Turn Back the Clock
A lot is being made about how San Antonio is getting late in years and that the best team of the decade is slowly fading into obscurity — or at least the lottery. The Spurs are in line for their worst finish in the Western Conference since they last missed the Playoffs in 1997. San Antonio has not finished worse than fourth since 2000 and has not finished worse than fifth since 1998.
San Antonio appears comfortably in the postseason, a game away now from clinching a postseason spot. But the Spurs appear like they will not have home court.
The core of that team that won three titles in the last 10 years and has made the playoffs every year for the last 12 years is still intact. That might be why it is still hard for everyone to write them off.
Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan are still capable of performances like they had last night. Their focus and experience will make San Antonio a difficult matchup for anyone in the first round of the packed Western Conference.
The Spurs had the fire tonight and the strategy to ensure a victory over the Magic.
Ginobili, filling in the starting lineup for the injured Tony Parker, scored 43 points on 13-of-25 shooting and dished out five assists to go with his six rebounds. It was his fourth 30-point game since Parker went down.
Continuing to turn back the clock, Tim Duncan seemed fresh too with 23 points and eight rebounds. He smartly used his fouls to stymie Dwight Howard (at least when he was not going to the line).
The Spurs played like they needed this game. Gregg Popovich was ejected before halftime, and it gave San Antonio the energy it needed. The Spurs outscored the Magic 33-22 in the third quarter to go up nine heading into the final quarter. Orlando made its run, but could not close the gap enough (especially with Howard struggling at the line).
Orlando struggles on back-to-backs, the stats show that. The Magic were the ones looking sluggish and old as the Spurs attacked the basket, severely outscoring them in points in the paint. With Howard in the game, that should never happen. Certainly not to the extent it happened tonight.
Points in the paint and free throws (again, most of it Howard’s 2-for-11 performance) seemed to be the big difference tonight. Orlando shot 49 percent for the game. San Antonio shot 52 percent. Not an equation for a victory.
The thing San Antonio probably did best — and probably what the team did best during its title runs — was make teams lose its composure. The Spurs successfully did that to the Magic tonight.
It started early with the hard foul on Howard that forced him to wear a splint on his finger for the rest of the game. It continued with Matt Barnes and most of the team getting frustrated with officiating — San Antonio committed 25 fouls to Orlando’s 18. It seemed the team’s focus was not on the court.
Barnes got into a spat with a fan behind the bench, which led to the fan’s ejection. He then got into a spat with Stan Van Gundy. Van Gundy said that was not the reason he benched Barnes, but I am sure it did not help his case.
Either way, neither him nor JJ Redick nor Mickael Pietrus could stop Ginobili so it probably did not matter.
The big tactic the Spurs used was dusting off the Hack-a-Howard and using it to slow down Orlando’s big man.
Howard shot two for 11 from the line in scoring 10 points, grabbing six rebounds and fouling out. Certainly a game to forget for Howard. It felt like, again, a Spurs game of old. The stat line certainly suggests that.
San Antonio maintained its lead because Howard could not hit free throws. That was a huge impediment to victory tonight, especially with Ginobili playing as well as he was and Howard in foul trouble.
No matter what anyone may think about the Hack-a-Whoever strategy. When it works, it works. Tonight it worked, and it was absolutely the right move by Popovich (or whoever the interim coach was in the second half) to go to it to slow down and eliminate Orlando’s best player from the game.
Howard seemed to revert to his old pouting when he misses free throws or does not get touches (he shot only four for seven from the floor as well) and started slouching on defense.
No Reason To Panic, Here are Some Positives
Having said all that, this was one game on the back end of a back-to-back. It is not an excuse. But in the postseason, no one plays back-to-backs. And the Magic have just one more left this season.
Howard is not going to play a game this poorly for probably the rest of the season. The frustration level will probably not get this high either… one would hope.
But some positive signs did show tonight.
Orlando missed 14 of its 26 free throws. Howard missed nine of those. Those are points left on the board and there are enough of them there to make this game either competitive or to change its results. As long as missing free throws and relying too much on Howard to clean up (forcing him to foul more) do not become habits, this will remain just one game.
The big positives were in the performances of some of the Magic’s key players.
Mickael Pietrus followed his 26-point effort Thursday in Dallas with 18 points on seven-of-nine shooting. He missed two games with that ankle injury, but it seems to have just given him the break he needed to give the Magic some much needed scoring punch off the bench.
Not to be outdone, JJ Redick turned in a fine game with 15 points and six rebounds.
Rashard Lewis led the team with 18 points, shooting seven of 11 from the field and four for seven from beyond the arc. Lewis has been up and down recently. This was definitely an up game for him. The trick is stringing these type of games together, especially in preparation for the postseason.
Orlando also hit on 10 of its 24 3-point attempts. That is a pretty good percentage and would usually translate into wins.
Obviously, these just sugarcoat the fact Orlando had a chance to win it with the way it played offensively. But the Magic could not stop Ginobili, stop dribble penetration or make free throws. That looks like a W was left on the board.