in the playoffs.
That was Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson — the Splash Brothers — in their postseason baptism, doing jack knives, double flips and triple twists off the high board.
It was the kind of how-did-they-do-that act that left you shaking your head when you weren’t picking your jaw up off the floor as you figured you were maybe getting a glimpse of the way basketball should be played in the 21st century.
Sometimes young players have to wade into the deep end of the pool.
That was Kawhi Leonard, whose next splash will be his first, easing into the water from his ankles up to his knees up to his hips, the old-fashioned way.
A year ago, Leonard wasn’t ready. Not when the Spurs reached the Western Conference finals against the Thunder and suddenly he was swimming with the sharks. There were critical plays that he was physically capable of making, but the rookie who did not have the benefit of a training camp in the abbreviated lockout season, wasn’t sure enough to assert himself on a veteran-laden roster.
Warriors coach Mark Jackson has called Curry and Thompson “the best shooting backcourt in the history of the game” and anyone who saw them practically set fire to the AT&T Center in the first two games of this series had little ammunition to argue otherwise.
However, since Game 1, neither Curry or Thompson has made better than 50 percent of his shots. In the past four games, Curry has shot 7-20, 5-17, 7-15 and 4-14, while Thompson has hit on 13-26, 7-20, 5-13 and 2-8. That’s a combined 50-for-133 (.375), as the Splash Brothers haven’t been able to throw it in the ocean.
San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich raised a few eyebrows last summer when he said that Leonard would eventually be “the face of the Spurs.”
That would seem to be a heavy lift on a roster that still includes three likely Hall of Famers in Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. Yet here are the Spurs holding a 3-2 series lead after a 109-91 thumping of the Warriors on Tuesday night and there was Leonard up to his neck in all of it.
At one end of the floor, Leonard is as efficient and deadly as a shark, connecting on 7 of 8 shots — 3-for-4 on deep balls — to ring up 17 points to go with his seven rebounds. He can hit impossible-looking corner 3s from behind the backboard and finish with a thunderbolt dunk over Harrison Barnes. At the other end, his defense on Thompson (and occasionally Curry) couldn’t be more smothering if he used a wet blanket.
“He made some big shots for us,” Duncan said. “When they made runs, he made some huge 3s for us. Defensively, he was great. His length is just huge for us and being able to contest from the side and from behind those, it makes them uncomfortable.”
Leonard fits in so comfortably on the floor and in the locker room that there are times when it’s easy not to notice him. He usually dresses and bolts after games before the media even arrives at his locker. On the occasions when he is hemmed in by the notebooks and cameras, he squeezes out words as if he is expected to pay for each one.
But there was a reason why Popovich was able and willing to cut veteran Stephen Jackson from the team just a week before the regular season’s end. Yes, Jackson’s play had taken a dive. He was shooting just 28 percent on 3s, which did not gibe with Capt. Jack’s opinion of himself.
The question was whether Popovich and the Spurs would miss Jackson defensively when they ran into a red hot scorer or two, the kind that needs to be jostled, rattled and knocked off his rhythm.
This time last spring, Popovich was hoping that Leonard could one day grow into that dependable game-changer. Now he is there. Leonard might not yet be “the face of the Spurs,” but he’s a got a nose for the ball. On a team where managing the playing time of the thirtysomething crowd is as much a part of the game as dribbling and shooting, it is no coincidence that Leonard topped out in minutes on the Spurs’ box score with 37 in Game 5 and is averaging more (38.2) than anyone on the roster. He is also the legs of the Spurs.
Jackson, of course, concedes nothing has thrown the Splash Brothers off their game.
On Curry: “Didn’t play well.”
On Thompson: “Didn’t play well.”
Since the first two games of the series, the Spurs have been getting up in the face and the space of the Warriors’ shooters. They have been running them off the 3-point line. They have been doing it with double-teams that come at different times and from different angles.
They have been doing it by turning more responsibility over to the taciturn Leonard, who has grown into the role and grown comfortable in the deep water of the playoffs.
Seems there is more than one way to make a splash.
SAN ANTONIO – First it was Stephen Curry practically setting fire to the AT&T Center in Game 1 with his 44 points. Then along came Klay Thompson with his 34 in Game 2.
