The worry when the Spurs took the court at Time Warner Arena in Charlotte for Monday’s game against the Hornets was human nature.
Playing less than 72 hours after their most meaningful victory of the season, Saturday’s takedown of the league-leading Warriors, wasn’t it natural they would have a letdown?
There was a letdown, all right, but not the way Spurs fans feared.
The Spurs were laser focused at both ends of the court at the start of the game and their totally professional approach produced their most lopsided quarter of the season. They held the Hornets to just seven points in the first period, the stingiest defensive quarter this season in the NBA. They led by 21 points when the first quarter buzzer sounded.
Back in the starting lineup after being asked to come off the bench against the Warriors (and playing only eight minutes), Tim Duncan anchored the defense, which yielded only three baskets in the quarter, just one of them at the rim.
Tony Parker dominated at the offensive end in the first period, scoring 12 of his 21 points, while also handing out three assists and grabbing three rebounds.
By quarter’s end the Spurs had a 28-7 lead and when they opened the second period with an easy basket from David West to build a 23-point lead it seemed they were on an easy path to their 60th win of the season.
Letdown? The Spurs don’t do letdown. Or do they?
In the roughly 35 minutes that remain they showed they were subject to the whims of human nature with what was more like a meltdown, unexpected and ultimately devastating. The end result was a 91-88 loss that snapped their seven-game win streak and blunted hopes of catching the Warriors in the race for top seed in the Western Conference that had been stoked by Saturday’s outcome.
The Hornets began a creeping comeback against San Antonio’s second unit with a 3-point basket by Jeremy Lin that turned out to be a harbinger of things to come. Lin’s make was the first in more than nine minutes for Charlotte, but it started a 13-2 run that gave the Hornets some hope and got their fans involved in the game. By the time Gregg Popovich got some of his starters back on the court late in the period the momentum had shifted. Nothing Popovich or his players tried thereafter could stop it.
“The second quarter I thought our second team was basically out to lunch,” Popovich told reporters in an interview televised on FoxSports Southwest’s post-game show. “They stopped moving the ball. It was one-one-one. Turnovers. They gave up 29 points in that quarter and that sealed the fate right there.
“(The Hornets) recovered and did a great job of hanging in and playing hard and continued to do that. Give them credit.”
The second half belonged to Charlotte and, mostly, Jeremy Lin. He made three 3-point shots in the fourth quarter and scored 15 of his game-high 29 points in the period and 29 for the game to lead the Hornets comeback, an important win for their positioning in the Eastern Conference playoff field.
Parker had seen Lin do much the same in other games when he played for the Knicks and the Rockets. The guard from Harvard has been one of those players who seems always to bring his best against the Spurs, and his point total Monday was his second-highest of the season.
“He got it going, played with a lot of confidence,” Parker said in a televised locker room interview. “That always helps in basketball.”
Popovich joked that Lin’s play was “decent,” then gave him serious respect.
“He was spectacular,” the Spurs coach said. “We couldn’t stop him. He had a great night. He was wonderful.”
Monday’s loss blew a great opportunity to secure the sixth 60-win season in Spurs history. It also wasted one of Duncan’s best games of the season, a 16-point, 10-rebound, 4-block effort.
It also gave Popovich a few talking points to use as he focuses on the improvements he wants to see in the final dozen games of the regular season.
“It’s a game of mistakes and nobody’s perfect,” Popovich said, “so everybody just wants to get better and be the best they can be by playoff time.”
The playoffs begin in less than a month.
Top image: The San Antonio Spurs 2015-2016 Roster and Coaching Staff. Photo by Scott Ball.