Small forward Kawhi Leonard was supposed to have a breakout season after his performance in the 2013 NBA Finals.
However, he would suffer through an early season slump before missing 14 games because of a broken hand. But is it a coincidence that San Antonio took flight upon his return? Probably not.
The Spurs were rather pedestrian without his talents and barely were .500 with a record of 8-6 from the time when he was injured on January 22 until his return on February 26, which is exactly when the Spurs began their current tear. The two most common denominators in this late season come-up are Pop and Leonard. One thing is clear; offensive versatility and unparalleled coaching ability are what has fueled these victories.
Upon the realization that Manu Ginobili and the venerable Tim Duncan would be sitting out of Saturday’s game versus the Golden State Warriors, it was a foregone conclusion in my mind that the San Antonio Spurs’ season long 12-game win streak would come to an unceremonious end at Oracle Arena in Oakland. After all, Gregg Popovich and company couldn’t possibly be able to come up with enough firepower to overcome Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Could they? Well, if you’re reading this then you already know the Spurs were able to defeat the Warriors 99-90. You also know that Tiago Splitter, of all people, would outduel his blue and gold clad counterpart David Lee to the tune of 17 points and 14 rebounds. Also that San Antonio’s balanced scoring attack was spearheaded by 20 points from Tony Parker and 18 points from much-maligned G/F Danny Green on 5-of-9 shooting from 3-point range.
Then they crushed a Philly team that is quickly approaching the NBA record for consecutive losses in a season, by a score of 113-91 on Monday night to extend the streak to 14 games.
Now, any random NBA fan is aware that the San Antonio Spurs currently sport the best record in basketball and the dangerous Golden State Warriors are also currently in sixth place in a brutal Western Conference playoff race. For any team to be able to pull out a win versus a playoff contender is a significant feat. For the Spurs to be able to gash Golden State without the services of championship-caliber players like Duncan and Ginobili, is a true testament to their system. Gregg Popovich is regarded as one of the best coaches in the NBA for the last decade. However, after falling short in last year's Finals, even he'll admit that he's not omniscienct. One need only recall his steadfast insistence upon backing off LeBron James during Game 7 of the NBA Finals. He continued this strategy even after James had begun hitting the shots that he'd been missing until late in Game 6. Also, the Spurs of last year were far less interchangeable than this year’s rendition. However, this year it appears as if Gregg Popovich is leaving nothing to chance.
The regular season rotations seem to be lengthier this season in part to injury and by Pop’s design. With a recent history as storied as that of the Spurs, the endgame is always an NBA championship deep in the heart of south Texas. But I’m sure San Antonio is happy to get some quality wins and seize the best record in the NBA in the process. And it’s not like they were stomping on a bunch of scrubs and also-rans during the streak. This long run includes victories over some of the very best teams in the NBA. They beat the mighty Miami Heat by 24-points on March 6, defeated the upstart Portland Trail Blazers by 13 on March 12, and they defeated Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets and the run-and-gun, chuck-and-duck Phoenix Suns twice during the win streak.
As was the case with Splitter and Green against the Golden State Warriors, it appears as if a different San Antonio player steps up every night. Marco Belinelli chipped in 20 points off the bench against the Detroit Pistons to start off the streak back on February 26. Forward Boris Diaw was a perfect 5-of-5 from the field as he scored 16 points, grabbed 8 rebounds, and dished out 5 assists to help the Spurs dispatch of LeBron James and the Miami Heat on March 6. Every time you turn around another bench player's stepping up and providing exactly what's needed to earn a victory for Pop and company. Last season, backup guard Patty Mills was snatched in and out of the Spurs’ lineup so often that he likely had whip lash. This year he has proven to be integral in several wins and has shown a penchant for hitting tough shots in the face of defenders.
Some say the Spurs are the most boring team to watch in the entire league. A few spectacular players without egos, faceless parts, strong veteran leadership and a team-based system with uncompromising priniciples. They don't have a Top 8 NBA player to carry the load. Duncan was once that dude.Now he's an aging but effective cog in a well-oiled machine. But I would argue that keeping things simple is a hallmark for success, and apparently Greg Popovich would agree. Here’s his take on offense as told to Jeff McDonald of Spurs Nation:
“There are a lot of good shots, but if you can turn that into a great shot, percentages go through the roof. Contested shots are really bad shots. People’s percentage goes down almost by 20, almost without exception. All those things in an offense are things a coach is always trying to develop. It takes time to get everybody to the point where they all buy in and understand how it’s good for the group."
“You want to penetrate not just for you, but for a teammate. Penetrating because I want to make things happen. It could be for me. It could be for a teammate. It could be for the pass after the pass I make. As people start to realize that, then you get a flow and people start playing basketball rather than just running the play that’s called or making up their minds ahead of time.”
With all due respect to Pop's natural flow of unselfish basketball execution, it's becoming clear that there is at least one Spurs player who is becoming more and more irreplaceable. The Spurs can win without Leonard, but they surely won't hoist a c'hip without him.