Welcome back, Spurs Basketball. Itís been awhile.
Keyed by their defensive effort, the San Antonio Spurs defeated the New York Knicks in the AT&T Center by a final score of 92-80. The win improves the Spurs record to 2-4 overall and 1-3 at home. With both Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili sidelined, any victory is a big victory.
While the Spurs got some good individual performances, the team defense is what brought home the win. Coming into the game, the Mike DíAntoni coached Knicks were averaging 102.5 points per game. The 80 points allowed by the Spurs not only held New York more than 22 points below their average, it was 18 fewer points than the best defensive effort all year by San Antonio.
Despite the loss, the Knicks look much improved from last season. DíAntoniís offense fits well with his teamís personnel, with players like Jamal Crawford and Zach Randolph very capable of filling up the nets on any given night. Although the Knicks donít have any lockdown defenders, that aspect doesnít really matter with DíAntoni as coach.
For the Spurs, this was a pivotal win and a much needed performance. It may sound overstated but the team needed a W to get off on the right foot as they head into a difficult stretch without two of their three star players. Just as important, their defense showing life should bode well for the upcoming games and gives the Spurs a blueprint for how to win with a depleted roster.
36 minutes, 23 points, nine rebounds, seven assists, two blocks
11-for-17 from the field, 1-for-3 at the line
Although Tim Duncan has had better stat lines this season, this performance might have been his best so far. The major difference was his defensive intensity, which hadnít been evident in the first five games. Even though he was constantly matched up against a smaller and quicker player, Duncan gave great effort in his individual defense, rotated very well and protected the rim. Offensively, Duncan was equally as valuable. He quarterbacked the offense from the low post and made great decisions when it came to knowing when to shoot and when to pass. Overall, this was just a vintage masterpiece that illustrates why Duncan is Duncan.
Roger Mason, Jr.
38 minutes, ten points, seven rebounds, four assists, three steals
2-for-10 from the field, 0-for-2 on three-pointers, 6-for-7 at the line
Roger Mason, Jr. didnít have a very good night shooting the basketball but he did everything else very well. Defensively he did a fine job, especially when it came to making the right rotation. He crashed the boards and helped scoop up a lot of the long misses by the Knicks. On the other end of the court, Mason didnít get flustered even though he struggled during the first half. In the second half, he scored nine of his ten points and his play at point guard broke open the game in the beginning of the fourth quarter. Mason made a number of nice passes and smart decisions to help his teammates get open shots, even though Duncan was on the bench. Itís good to see that if Mason isnít knocking down shots, he can still make an impact on a game.
20 minutes, five points, six rebounds rebounds, two steals
2-for-10 from the field, 1-for-5 on three-pointers
Starting in place of Bruce Bowen, Ime Udoka got off to an ice cold start. He missed all eight of his field goal attempts in the first half and generally looked overanxious. Perhaps he was thinking too much about his added responsibilities but thankfully he bounced back and played better in the second half. Itíll be interesting to see if he keeps the starting job, although I suspect that Pop hasnít set anything in stone. With Parker and Ginobili sidelined, inserting Udoka into the starting lineup makes sense because it gives the Spurs another offensive threat and a player that can help rebound.
31 minutes, 12 points, five rebounds
4-for-10 from the field, 1-for-1 on three-pointers, 3-for-4 at the line
Making his first NBA start, George Hill had more ups than downs. While he certainly didnít play flawlessly, Hill brings an interesting set of skills to the table. Defensively, he can use his long arms to not only disrupt the player heís guarding but to also play the passing lanes. When thereís a loose ball, Hill turns into a Doberman and seems to react faster than everyone else. He still has a lot of work to do on the defensive end, mostly in terms of knowing when and where to rotate, but he definitely has the physical tools to be a very good defender. On the offensive end against the Knicks, Hill was successful when he attacked. When he played passively he was single-handedly bogging down the offense, but he seemed to learn quickly and stayed aggressive for much of the second half. If he can continue to improve in his starting role, the Spurs may end up okay over the next few weeks.
25 minutes, six points, nine rebounds, three assists
3-for-5 from the field, 0-for-3 at the line
It was great to see one of the complementary bigmen have a good game. Fabricio Oberto took advantage of the smaller Knicks lineups and used his size and craftiness to be successful. Rebounding was his main strength, as he crashed the boards repeatedly on both ends of the court. He also moved well without the ball on offense and found himself free around the rim. This was also the first game of the season where we saw the trademark chemistry between Duncan and Oberto on the offensive end. The Spurs could really use more games like this from Oberto and if he can continue to produce at this level, thereís no reason to believe heíll lose his starting job at center.
