Last night the San Antonio Spurs and Cleveland Cavaliers played a meaningful game in early January, with the Spurs pulling out hard earned 99-95 win.
The NBA Regular Season is long... probably too long, and it’s rare that one gets to see teams, especially veteran contenders like these two, come at each other with playoff level intensity in early January.
The Cavaliers are heavy favorites to win the Eastern Conference this year. They were coming into this game on an eight game winning streak, on the heels of a great overtime win against the Mavericks on Tuesday night. They’ve been on the road for the past couple of weeks and have a huge game coming up next Monday against Golden State. You could forgive Cleveland for playing a little sluggish in this one, and yet LeBron and company came out of the gates swinging. James made a point to get to the basket early and often, scoring from close and setting up good looks for Kevin Love and J.R. Smith. The Cavs took an early lead and never trailed in the first half.
San Antonio grabbed an early second half lead by turning up the heat on defense and mercilessly attacking the paint. Tony Parker was the head of the spear, playing as well as I’ve seen from him in years. He finished the game with 24 points on 11-18 shooting, and was a magician in the paint. Parker is having one hell of a season. He’s coming off a 31 point game on Tuesday and is shooting at 53 percent for the season, a season in which most basketball minds thought he was going to fall off dramatically.
The Spurs got a ton of mileage by picking on Kevin Love in the second half. Tim Duncan hit a couple of huge shots down the stretch with Love trying to man him up one-on-one. It’s no secret that Love is a huge minus on the defensive end for the Cavs, a minus that can be hid against most teams, but when playing a team with as many talented bigs as the Spurs, it’s a mismatch that is going to be exploited time-and-time again.
The biggest boost to the Spurs in the second half came from Kawhi Leonard. After a poor shooting first half he finished the night with 20 points, 10 rebounds a slew of disruptive plays on defense Then there was this dunk late in the fourth quarter that was - well - see for yourself:
Leonard is the player that makes the Spurs newfound, defense first philosophy work. No loose ball is safe when he is within 10 feet of it. Coach Popovich has the luxury of throwing him at the likes of Stephen Curry and LeBron James knowing that he can hold is own without the need for double teams. Chuck said that Kawhi is the best player in the league right now, and while I think Curry and LeBron are still better, more polished players, it’s hard to argue that Leonard is not at very least the most disruptive player in the game.
The Spurs have now won 10 straight, and sit just 2.5 games behind Golden State. They have the best point differential in NBA history at the moment and against the Cavs they showed that they can put the clamps on one of the league's best offenses. This was the biggest game of the regular season so far, and the Spurs played like a team hell bent on winning one more title with Timmy and crew.
A few more thoughts
Has anyone else noticed that 90 percent of Matthew Dellavedova is driving down the right side of the lane and throwing a lob to whichever big man Cleveland has closest to the basket? Sure he can also hit an open three or two, and play gritty - read, dirty - defense, but the fact that Delly plays so many minutes for a championship contender is astonishing to me. The only player who irks me more by his very presence on the court is Austin Rivers, but I can at least see the - flawed - reasoning for him getting so many minutes on a contender.
It’s always fascinating to watch how Pop works in some of his less experienced players into these big regular season games. Kyle Anderson and Jonathan Simmons both got some run tonight, and both ended up positive in net +/-. San Antonio is like a factory that produces nothing but players that can contribute to a winning team.
It was so nice to have a game like this to distract me from the parade of hatred and stupidity that was the GOP debate. Coming to the game late gave me a good reason to stay off Twitter, thus giving me a reprieve from all of the foolishness.
- My reaction to Jimmy Butler lighting up the 76ers for 53 in the Bulls 115-111 overtime win.