The Spurs keep charging ahead, now pulling into a tie with the Clippers for fifth place in the Western Conference (although LA owns the tie-breaker). This win streak, currently at nine-games, has shown San Antonio’s resiliency at times and utter dominance at others- the true makeup of a championship squad. More importantly than the win-streak is the upward trend for San Antonio. This is the 19th win in the last 23.
Tony Parker led the way with 27 points for San Antonio. With no Patrick Beverly in the lineup for Houston, Parker proved to be unstoppable. Coach Popovich said that, “He showed really good patience in distributing the ball, looking for his shots, going to the bucket. He was tough for them to guard tonight.”
The Rockets, currently second in the Western Conference, will be without point guard, reigning NBA Skills-Challenge Champion, Patrick Beverly, and forward Donatas Montiejunas for the remainder of the season. The loss of Beverly isn’t as significant as Montiejunas for Houston. James Harden is a ball stopper on offense, and in general, brings the ball up the court himself. What Houston doesn’t have is front court depth. A lengthy seven-footer that plays much like Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki stretches the defense, freeing up Dwight Howard for rebounds and lay-up. Montiejunas is bringing 12 points and six rebounds for Houston each night. That being said, without Montiejunas in the lineup, Houston should be worried about its playoff chances.
Back to the Spurs. San Antonio was great offensively. But it was the defense that led to the whipping of Houston. In the second quarter the Spurs went on an 8-0 run inspired by the defense of Aron Baynes and Corey Joseph. I really like those two on the court at the same time- teamed with Manu Ginobili. In the absence of center Tiago Splitter, Baynes is getting more minutes and turning into the bruiser that San Antonio needs to accompany Tim Duncan. Corey Joseph, while not a revered offensive powerhouse is ridiculous on defense. He is taking minutes from point guard Patty Mills ironically because he is playing defense the way Patty Mills did last year when he took minutes from Tony Parker. Joseph gets inside his opponent’s jersey in frustrating fashion. His size lets him switch to cover shooting guards as well as point guards for Popovich. That versatility will earn him more playing time as the bench gets shorter in the playoffs.
Staying on defense, the Spurs really showed an effective model for neutralizing MVP-candidate James Harden. The rotational coverage of: Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, and Corey Joseph, gave Harden no breaks on offense. He was constantly being harassed by a range of players- each covering him differently. He was uncomfortable, and it showed. Harden was held to 22 points.
That formula carries over to the potential playoff opponents for the Spurs. In the West, San Antonio’s front court looks pretty formidable. Only Memphis with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph may rival the Spurs’ Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter in true front court play. Certainly, adding Baynes to that mix gives them a unique depth. The Clippers have zero front court depth which should cause them challenges down the stretch- although they look pretty good this year.
No, the defensive back court will be the differentiator. If the Spurs can play a rotational defense on the other team’s star: James Harden, Stephen Curry, Monta Ellis, that annoyance should turn the tide in a series.
Of course, if Parker keeps playing like this, those other teams should be asking how they are to cover the Spurs’ star.
San Antonio wins 110-98. They face Houston again on Friday in this home-and-home series.