28 minutes, 13 points, four rebounds
5-for-6 from the field, 3-for-3 on three-pointers
In the last 550 Spurs regular games in which Bruce Bowen was available to play, Bruce Bowen started. Tonight against the Knicks, that streak ended. Bowen came off the bench in a move partly due to injury circumstance and partly due to poor play from Bowen in the teamís first five contests. No matter the reasoning, Bowen responded in a big way on Tuesday night. Coming into the game, he had ten points all season. Against the Knicks, he finished with 13 points and hit five of his six field goal attempts. More importantly, he looked spry defensively and his overall intensity was much higher than what weíve seen so far in the 2008-09 campaign. Regardless of what role lies ahead for Bowen, itís at least good to see that heís capable of producing and having an impact off the bench.
20 minutes, 14 points, six rebounds, three turnovers
6-for-9 from the field, 2-for-2 on three-pointers
After connecting on only one of his last 22 shots, Michael Finley seemingly entered this game with a different philosophy. He came out driving to the basket on the offensive end and crashing the boards on the defensive end. Finleyís added effort helped him get going and he played a vital role in the win. He took smart shots and didnít sulk even when he missed a couple. The Spurs will need Finleyís offense to survive this stretch, so it was good to see him find a way to contribute. While we canít expect this type of performance every night from Finley, hopefully he figured out that being more active overall can help him get into the flow of the game.
20 minutes, five points, four rebounds
2-for-8 from the field, 1-for-6 on three-pointers
In his second NBA game, Anthony Tolliver once again showed some promise. On defense, Tolliver uses his quick feet to hustle around the court and cause as much havoc as possible. Heís not going to be a lockdown defender but his energy is invaluable, especially considering that the other bigman options are rather sedentary. Offensively, his shooting remains the big question mark. If he can hit his three-pointers, he has a career in this league. If he canít, he wonít be able to survive. He knocked down his open three-pointers in summer league, now he has to translate some of that marksmanship to the big leagues. Against, the Knicks Tolliver had a nice backdoor play that ended in a dunk and he also kept a number of balls alive on the offensive glass. Even though it's early in his career, he seems to have a high basketball IQ and a good feel for the game.
12 minutes, two rebounds, one assist
0-for-5 from the field
Elevated to the backup point guard position, Vaughn had a very rough outing. He forced a number of shots on the offensive end, even when he wasnít open. Defensively, he gave good effort but the results were lacking. Itíll be interesting to see if Pop continues to use Vaughn as the backup point guard or if heíll use Mason at both guard spots. In this one game sample, the latter appears to be the better idea.
nine minutes, four points
1-for-1 from the field, 2-for-2 from the line
Kurt Thomas didnít play in the first half but played well during his stints in the third and fourth quarters. Though not pulling down a rebound is a bit worrisome, his post defense was improved and he even mixed in a jumper on the offensive end. Thomas still looks like heís working himself into shape but this outing was a step in the right direction.
Matt Bonner played all of 28 seconds. His time came at the end of the game when the victory was already in hand. That said, he almost fouled David Lee on a late basket even though Pop was screaming to not foul. If the whistle would have blown, we might have seen a Pop meltdown of epic proportions.
You have to give Pop major kudos for his coaching. First of all, it took quite a bit of chutzpah to bench Bowen. Even though Bowen hadnít played well over the first five games, the Spurs have done a whole lot of winning with him at small forward. Iím glad that Pop decided to start Hill at point guard rather than going with go with Vaughn. Popís best bet right now is to give Hill a lot of minutes and a lot of responsibilities and hope that he can grow into the role quickly. Speaking of rookies, Pop going with Tolliver as the first bigman off the bench also seems like a winning move. On the whole, the Spurs needed a win and Pop pushed all the right buttons.
Although the offense wasnít anything to tape and keep in the archives, the Spurs seemed to figure things out as the game went along. They struggled mightily in the first half but then shot very well in the second half. San Antonio finished at 44.4% from the field, while making 8-of-19 three-pointers. The aspect going forward to keep an eye on is the aggressiveness level of the guards. If Hill and Mason are continually looking for their shots, the Spurs should be able to score enough points to keep games close. But if those two are passive, Duncan wonít be able to shoulder the whole burden by himself.
Finally. After a horrible defensive start to the season, the Spurs were much better on D tonight. It all starts with an improved intensity level and the cleaner rotations. Duncan and Bowen, specifically, looked much more alive on defense than we saw at any point in the first five games. For the game, the Knicks shot only 38% from the field. The Spurs also did a good job of closing out possessions and cleaning up the glass, as they posted a 52-30 rebounding advantage. Granted, the Knicks arenít exactly a world class barometer, but this is the type of defense the Spurs need to play to win games in the next few weeks.
Drive to Survive
The Spurs donít have much time to feel happy about themselves. They travel tonight to play the Milwaukee Bucks on the road tomorrow night. Defense, rebounding and offensive aggressiveness will be how the Spurs can sneak out of Milwaukee with a win. Although the Knicks game was a good victory in the Big One Era, the Spurs are far from out of the woods just yet.