Can the Spurs Hold On Without Tony Parker?
In the five games since Tony Parker went down with a sprained left ankle, the San Antonio Spurs have gone 3-2 and continue to hold the best record (49-16) in the Western Conference. It's a good sign that one of those wins came against the Oklahoma City Thunder (48-17), the team currently sitting in the No. 2 spot and breathing down the Spurs' collective neck.
Whether or not the Spurs will ultimately be able to hold off OKC will depend on how they perform in the absence of Parker, who is expected to be out all of March. Although there are some reports saying his recovery is ahead of schedule, coach Gregg Popovich has said he will take a cautious approach to Parker's return to the court.
The good news for the Spurs is that they defeated the Thunder without Parker on March 11 to take a 2-1 lead in the season series, with the fourth and final regular season matchup coming on April 4 in Oklahoma City. The Spurs' 105-93 victory over the Thunder highlighted the team's depth as the Spurs had six players finish in double figures in scoring, led by Tiago Splitter with 21 points (on 9-of-11 shooting) and 10 rebounds for his first 20-10 game of the season. The Spurs also got strong contributions from Kawhi Leonard (17 points, 3 steals) and Danny Green (16 points, 5 assists).
As for the players filling in for Parker, Cory Joseph got the start and finished with four points on 2-of-2 shooting, two rebounds, an assist and no turnovers in under 19 minutes on the floor. The numbers were not special, but Joseph's play pleased Popovich. "He's just solid," Pop told Spurs.com after the game. "He plays good 'D.' He's scrappy and aggressive and he's doing what we asked him to do."
The other player that was called upon was Gary Neal, who has been slowed by injuries of his own this year; he finished with seven points, on 3-of-7 shooting, six assists and one turnover in under 26 minutes off the bench. Yes, the combined efforts of Joseph and Neal pale in comparison to what Parker brings to the floor every night, but they were enough to hold the ship steady, while other guys like Splitter and Leonard contributed at a higher level for the win.
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Since Parker's injury, Joseph has started all five games after splitting time between the Spurs and their NBA D-League affiliate, the Austin Toros. Patty Mills has also seen a bump in playing time since Parker went down and has chipped in. Neal and Nando De Colo have received less minutes since the injury, but must remain ready to get the call from Popovich. Over the past five games, Neal has one DNP-CD, while De Colo and Mills each played just 26 seconds against OKC.
We've all heard every coach say that you can't replace [insert name of star player], but we need everyone to step up and do more to help make up for his production. And that is what the Spurs did against the Thunder.
Now for the bad news, they haven't done it every night.
The win over OKC was sandwiched by a 30-point home loss to Portland and a 24-point road loss to Minnesota, both sub-.500 teams. It is important to note that the Spurs were without Duncan and Leonard -- in addition to Parker -- for the Minnesota game, which was also the second game of a back-to-back following the OKC win. But remember that the Timberwolves (21-39 entering the game) had to play without Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic and Andrei Kirilenko.
The Spurs were held to 83 points, tying a season low, and Manu Ginobili, the only member of the Big Three to suit up, was held to seven points, one assist and two turnovers on the night. Over the past three games, Ginobili has struggled -- shooting just 33.3 percent -- and has committed more turnovers (10) than assists (8) during that time.
On Thursday, the Spurs host the Dallas Mavericks and will likely see the return of Duncan and Leonard, who both did not travel to Minnesota in order to rest sore knees. With 17 games remaining (11 at home, 6 road, 3 back-to-backs) and the Thunder just one game behind them for the No. 1 seed in the West, the margin for error is small for the Spurs. They need to find consistency, rather than the current yo-yo stretch that they have been on through five games without Parker.
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When the Spurs have won they have been great -- shooting extremely well (57.3 effective field goal percent), sharing the ball (64.1% of shots made coming on assists), while limiting turnovers (2.28 assist/turnover ratio), and playing great defense (limiting opponents to a 41.3 eFG%). The result is three wins by an average margin of 23 points.
But the losses swing hard the other way, as their offensive production drops significantly (97.2 points per 100 possessions in losses, compared to 113.5 in wins) and their defense completely falls apart (giving up 126.5 points per 100 possessions and 65.2 eFG%). The result is two losses by an average margin of 27 points.
The Spurs lead the season series with the Mavericks 3-0 and have won by an average of 23 points. Two of those victories, however, came early in the season when the Mavericks were dealing with an injured star of their own. That star, Dirk Nowitzki, made his season debut on Dec. 23 against the Spurs and scored just eight points off the bench in the 129-91 drubbing. The teams met again seven days later with the same results -- an eight-point night from Dirk off the bench, and a comfortable win for the Spurs (111-86).
The third meeting between the teams featured a shorthanded Spurs squad as Tim Duncan (sore knee) and Gregg Popovich (illness) did not make the trip to Dallas. Tony Parker led a balanced attack for the Spurs as seven players finished in double figures in scoring, led by Parker's 23. And in the absence of a star player (Duncan), another player stepped up (DeJuan Blair) and posted 22 points in just 19 minutes off the bench.
The Spurs will look to sweep the season series Thursday at home, where they have posted a 26-4 mark this season.