“I thought it was polite of them to at least take turns and not both be on fire on the same night,” cracked San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.
Good one-liner, but a real problem for San Antonio. As the series shifts to Oakland for the next two games, it seems the Spurs are either a defender short or woefully lacking enough firepower to keep up with the Golden State Warriors’ back court.
“I was just trying to do my best to keep up with Steph,” Thompson said. “I’ve seen him do it enough times, so I thought I’d try to see if I could keep up.”
He hardly could have anticipated a 29-point first half, setting a franchise record for a playoff game with eight buckets from behind the arc and the first double-double of his career with 14 rebounds. And let’s not forget the physical, smothering defense that he used all night to throw a wet blanket on Tony Parker.
For Thompson, there was only one thing worse than playing a part in the grand collapse of the Warriors in Game 1. That was not playing a part, which was his burden because he had fouled out and had to watch from the bench.
So, while the rest of his teammates tried to put on a happy face and act unfazed by the double-overtime loss, Thompson wore his disappointment as a hair shirt. He let it irritate him, bother him and prod him on.
“It was tough losing Game 1, because I felt like I was barely out there due to foul trouble, even I did play 32 minutes,” Thompson said. “Watching from the bench is one of the hardest things to do. But I learned from it and I think I showed I learned from it.”
The one he was most proud to show his lessons learned to was his father, ex-NBA star Mychal Thompson, who constants tell him to avoid cheap fouls.
“My dad is my biggest critic,” Thompson said. “Every game he tells me to stay out of foul trouble, so I probably gave him a hemorrhage the other night. I thought I did a good job of not making dumb fouls like I did in Game 1 and I just tried to play hard.”
If Thompson had played any harder, he’d have loosened the floorboards in the court. He made every kind of shot from every spot and every angle imaginable and he was a wrecking ball on defense. He not only disrupted Parker as the initiator of the Spurs offense, but also took turns on wing men Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard. Toss in those 14 rebounds and it was enough to make you shake your head.
“Your stat line,” Curry marveled to his buddy, “is amazing.”
It was the kind of prolific game that his team needed to pull the series into a 1-1 tie, the kind of redemptive effort that Thompson needed personally to feel good about himself again and the kind of display that will have the Spurs scrambling for a solution by Game 3.
Curry blowing up one night, Thompson leaving a mushroom cloud the next.
“I have the greatest shooting backcourt that’s ever played the game,” said Warriors coach Mark Jackson. “Call my bluff.”
The Spurs might not know how. That’s their dilemma.
HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – With each of the four conference semifinals tied at 1-1 (for the first time since this round went to seven games in 1968), it’s a great time to mine the lineup data provided by NBA.com/Stats for trends, anomalies, and whatever information might be useful … or at least interesting.
The eight teams remaining have only played between six and nine games, so we’re not looking at very big sample sizes here. But small sample sizes are all you have to go on in the playoffs. Decisions have to be made on how players or player combinations have played in that series and against that opponent. Even if you include numbers against the opponent in the regular season, that’s at most four additional games of data.
We’ve already seen some of these teams change lineups mid-series. And sometimes, like when the Dallas Mavericks decided to start J.J. Barea in Game 4 of the 2011 Finals, a lineup change can make a big difference.
So, as we take our first day off of the playoffs, here are some notes from 53 games worth of postseason lineup data…
It was a plus-48 in the first round and a plus-5 in both Games 1 and 2 of the conference semifinals. The problem, of course, is that the Indiana bench stinks. In 216 minutes, all other Pacers lineups have scored 93.1 points per 100 possessions and allowed 105.8, for a NetRtg of -12.7 in the postseason.
Indy coach Frank Vogel talks often about his emphasis on defending without fouling. That’s key to not only keep the Pacers’ opponents off the line, but also to keep their starters on the floor.
Over their eight playoff games, every Pacer starter has a positive plus-minus and every sub has a negative one. So maybe the Pacers can benefit as much from three days off as the banged up Knicks can, with an ability to use their rested starters for heavy minutes in Game 3 on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ABC).
Time for OKC to go small?
