The NBA season and its backloaded schedule are finally arriving at the parade of spotlight-grabbing centerpieces which will set the stage for the playoffs.
If Thursday night offered an accurate reflection of what the playoffs will be like, we’re going to have a grand ol’ time this spring.
In San Antonio, the first in a series of high-profile throwdowns unfolded, as the homestanding Spurs fended off the Cleveland Cavaliers, 99-95. It’s not as though San Antonio shouldn’t be happy with this win, but as these teams left the court, they knew this was merely a preliminary bout. In the Spurs’ case, it is known that a date with Cleveland in the NBA Finals involves getting past one towering obstacle, if not two.
Gregg Popovich and LeBron James shared a laugh as they parted following the Spurs’ narrow win over the Cavs in the AT&T Center. LeBron’s laugh might have been the bigger one, because he knows that San Antonio and Golden State — not to mention Oklahoma City and the Clippers — are all in the other conference. Given the NBA’s refusal to use a blended 1-through-16 seeding system for the playoffs, Cleveland stays safely on the other side of the bracket through the first three rounds. LeBron knows, deep down, that he’ll be waiting in the Finals.
The Spurs? They have the headache of knowing that they’re on a 70-win pace at the midpoint of their season (35-6 through 41 of the 82 on the slate)… and aren’t even the clear-cut number-one team in the league.
That’s the kind of realization which makes it hard for the Spurs to derive too much satisfaction from a January win over a Cleveland team near the end of a very long multi-time-zone road trip.
However, the Spurs won’t exactly give back this win. Moreover, it is hard to deny that the Spurs have ample reason for optimism going forward.
The first thing which needs to be emphasized about this game on Thursday is that it was coached like a regular season game… which is a compliment toward Gregg Popovich and David Blatt. Teams in the midst of a long season should not chase single wins at all costs unless they’re near the end of the line in early April, with top seeds or home-court advantage squarely up for grabs. This limitation was particularly relevant for Cleveland and Blatt — the Cavs knew they had a back end of a back-to-back in Houston on Friday.
Everyone knows that if this was a Finals game, there’s no way Richard Jefferson would have stolen the minutes he gained late in the third and very early in the fourth quarter. Everyone knows that LeBron would have played the entire fourth quarter instead of sitting for the first two and a half minutes of the period, as he did Thursday. For this reason, and because a number of the most central players for this team were not all that involved in the outcome, one shouldn’t be too firm or final in saying exactly what this game means for the Spurs and Cavs.
Even LeBron himself stood to the side in this game, as though he wanted to see what his supporting cast could do on the road against an elite team. Moreover, that’s not a bad inclination at all — the Cavs know they’re likely to play in June. They, more than Golden State or San Antonio or any other team in the league, can acquire a posture in which they gather information for the Finals. (The Warriors and Spurs have to deal with each other, and OKC plus the Clips, in the month of May.)
Tim Duncan threw in an important late bank shot, and his interior defense was solid, but Duncan did not stand at the center of this game for particularly prolonged periods of time. Kyrie Irving, still working his way back into form after sitting out the first month and a half of the season, was not crisp in this game. Kevin Love was exploited on defense by the Spurs, and he was lucky San Antonio couldn’t finish in the paint on a number of instances.
The three men who stood tall for their respective teams were Tristan Thompson, Tony Parker, and Kawhi Leonard. Thompson is paid to defend and rebound, and that’s what he did on Thursday while adding 18 points. The machine-like quality of his work on the glass gives the Cavs the assurance of knowing they’ll get enough possessions.
It is ironic, though, that the one defensive rebound the Cavs really needed on Thursday was the one they didn’t get — LaMarcus Aldridge (another big-name player who was quiet for most of the game) grabbed a missed foul shot by Tony Parker with the Spurs up by four in the final half-minute. Games are often decided by dagger buckets; Aldridge snared a “dagger rebound.” Nevertheless, without Thompson’s work in the paint, Cleveland wouldn’t have been as successful in the first three quarters, before the Spurs and their bench took charge.
Before mentioning the Spurs’ bench, two of their stars carried the load on a night when Duncan and LMA just didn’t have their best stuff. Parker kept San Antonio in this game with an 18-point first half. The vintage version of the player who was physically weak in last year’s playoffs is back in evidence. That fact, as much as anything else, is why the Spurs’ outlook ought to be very hopeful at this point.
