Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Notebook: Spurs-Knicks, 11/11/08

Yesterday evening the San Antonio Spurs reminded the league that they will not go gentle into that good night by defeating the New York Knickerbockers 92-80. This game saw an interesting conflation of uncharted waters and returns to form that gives me the hope that we can survive the month of November with a decent record intact.

As the players wandered onto the court for the opening tip-off, Spurs fans witnessed something they had never seen before: A starting lineup consisting of George Hill, Roger Mason, Ime Udoka, Tim Duncan and Fabricio Oberto. This is exactly the five men I had hoped would start the game. There seemed to be little doubt that Popovich would entrust point guard duties to Hill, who shows a considerable amount of promise. A combination of length and focus have already given him the tools to be a defensive presence and he is an aggressive rebounder (pulling down 5 boards from the point isn't a bad stat). While aspects of his offensive game need continued development, he distributes in a safe, mistake-free manner and showed flashes of a man who will one day be a reasonably reliable scorer.

The excellence of Tim Duncan's play needs little explanation. He has been the premier power forward in the league for a decade and continues to be this season. I just don't understand how so many people warn of his impending demise while at least for the time being he shows few signs of having slipped.

But obviously the story of this game is the play of Bruce Bowen and Michael Finley. Over the past couple of days the two veterans have been criticized extensively here at 48 Minutes of Hell, and Popovich was clearly listening. Both came off the bench, which is particularly notable for Bowen, who in his entire career as a Spur has never watched the tip-off of a game he suited up for sitting down. Bowen and Finley responded by having their best games of the season. Bowen went 5-6, including 3-3 from beyond the arc and resurrected the lock-d0wn perimeter defender we all worried had passed away. Finley also shot an impressive 6-9, including 2-2 from beyond the 3 point line. While many older players may take offense to the idea of being benched, Bowen and Finley responded with poise and intensity. I don't expect production like this out of the two of them game-in, game-out, but the focus they showed is enough to put me at ease for the time being.

Coupled alongside Bowen and Finley's solid contribution is the team's return to form on the defensive end of the ball. That was the fundamental difference in this game and the previous 5. We held a D'Antoni led team that had been putting up triple digits on opponents easily to 80 points. This has and will always be a defense-first team. For the first several games our defense was unfocused. From a tactical standpoint we changed nothing. The Spurs merely recognized that solid defense will be the foundation of any success we have and in response played with a conscious sense of urgency. Without two of our three best scoring options on the floor, weak defensive showings will undoubtedly be met with a loss. But if we play to our full potential on the defensive end of the floor, we give ourselves a chance to beat any team in the league.

As far as the Knicks are concerned, every Spurs fan feels a bit of Schadenfreude when we beat a D'Antoni coached team. It's not just about the win, it's about D'Antoni's failure. But how often do we think about how Mike is feeling?

Tonight the Spurs travel to Milwaukee to take on the 3-5 Bucks. The game begins at 8:00 p.m. Eastern.

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