Setting a minimum of 35 minutes played, the best lineup (offensively, *defensively and overall) of the postseason has been Oklahoma City’s small lineup of Reggie Jackson, Derek Fisher, Kevin Martin, Kevin Durant and Nick Collison. This unit of two point guards, two scoring wings, and a versatile big has outscored its opponents by 46.5 points per 100 possessions and had its best run in Game 6 in Houston, outscoring the Rockets 31-20 in 14 minutes. It was a plus-7 in seven minutes of Game 1 against the bigger Grizzlies, but Scott Brooks didn’t use it at all in Game 2 on Tuesday.
If you remove Nick Collison and just look at the four smalls together, they’ve been just as effective (OffRtg: 130.2, DefRtg: 80.9, NetRtg: +49.3) in a slightly larger sample of 51 minutes (43 against Houston and eight against Memphis).
With Thabo Sefolosha, the Thunder have other small-lineup options. And thus far against the Grizzlies, they’re a plus-13 in 14 minutes playing small. They’re a minus-17 in 82 minutes playing big and their starting lineup (Jackson, Sefolosha, Durant, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins has shot a brutal 13-for-47 (28 percent) in its 28 minutes together.
That, of course, will be something to keep an eye on as the series heads to Memphis for Saturday’s Game 3 (5 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Small works in the other West series too Both Gregg Popovich and Mark Jackson changed their starting lineups for Game 2 in San Antonio on Wednesday, moves that worked out better for the Warriors. Their (small) lineup of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut is a plus-17 in the series (plus-12 in Game 2), the second-best mark of the conference semifinals thus far.
It was a mini lineup of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Boris Diaw that pulled off the Spurs’ amazing comeback on Monday, racking up a plus-13 in 10 minutes over the fourth quarter and two overtimes. With Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter healthy, Popovich didn’t use that lineup at all in Game 2.
Supersubs in Chicago
Obviously, Wednesday’s blowout in Miami makes for some funky lineup numbers in that series, but the Bulls do have a lineup – Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah – that’s a plus-14 over the two games (plus-13 in 16 minutes in Game 1 and plus-1 in three minutes in Game 2). It was a plus-7 in 21 minutes in the first round and was a strong plus-20.3 points per 100 possessions in 129 minutes in the regular season. If Kirk Hinrich and/or Luol Deng return for Game 3 on Friday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN), it will be interesting to see how much time that lineup plays together going forward.
A change of fortune in Miami The Heat had a killer lineup – Mario Chalmers, Ray Allen, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh – that Erik Spoelstra used rather sparingly (only 112 minutes), but outscored its opponents by 30.3 points per 100 possessions in the regular season. That lineup was a plus-12 in 10 minutes in the first round against Milwaukee, but is a minus-13 in six minutes in the conference semis, having allowed the Bulls to shoot 6-for-9 (3-for-3 from 3-point range) in the closing minutes of Game 1.
Offensive struggles in New York The best offensive lineup in the regular season (minimum 200 minutes) was the Knicks’ lineup of Raymond Felton, Jason Kidd, J.R. Smith, Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler, which scored 119.3 points per 100 possessions in 269 minutes together. With Kidd, Smith and Anthony all struggling, that unit has scored just 86.6 points per 100 possessions in 18 playoff minutes, and has been even worse defensively.
SAN ANTONIO – This is not merely about Stephen Curry looking like the deadeye love child of Annie Oakley and William Tell one night and Klay Thompson turning into a heat-seeking missile the next.
It’s about shooting, yes, because it’s what they do. Shooting from the gaps and shooting over outstretched arms. Shooting a running, one-footed 3-pointer with the dour expression of an English butler on your face and shooting a fallaway heave in front of the opponents’ bench to beat the third quarter horn. Shooting late in the shot clock to bail out a possession gone wrong and shooting early in the shot clock because, well, you just feel like it.
It’s also about pressuring the ball out front, squeezing the penetrators into the lane, cutting off the paths on the baseline and protecting the rim as if it were the Holy Grail.
While all of the postgame highlights and most of the headlines about their first victory in San Antonio since the Mexican flag flew over Texas will concentrate on Thompson’s deep ball barrage, the Warriors got this Western Conference semifinal series to 1-1 because they played ferocious, high-energy, unforgiving defense.
