If Thursday’s game between the Spurs and Cleveland Cavaliers at the AT&T Center was the statement game that so many San Antonians thought it was, a matchup between the two hottest teams in the league and potential NBA Finalists, the testimony delivered by the Spurs in the first quarter came in an inaudible mumble.
The Cavaliers scored on five of their first six possessions, threw lob passes for dunks, made 13-of-22 shots and rendered the NBA’s best defense nearly useless.
Gregg Popovich made a few statements to his players in the interlude between the first and second quarters that may have been audible in El Paso. What the Spurs did in response in the final three quarters of a 99-95 victory screamed to the rest of the league the legitimacy of a 35-6 record that has them nipping at the Warriors, currently on a path to the best record in league history.
The win was the 10th straight for the Spurs and you can now say this about them: They are the first team in NBA history with a double-digit win streak in six consecutive seasons. It also extended to 23 games the perfect start in the team’s refurbished home arena.
There also is no debating the matchup between Spurs Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard and four-time NBA MVP LeBron James has become the best one-on-one battle the league has to offer at both ends of the court.
Leonard is one of only a handful of players able to defend James without help from his teammates. Golden State’s Steph Curry has become the league’s most unstoppable scorer but James remains the most powerful offensive force in the league. He has also been named to six NBA All-Defensive teams.
By game’s end the two had played to a virtual standstill. James had 22 points, seven rebounds and five assists. Leonard scored 20 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, had five assists, blocked two shots and had one steal.
Leonard really applied his defensive skills against James in the second half, when the Cavaliers’ star had to settle for just seven shots, all but one from the perimeter.
“Kawhi did a very good job making him play uncomfortable and as a team we were pretty sharp after that first quarter,” Spurs veteran Manu Ginobili said. “So a great win.”
Point guard Tony Parker gave the Spurs the offensive thrust they needed to keep their record at AT&T Center this season a perfect 23-0, scoring 24 points, on 11-for-18 shooting.
Coming off a season-high 31-point game in Tuesday’s win over the Detroit Pistons, Parker scored 18 of his points in the first half, when the Spurs fell behind by as many as 15 points.
“Obviously it was a big game, and we were just flat offensively, so I was just trying to create and make stuff happen,” Parker said. “So I just got going and my teammates were setting picks, and Pop kept calling my number, so it was just being aggressive because we had a hard time to get it going in the first half, and I was rolling so they went with me.”
“He gave us such a lift,” Ginobili said of Parker. “When we see Tony being that aggressive and being solid offensively, a great performance in a tough stretch because we were coming from three in four nights and he had three big games.”
Popovich cited Parker’s work at both ends of the court. The Spurs guard limited Cleveland’s All-Star point guard, Kyrie Irving, to 6-foor-17 shooting and 16 points.
“He’s working his butt off on Kyrie Irving, who is a great player,” the Spurs coach said. “That’s not easy to do and he still was aggressive offensively. So Tony was great at both ends.”
On a night when starting center LaMarcus Aldridge and starting power forward Tim Duncan struggled at the offensive end – they missed a combined 11 of their combined 17 shots – the Spurs got a boost off the bench from David West, the veteran power forward in his first season in silver and black. West entered the game for the first time about nine-and-a-half minutes into the first period. By game’s end he had scored 13 points, grabbed five rebounds and changed the physical dynamics around the basket in a significant way.
“David was huge in both halves,” Popovich said. “He really gave us a spurt. He really kept us the game in critical situations. He was great.”
*Top Image: The San Antonio Spurs 2015-2016 Roster and Coaching Staff. Photo by Scott Ball.