Spurs Face Great Expectations
Can San Antonio meet the bar they’ve set.
by Tracy Weissenberg / @basketballista
It is hard to say a team isn’t playing to potential when it is 15 games above .500 in a tough Western Conference.
But not according to the Spurs.
“We’re playing a bit better but the truth is that we haven’t been facing the best teams in this stretch,” says guard Manu Ginobili, “I don’t think we are playing such great basketball [because] we’ve played teams under .500.”
And the quality of their wins is exactly what detractors point out despite a solid record. Overall, the Spurs are 17-23 against +.500 teams, with the majority of those wins coming after the new year.
In the Western Conference standings, the top five teams all have .500 or better records vs. winning teams. The Spurs, tied with Thunder at 6th, don’t claim to be better than their seed.
Asked whether the Spurs can contend with any of the top teams in the West, Ginobili answers, “We can, we are not ready yet. We are not playing as good as the Mavericks, the Lakers, the Nuggets or even the Jazz…we’re looking forward to get [injured starting point guard Tony Parker] back and then we may have a chance. But it’s not going to be easy for sure, they’ve played better basketball than us so far in the season.”
Forward Tim Duncan says the Spurs can’t afford to give any games away down the stretch. “We have the potential to be [one of the top teams] but we need some things to start bouncing the right way,” he says.
One of those things is the play of forward Richard Jefferson, who the Spurs acquired in a deal with Milwaukee to provide some spark and athleticism to the aging team. The adjustment process hasn’t been completely fluid, as Jefferson sometimes searches for his role on the team and his place within the offense. Jefferson says his main adjustments were “getting used to the team and the players and getting the system down…you have a lot of guys here who’ve been here their entire career, eight, nine, you know 13 years. So to get on the same page with them and try and do it quickly, that’s probably the hardest part.”
Despite the inconsistency of both the team and players, the Spurs always seem to have guys capable of stepping up. Manu Ginobili has hit his stride lately, on which he says, “I’m feeling healthier, stronger, I’m making some more shots and then the fact that Tony’s not in there really gives me more responsibilities.”
With Parker out since March 8 with a broken hand, backup George Hill has shown his ability to be effective in the starting role. He says being more aggressive and getting everyone involved are his main focuses. “I think the ball is starting to move pretty well, everyone is trusting one another with the shots they’re taking,” says Hill.
And when Parker returns, Hill has a valuable role on the bench, which he calls the “backbone” of the team.
Forward/Center Matt Bonner says the Spurs bench makes the team dangerous. “We can throw a lot of different combinations out there and I don’t think we need to worry about wearing out at the end of the year,” he adds.
After a hard fought overtime loss against the Hawks Sunday, a game Ginobili described as “heartbreaking,” the team rebounded the following night with a 99-96 win against the Thunder. The Spurs are looking ahead to the remainder of the schedule–a test everyone in the locker room is very aware of.
“The last 15 games (which began Sunday vs. the Hawks) are going to be a big test for us because it’s where we play the Lakers twice, Celtics, Cavaliers and [other +.500 teams],” says Ginobili. In those 15 games, 12 are against winning teams and nine are on the road.
“We’ve viewed the last few games kind of like we’re in the Playoffs, and we’re going to continue to do that,” says Jefferson.
While the Spurs struggle to reach the high bar they’ve set for themselves, the team doesn’t realize the impact of its history and success. Hawks guard Joe Johnson calls the Spurs “one of the elites.” Just on reputation? “Oh yeah definitely,” he says, “don’t nobody want to see the Spurs, man they’re a tough team.”
Johnson adds, “When the Playoffs come, they’re going to be a totally different team. They’ve been there before, they know what it takes to win.”
Asked about whether the perception of the Spurs as an elite team still holds true, Jefferson says, “Do we feel that we can compete with anybody? Yes. Are we one of the elite teams in the league? I think we’re still working to get there.”