It’s like finding out that Kate Upton can cook, too.
“Our shooters, Steph and Klay, are amazing,” said center Andrew Bogut, “but we like to think our defense is consistent.”
“I told him at halftime, that is in the discussion of one of the greatest halves ever,” said Golden State coach Mark Jackson. “Not only what he did offensively, but what he did defensively. If you slow it down and see the multiple plays and the attention to detail defensively, he is playing a future Hall of Famer and he’s making him work for everything.”
That’s been the difference in the first two games so far — the Spurs keep looking like they’re laboring for everything on offense and the Warriors might as well be cruising the court on roller skates. (more…)
The best fourth quarter scorer in these playoffs, Robinson served the Heat by scoring the final seven of his game-high 27 points (he also had nine assists) in the defining minutes of the game. He did all this after needing 10 stitches to close a gash over his lip, courtesy of a LeBron James elbow and head smash during a scramble for a loose ball.
“Get stitched up and continue to battle,” Robinson told reporters after the game.
LeBron’s already snagged the “King” nickname. But after watching Robinson the past eight games (and, really, the past eight seasons), is there any doubt that he’s the pound-for-pound king of toughness in the NBA?
Yes, that’s high praise for a third-string point guard. And Robinson remains one of the more unpredictable players in the league. His highs, though, trump his lows every time. Tell me the last time a third-string point guard outdueled the MVP on the night he received his trophy? Robinson became the NBA’s first three-time Sprite Slam Dunk champ and built a cult fanbase from New York (where he spent his first four and half seasons in the league) to Boston to the Bay Area and now Chicago and beyond.
Nowhere is Robinson more beloved than in his native Seattle, where he was the big man on campus at Ranier Beach High School, where he was a three-sport (football and track, too) star. Unlike many of his NBA colleagues who love to fantasize about being crossover stars in the NFL, Robinson could have pulled it off.
He was a All-Pac-10 Freshman Team pick at cornerback at the University of Washington, where his father, Jacque Robinson, was a Rose Bowl and Orange Bowl MVP. Nate Robinson was believed to have a much brighter future in that sport.
But he chose basketball instead and the rest is pound-for-pound history for a player who says he’s having the time of his life with this Bulls team.
“There’s something special about this group,” Robinson said. “It feels like we’ve been playing together for, like, 10 years. I told [Bulls] Coach [Tom Thibodeau], we just love to play for each other.”
Hoops fans love having players with Robinson’s toughness on their team. That’s why he’s the king/captain of the Hang Time Pound-For-Pound Toughness Team. These are the guys still working in these playoffs who give up every ounce of what they’ve got on a nightly basis for their respective teams, be it blood, sweat, tissue, tears or whatever else is needed.
The other starters:
David West, Indiana Pacers
6-foot-9, 250 pounds
An absolute bruiser, West changed the entire culture of an organization in Indiana with his reserved-but-unwavering leadership style. The Pacers have become the picture of defensive toughness and consistency since West arrived. West is a physical specimen who has found a way harness his brute strength and play under complete control at all times. He’s a huge reason why the Pacers are up 1-0 on the New York Knicks in their Eastern Conference semifinal.
Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
6-foot-7, 220 pounds
Another reserve who has moved into a starring role during this postseason, all Butler has done is play every single minute in three straight playoff games (Games 6 and 7 against the Brooklyn Nets and Game 1 against the Heat). That’s 48 straight minutes for three straight games while guarding the likes of the Nets’ Deron Williams and Joe Johnson and the Heat’s LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. With his tireless work on both ends of the floor, Butler has done a masterful job filling in for Luol Deng while also showing the sort of mettle of a future star.
Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
7-foot-1, 265 pounds
The Memphis branch of the Gasol basketball family tree is much sturdier than the Los Angeles version in every way imaginable. Pau Gasol has always been considered the most skilled big man in the family. But the toughest Gasol, the recently crowd Kia NBA Defensive Player of the Year, does his home work near Beale Street. He’s got it all … brains, brawn and he can ball.