If Parker kept the Spurs in the hunt in the first half — Cleveland should have been up by 16, not 6, given the Spurs’ sub-40-percent shooting in the opening 24 minutes — Leonard won the game in the second half.
Leonard was the best player on the floor Thursday night. He defended LeBron the way few — if anyone else — can. King James scored only 22 points (even if one allows for the idea that he wanted to be more of a facilitator, that’s still impressive). At the other end of the floor, Leonard shot his jumper with confidence and conviction. He attacked regularly and drew fouls, giving the Spurs six points at the foul line in a game they won by four. In the cover photo for this story, shown above, Kawhi used his left hand on a spectacular dunk putback which electrified the arena.
He did everything. He was everywhere. “Kawhi would you want anything more out of a basketball player?”
If the Spurs know that they’ll get these versions of Kawhi and Parker in the playoffs, Golden State just might have to play a Game 7 (in a best-case scenario for the Dubs).
Ultimately, what SHOULD these teams take away from the game? Cleveland ought to be a little concerned about its bench, which was outscored by a 35-12 margin, but the Cavs know that this deficiency is not likely to be a problem until the Finals. What’s of greater concern is Kevin Love’s defense. It’s too easy for skilled opposing players to establish position against Love and get the kinds of shots they want. That could pose problems, and David Blatt needs to be able (and ready) to implement a defensive plan which can minimize that deficiency.
Another concern for the Cavs is that J.R. Smith — who scored 10 quick points but then tallied only seven over the final three quarters — will continue to blow hot and cold. He did come through in the East playoffs last season, but he just as clearly shot the Cavs out of the Finals. He is, one could very realistically argue, the non-LeBron Cleveland player who — if great — ensures victory for the Cavs more than any other. He is also the non-Bron Cav who — if off his game — most likely ensures defeat if King James and Kyrie aren’t at their best. That’s a somewhat tenuous position for the Cavs, but in the grand scheme of things, their assortment of role players — with Iman Shumpert, Matthew Dellavedova (who has been superb this season), and Timofey Mozgov — offer more than enough defense and rebounding to knit the team together.
There’s just not enough reason for Cleveland fans to be concerned in the aftermath of this game.
For San Antonio, the biggest point of worry is similar to what the Cavs might see with J.R.
Danny Green, if he could ever fix his broken jump shot, would make San Antonio 300 times more difficult to defeat. Green shot the lights out in the 2013 NBA Finals — he would have been the MVP of the series had the Spurs won in six games. He then helped San Antonio win the 2014 title with his trusty three-ball. The diminishment of his shooting rates as a surprise in this larger context. That he shot poorly on Thursday is no surprise, given his lack of shooting form during the current season. San Antonio gets a good defensive effort from Green, but the Spurs will need that jumper to be repaired if they want to go all the way.
Beyond that, there’s not too much else to complain about.
Aldridge did get that late offensive rebound, but he was off the mark in this game. David West was huge off the bench with 13 points, hitting some of the mid-range jumpers Aldridge is supposed to hit. Right now, San Antonio can say that “it was only one night,” but as the season moves along, LMA’s jumper can’t be “MIA” against high-level opponents.
The big reason why San Antonio should be happy with this game is that its bench was so formidable. West provided a game-altering performance. Patty Mills and Manu Ginobili made important contributions as well. What’s scary for the rest of the league, and reassuring for the Spurs, is that outside of Parker (11-for-18) and West (5-for-7), San Antonio hit just 38 percent of its field goals (22-for-58). Ginobili missed the most open threes you’ll ever see. Aldridge and Duncan couldn’t get a lot of quality shots to drop, and as mentioned earlier, Green’s shot is broken. He was all alone on a number of three-point looks, yet missed badly.
No matter — the Spurs still prevailed. They committed only 11 turnovers and shot twice as many foul shots (22 to 11). Everything about this game other than shooting was right where the Spurs wanted it. If they bring a more accurate shooting touch to the playoffs, while keeping everything else from Thursday night in place, they’ll have a great chance of staging a June reunion with the team they just defeated by four points.