Monday, November 17, 2008

The Notebook: Spurs-Kings, 11/16/08

With the Spurs now at 4-5, I am increasingly convinced this entire season is one elaborate scheme to take years off my life. Of the 9 games we’ve played, 7 have been decided by 5 points or less. Whether widely hyped (Houston, Portland) or perennially mediocre (Milwaukee, Minnesota) the Spurs seem to battle every team down to the final buzzer. That trend continued yesterday evening as the Spurs defeated the Sacramento Kings 90-88.

Michael Finley was reinserted into the starting lineup this evening, not unjustly. He has played well throughout the last few games and continued to last night, shooting 8-17 from the field over the course of 35 minutes for 21 overall points. I’m excited by his offensive production but I am highly skeptical he can put up these kinds of numbers on a consistent basis. He replaced Ime Udoka who, along with Kurt Thomas, received a DNP-CD. In all honesty, I found this rather surprising.

Neither Udoka nor Thomas have played particularly well this season but with neither Ime nor Kurt seeing the court that meant the Spurs played a 9 man rotation (which was fundamentally an 8 man rotation, given the fact that Anthony Tolliver saw 7 minutes of playing time). Popovich has always run deep rotations during the regular season and given the injuries we have suffered, my initial reaction was that bench players (as well as guys who were starting only two days ago) would be seeing even greater minutes. I don’t know what to make out of this decision. Maybe Pop is trying to shock them into action. Maybe there is a trade in the works and he isn’t messing around by playing guys he knows won’t be on the team in a few days (that is purely speculative). Either way, I thought the decision was strange.

Meanwhile, Roger Mason stepped up alongside Finley to provide 18 points on 6-14 shooting. Mason has had a bit of a boom-bust tenure with the Spurs so far during which he has shot the lights out one night only to flat-line the next. If yesterday’s numbers were indicative of what Mason could possibly look like on a consistent basis, I would be pretty excited. Duncan scored 20 points and hauled down 10 boards which, for the greatest power forward of all time, is pretty much par for the course.

Jacques Vaughn seized the opportunity Popovich gave him (he saw 23 minutes of court time last night compared to only 12 against Houston) and produced a respectable 10 points along with 6 assists. George Hill came back down to earth, scoring only 4 points on 2-7 shooting, but that is to be expected of a guy who can still count the number of pro games he’s played in on two hands. What was more frustrating than Hill’s offensive numbers was his contribution to our perimeter defensive woes.

During the first half we gave up a variety of open outside looks to the Kings that culminated in a 40% 3-point shooting night for Sacramento. And although I haven’t seen the breakdown by halves, that percentage must have dipped during the second half when the Spurs actually decided to make the proper rotations and aggressively close out on shooters who were in a position to receive the ball. I genuinely believe that our difficulty shutting down outside shooters (historically an area we have excelled in) had something to do with the absence of Udoka and Thomas. Yes, we lack our two best back court players and that is going to negatively effect our perimeter defense. But most of the open looks created by Sacramento were produced by a reasonably effective inside-outside game that was forcing Hill and Bowen to slide into the lane. Without Thomas and Udoka there to provide reliable interior defense while Duncan was resting the Kings picked and slashed their way into the paint, continually collapsing the Spurs’ defensive sets. In general our defense has been far superior the last 4 games than it was the first 5, but I was underwhelmed by our performance in the first half.

Tonight the Spurs have a chance to bring their record to .500 for the first time this season when they take on the Clippers in LA. Although the Spurs oftentimes have difficulty with back-to-back games (another fact which makes me question Pop’s decision to play such a shallow rotation), this is a very winnable game. The game begins at 10:30 Eastern/9:30 Central on NBA TV.

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