Tony Allen, Memphis Grizzlies
6-foot-4, 214 pounds
A defensive stopper everywhere he’s been, Allen’s junkyard dog attitude inspired the Grit and Grind movement in Memphis (where you could fill out a Pound-For-Pound roster with the likes of Zach Randolph and others). Allen’s greatest trait is his fearlessness, which was on full display during the Boston Celtics’ title run in 2008 and has been as identifiable as his No. 9 jersey is since he joined the Grizzlies three seasons ago.
Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls; Jarrett Jack, Golden State Warriors, Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs; Iman Shumpert, New York Knicks; Chris Andersen, Miami Heat.
SAN ANTONIO – On the court of our dreams, they would still be out there playing. Shot for shot, pass for pass, the astonishing marvel of a relentless attack against a miracle comeback born of experience and stubbornness.
There were spin drives that swirled faster than the winds inside a funnel cloud and a clinching 3-pointer that came down wearing a touch of blue from scraping against the sky.
Bop till you drop. Last team standing advances to next round. If that were the case, they might keep on fighting this battle into July. Or even August.
This was billed as a Western Conference semifinal series that would bear watching, and for three hours and 12 minutes of Game 1 we were like cavemen mesmerized by their first glimpse of fire.
If Dr. Naismith’s game has been played better, it certainly wasn’t on this planet. The extraterrestrial Stephen Curry rang up another out of this world third quarter, hitting 9 of his 12 shots for 22 of his 44 points. The remarkably down-to-earth Danny Green matched Curry’s half-dozen from long range. And a zaftig Frenchman who hadn’t played in exactly one month — Boris Diaw – provided a certain je ne sais quoi.
“When I talk to him and Manu, he goes ‘This is what I do.’ That’s what he’s going to tell me. I stopped coaching him a long time ago.”
It was beautiful and bombastic, frantic and fragile, wild, woolly and wondrous … and certainly the best game of the season and maybe as good a playoff game as has been played in any season. It was Nureyev and Baryshnikov on the same stage, Picasso and Pollock on the same wall, Miles Davis and Leonard Bernstein making music together.
The second-seeded and ageless Spurs simply look at every game and every situation as something that can be handled, even if it’s like picking up a hot coal in their bare hands.
On one hand, the Spurs will have to devise a plan to stifle or at least slow down Curry, who has joined the Rolling Stones as the hottest act touring America this spring. They will also have to fret that if Klay Thompson hadn’t fouled out and Richard Jefferson hadn’t missed two free throws with 1:57 left, they might never have survived regulation time.
On the other, the Warriors probably have to figure that the Spurs won’t continue shooting 43.8 percent in the series and that Tim Duncan will be more of a force at both ends of the floor when he shakes off the effects of the flu that eventually forced him to the sidelines.
Jarrett Jack attacks, the Spurs answer. Curry thrusts and Parker parries.
“We’re excited about this series,” said Warriors coach Mark Jackson. “I saw a lot of good things during the course of the game tonight.”
The good news is there could be six more left. The bad news is there can only be six.
LOS ANGELES –Gregg Popovich still maintains that as soon as Tim Duncan decides to walk away he’ll be right behind him and happily disappear into the San Antonio sunset.
The good news for Spurs fans who have grown up or grown old with the most successful coach-player duo in NBA history, now in their 16th season together, is they aren’t going anywhere soon.
“He plays like he’s six or seven or eight years younger than he is,” Popovich said. “He’s really just a miracle in my mind.”
That’s what some thought it would take just a few seasons ago for the Spurs with an aging Big Three of Duncan, 37, Tony Parker, 30, and Manu Ginobili, 35, to again be title contenders. They were swept out of the second round by Phoenix in 2010 and then unceremoniously ushered out the next season as the top seed in a first-round upset against Memphis.
Parker openly pondered the direction of the franchise at that point just as rumors persisted that he could be traded. He questioned if the team’s age and makeup could still allow it to compete in a Western Conference transitioning to younger, faster and more athletic, headed by two rising stars in Oklahoma City.
Duncan didn’t need to hear concern from Parker to know that the times were changing, and he needed to change with them.
After averaging just 12.7 points in that 2011 first-round loss, Duncan immersed himself in self-evaluation, analyzing everything from where he’s most effective on the floor, to his conditioning, to his weight and nutrition.
