The Spurs just don’t have it. They just don’t have, it.
Whatever “it” has been this year—by most accounts, defensive help in the frontcourt and on the wing—the lack of it has prevented a fair amount of people, fans or otherwise (this guy included) from jumping on the Spurs’ championship bandwagon. Call it conventional wisdom, call it set in one’s ways, call it what you will, it is what it is—and what it is, is knowing what works; what has worked.
A healthy amount of skepticism is never a bad thing. But skepticism can quickly become cynicism, leaving a curmudgeon in its wake. There comes a time where the skeptic has to become skeptical of their skepticism: “Am I looking to prove a point, or have I yet to be proven wrong?”
While it’s still too early to know that answer for certain, games like the one witnessed Tuesday give a skeptic hope.
After an inauspicious start for the home team—a 10-3 deficit, Bryant converting on 4 of 5 shots for a quick 8 points—the Spurs needed a rudder. They were tight, playing a little too quick and without much composure—enter Tony Parker.
Parker clearly sensed his team was in need of some leadership. The crowd’s Laker contingent was having a little too much fun and the vibe just wasn’t right. The Spurs needed a bucket, stat, and Parker delivered by calmly draining an elbow jumper in early offense as if he was the only player on the court. It’s little, seemingly insignificant points that make a game 10-5 instead of 10-3 that make all the difference. It’s moments that tell teammates “We’re good.” or “They’ve had their fun, our turn.” that instill belief and confidence in a team, develop a swagger. It usually comes from a team’s leader(s), Parker obliged on this occasion.
The Spurs would settle and close the first quarter on a 16-2 run. But the Spurs were playing the champs, an elite team with undeniable talent and experience, and righting the ship is temporary—the journey isn’t over until you’ve reached shore.
Almost exactly as the game started, the Lakers went on an 8-0 run to start the second quarter, only their bench unit had been responsible this time. The Spurs struggled to hit their customary shots and had trouble getting to the basket with the Lakers’ length—the Spurs found themselves down 42-40 at the half. But what was seen on the highlights and what will be remembered by Spurs fans most, is George Hill’s unwillingness to back down or acquiesce to one of the NBA’s best, Kobe Bryant.
If you didn’t know, now you know: be careful what you ask for—or how you step to [George Hill].
And after Hill stood his ground, Blair decided to gain, shake and move a little of his own. In the third quarter, the 21-year-old Pitt product opened the frame with a teardrop and then brought the thunder, recording 7 points, 8 rebounds (3 offensive), two steals and leaving his team up eleven in the plus/minus after just 7:56 of play.
Blair’s early-season struggles have been well documented, and it’s caused some to question where he would be most effective, or even whom he’d be effective against. But his talent and ability to produce have never been in question, nor has the confidence he naturally exudes. He, like Hill, is built of the right timber—it’s a matter of when, not if. Given the fortune of good health, Big and Smallz (as they affectionately refer to one another) will eventually put it all together, both the mental and physical aspects of the game. But for now, fans will see their best basketball when they’re given an assignment, a task, a team like the Lakers—an opponent that comes to the court as a known quantity, someone whose offense and defense have been heavily scouted by the coaching staff—that’s when the duo is at their best.
And in the fourth quarter, Hill and Blair displayed some of their best.
For Blair, it was more of the same, putting up another four points and grabbing six more rebounds. The pearly whites were on full display. But Hill? In his second game back after returning from a toe injury, the man emptied the tank. Simply put, he was everywhere on the defensive end, creating havoc with both his on-ball and help defense—Hill decided to show Kobe he not only stood strong, he had the game to back it up.
And after Manu Ginobili was late to Kobe in transition and Gary Neal got caught up on a down screen, the Lakers closed to within nine after consecutive Bryant 3s. Unease beset the building, as it seemed Kobe was on the brink of a scoring binge. What happened next was so matter of fact and unspectacular that it was, indeed, spectacular: Hill advanced the ball up court on the dribble, dropped the ball off to Neal just outside the three-point line and then ran a wheel play—going from the left wing to under the basket to the right wing—Hill caught the ball off an elbow curl and calmly knocked down the jumper. Spurs up eleven—they would get a stop the next possession, and eventually put the game out of reach via Neal and, finally, Ginobili 3s.
So far as regular season wins go, beating the defending champion is always a nice feather in the cap, and it may have even bolstered the belief of these current Spurs. There’s absolutely nothing negative to glean from a 15-point win over the defending champs, especially when they have a full compliment of players, two of your three best players can’t put the ball in the hole and when you’re able to give a player as valuable as McDyess the night off in the process.
But it’s one game, and those Lakers—the Lakers team seen Tuesday (the one that had been blown out by Milwaukee and Miami the two games prior)—were not the Lakers team you can expect to see come May. And to be fair, neither were the Spurs—though they seemed to display a foreshadowing of who they will be and what the coaching staff this summer hoped to mold them into being.
Length, Speed and Swagger: Spurs’ Recipe for Success–Part 2