I am not afraid of the San Antonio Spurs.
There is a belief around the NBA that you do not look good if you pick against or doubt the Spurs. They are champions, the big three, Popovich, a tremendous front office, the Spurs seem to have it all. Even with Duncan, Parker and Ginobili battling injuries last season San Antonio tied the Nuggets and Blazers for the second best record in the west.
Here are a few facts. The Spurs are now 9-8 overall and they have played 12 games at home and only five on the road so they have had a schedule loaded with home games. In those 12 home games, they are a respectable 8-4. On the road however, they are only 1-4. They have played road games at Utah, Portland and Dallas, which can be difficult places to win in, but we have seen Denver win at Portland, Oklahoma City has won in Utah and Golden State has won in Dallas. (Of course you can retort that Minnesota won in Denver, but the point is the Spurs have not faced an impossible road schedule that excuses a 1-4 road record.
The real kicker in my mind is the Spurs are only 3-6 against teams currently over .500.
The truth is these are all just stats that I can spin to try to prove my point. The five road games are certainly a small sample size and the Spurs’ plus 3.3 point differential seems to indicate they are better than a 9-8 team.
Let’s move past the stats and look at the contest between the Nuggets and Spurs.
In a game where very few things seemed to go in the Nuggets’ favor for the first half, Tim Duncan played brilliantly, Tony Parker played very well and the whistle was undoubtedly in the Spurs favor Denver still pulled out a big win.
As far as lucky breaks, the Spurs seemed to get them all, from DeJaun Blair losing control of the ball in the post only to have it soar through the air and end up falling through the rim, George Hill’s running three pointer to close out the first quarter, or the numerous loose balls that rolled or bounced to Spurs players, such as when Melo stripped Tim Duncan on the right wing, only to have the ball bounce behind him allowing Duncan to grab the ball and drive to the rim as the other Nuggets started to run back for the fast break leaving an open lane to the rim. These are only a few examples, there were many more.
As far as the officiating, if you read this blog regularly you know it is very rare I even mention officiating. I hate complaining about officiating and I usually hate listening to people complain about officiating. Hopefully, that lends some credibility to what I am about to type. I thought the Spurs got away with an awful lot of slapping, grabbing and bumping in the lane. You can point to the Nuggets 33 free throws, two more than the Spurs attempted, and dismiss this point, but looking at the number of free throws a team shoots to judge whether or not the game was called fairly. Denver probably should have been awarded 50 free throws. On the other hand, the Nuggets were clearly frustrated by the way the game was officiated, Melo especially, but they kept their composure and fought through it.
In the past Melo would have allowed himself to get taken out of the game by his frustration, but he went on to play a magnificent second half.
In addition to the fortunate bounces and friendly whistle, Duncan was great. He made almost everything he threw up, although it certainly was not luck. He worked for good position and only attempted good shots. In fact the Spurs would have been better served by Duncan taking more than the 12 shots he was credited with. Parker too had his moments in the second half as he carried the Spurs offense for the first part of the fourth quarter.
The biggest difference I see with the Spurs is those two are not getting the support from their other teammates as they have in the past. The biggest culprit is Manu Ginobili. Manu is not a frightening player anymore. He does not seem to have the explosion he used to that allowed him to get into the lane and finish. According to 82games.com after posting effective field goal percentages of 67% and 63% the previous two seasons, his EFG% on close shots has dropped to 50%. Hoopdata.com tells us he is shooting only 45% on shots taken at the rim.
In addition to Manu’s struggles, big offseason acquisition Richard Jefferson does not seem to fit very well with the Spurs. He is not used to being the third or fourth option for a team and I am not sure he is good enough anymore to consistently be a second option.
Before the season I believed the player San Antonio acquired that would keep them in the group of teams chasing the Lakers was Antonio McDyess. Dyess has scored in double figures only three times all season and his zero points against Denver, in 24 minutes mind you, was the third straight game in which he did not score. His struggles is forcing the Spurs to rely on the one dimensional Matt Bonner (OK, he is one and a half dimensional as he is a decent rebounder).
Enough about the Spurs, it is not just their failings that has erased my fear of them, but the way Denver matches up with them. It all starts with Carmelo Anthony who the Spurs have struggled to contain since he averaged 26.8 points per game against them in the 2007 playoffs. Players like Bruce Bowen and Michael Finley who used to be able to crowd Melo on the perimeter and funnel him to help have not been replaced as evidenced by the Spurs decision to hope Keith Bogans could slow Carmelo. Bogans is a find defender, but he does not have the size to deal with Anthony and it was Melo who brought the Nuggets back in the second half as he once again took what the Spurs, and referees, would give him. He hit a series of short to midrange jumpers over top of Bogans or whoever else was in front of him in the final two quarters. Melo tallied 22 second half points and lead Denver to a big win on the road.
The other player the Spurs have struggled to deal with is J.R. Smith. San Antonio has no one who can stay in front of J.R. and Smith usually makes them pay by attacking the rim mercilessly. He did not have his best game Saturday, but he did find holes and gaps in the Spurs defense.
Beyond Melo and J.R. Denver now has a third player whose perimeter speed is just too much for the Spurs to handle and that is Ty Lawson. Lawson played a huge role for Denver in the second and fourth quarters as he was able to get into the lane at will. He even went toe to toe with former Finals MVP Parker in the fourth as the two combined to score 15 straight points. Even more impressive than his physical attributes is Lawson’s mental toughness. He did not shy away from the pressure of facing Parker and the mighty Spurs for the first time in his NBA career.
The Nuggets actually have an advantage in the paint over the Spurs as well. With McDyess struggling and Blair not quite ready to battle night after night the Nuggets won the battle of the boards 38-31 and San Antonio only had five offensive rebounds. Nene may have only nabbed one rebound, and it was late in the fourth after the game had been decided, but Kenyon pulled down 13 while Melo and J.R. collected seven each.
Now that poor Greg Oden is out for the season again I think the race for the second seed comes down to Dallas, Phoenix and Denver and I firmly believe the Nuggets are the better team of the three. After the Suns 20 point loss to the Lakers tonight, Denver is in sole possession of second place in the west only a game and a half behind the Lakers who have only had to play a league low four road games so far.
One more thing, it would not be right of me to rail on Chauncey’s shot selection one day and then ignore the fact he showed a great deal of restraint in San Antonio. Chauncey made his first two three point attempts in the first six minutes of the game and surprisingly only shot one more the entire game. Kudos to Chauncey for not cranking up transition three after transition three because he hit a couple.