He said the lockout, while it hindered many players’ workout routines and stunted their seasons, actually worked in his favor: “Just having that extra time to really focus on getting my game back and getting my body in the right shape that I wanted it to be.
“I changed a lot,” Duncan said following Sunday’s completion of a first-round sweep of a frustrated Dwight Howard and the depleted Los Angeles Lakers. “I understand that my game was changing, trying to extend my game on the floor, understanding where I’m going to be getting my shots, understand that I needed to get some weight off my body so that I could take some of the pressure off my knee. And it worked well for me.”
This season Duncan produced his highest scoring average (17.8), field-goal percentage (50.2), rebounding average (9.9) and minutes (30.1) in three seasons. His 2.7 blocks per game were a career-best, as was his 81.7 percent free throw shoooting, a remarkable leap for a career 69.3-percent foul shooter.
Against L.A. he delivered an array of post moves, spins, jumpers and one mighty alley-oop jam that caught his teammates by surprise.
“I thought he was going to be done after that play,” Parker said, smiling. “His back or something like that would give out on him.”
And so here are the Spurs once again, following up on last season’s run to the West finals, a six-game loss in what always seems to be Duncan’s last, best shot at a fifth title. They’ll be well-rested and favored in the second round against either a young and energetic Golden State squad or a Denver team that will have gone the distance to dig out of a 3-1 hole.
With the top-seeded Thunder wounded, the second-seeded Spurs must now be considered the favorite to emerge from the West.
“We’re getting there,” Duncan said after averaging 17.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and shooting 51.7 percent from the floor against the Lakers. “Obviously this series went well for us. We didn’t end the year well, but the bottom line is it really doesn’t matter how you end the year. This is a good start for us. We like the pace we’re at now, we like the rhythm we’re at now, we like how healthy we are right now and hopefully we can stay that way.”
Only a few weeks ago Duncan and Popovich expressed concern about its own health after a loss at OKC. Old questions of age and durability were cropping up again as Ginobili sat out hurt. Parker was dealing with multiple ailments and had to be removed from that game and faced an uncertain return. Boris Diaw needed back surgery. The team surprisingly released Stephen Jackson.
Yet, there was Duncan, spry and free of physical distress, averaging more minutes this season when Popovich’s desire over the last several has been to limit him more, an All-Star again for the 14th time.
“He’s a really gifted individual as far as his mental capacity is concerned,” Popovich said. “He really has a mature outlook in the sense that he knows what it takes to play at that age. He enjoys the responsibility and takes it seriously 12 months a year and that’s why he’s able to do what he does at this point in his career. His maturity level and commitment are both very unique.”
As Duncan altered his approach the last two seasons, becoming leaner and quicker, especially evident in his defense and 9.9 rebounds a game, his best mark in three seasons, Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford went about reconstructing the team.
The stodgy defensive model complemented by a methodical offense that ran through Duncan was ditched. Young sharpshooters and scrappy, unheralded role players were acquired to form a precision-based, team-oriented and highly efficient offensive attack that surged to became one of the highest-scoring in the league.
Additions like second-year forward Kawhi Leonard helped improve a faltering defense, making San Antonio an all-around threat to run through the West and arguably the best equipped to challenge the Miami Heat in a seven-game series.
Still, the key remains the ever-present Duncan, even as the Spurs’ strategy altered emphasis on him.
In the opening minutes of Game 3, Duncan set the tone for the two games in L.A. that the Spurs would win by 52 points. A 3.2 earthquake was registered just as Duncan snared an alley-oop pass from Danny Green with his fully outstretched right arm rising well above the rim and then he emphatically dunked it.
“That makes sense now,” the self-deprecating Duncan said when told of the simultaneous earthquake. “It lowered the rim.”
Green instinctively launched the pass to the open man, but then quickly grew concerned as he realized the recipient was an old man with bad knees.
“I threw it and when I saw that it was Tim, I was like hopefully he can catch it and come down with it and make a play,” Green said. “But he caught it and threw that thing down.”
For the Big Fundamental, it was no big thing.
“I used to do it a lot, back in the day,” Duncan said. “Fifteen, 20 years ago.”