When the TNT television network began its pre-game show ahead of its two-game Thursday night bill, the Spurs game at Smoothie King Arena in New Orleans against the Pelicans was treated as an afterthought.
Studio host Ernie Johnson Jr. spent two minutes building anticipation for the second game of the network’s doubleheader: the defending champion Golden State Warriors against the Oklahoma City Thunder, No. 3 in the West.
And why not?
Reigning NBA MVP Steph Curry’s amazing, 33-foot, buzzer-beating shot that gave the Warriors a dramatic overtime win over the Thunder on Saturday night was declared an instant classic, the best game of the season. That it preceded the TNT doubleheader by just five days was a convenient ratings bonanza. So Johnson stoked the hype.
Of course, the Spurs are thrilled to have the attention of the entire basketball loving world focused squarely on the Warriors’ quest to surpass the best record in league history, the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls 72-10 mark.
The Spurs avoid attention and drama whenever possible but they ended up with plenty of each in a tight, nationally televised contest against the lowly Pelicans, a team whose coach, Alvin Gentry, angrily declared had taken itself out of the playoff hunt after a discouraging loss on Wednesday night in Houston.
The intrigue at Thursday’s game in New Orleans included Gregg Popovich’s yanking veteran point guard Tony Parker just 71 seconds into the game and a seven-point deficit with six minutes remaining in the game.
It took a 20-5 closing run before the Spurs could secure a 94-86 win that kept them perfect in the second game of back-to-back sets, now 12-0 in such games.
Kawhi Leonard’s sixth 3-point basket of the game came with 35 seconds left and capped a 12-0 closing run that put the game away. It gave Leonard 30 points, his first 30-or-better game since opening night, when he scored 32 in a loss at Oklahoma City. He also had 11 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks.
Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge scored 19 of the Spurs’ 26 fourth-quarter points, Aldridge getting 12 of his 26 points in the final period.
The league’s No. 1 defensive unit, the Spurs were at their lock-down best in the final six minutes, when the Pelicans missed 9-of-11 shots. The Spurs shut them out in the final four minutes.
“In the fourth quarter we started getting stops in that last four-minute run,” Leonard told TNT sideline reporter Craig Sager in a televised post-game interview. “We started to make shots, run plays well and execute.”
The TNT studio crew – Johnson and former All-Stars Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith – was effusive in its praise of Leonard. O’Neal declared him a superstar; Barkley called him the best all-around player in the league.
Leonard’s response when Sager informed him of such adulation was telling, as he explained what he had done to deserve such praise.
“Just working hard every day,” he said.“Seeing what the details are in the flaws of my game. But I’ve got to keep doing it to become a superstar. This is just one year.”
Thursday’s win pushed the Spurs season record to 52-9, a franchise best after 61 games. They are 23-9 on the road, second only to Golden State in road wins. It also sliced a half-game off Golden State’s lead in what has remained a relatively compelling race for first place in the Western Conference. For a while, at least, the Spurs were within three games of the Warriors and the action in that battle shifted to Oakland not long after Sager concluded his interview with Leonard.
The Spurs were in the air before that game concluded, on their way back to San Antonio, where they are to play the Sacramento Kings at AT&T Center on Saturday night. They typically pay scant attention to what other teams are doing, but likely had a good deal of curiosity about the outcome. Sandwiched between the Warriors and Thunder, they knew they would either gain on the Warriors or put a little more distance between themselves and the Thunder in the race for No. 2 seed in the West.
By the time the team landed at San Antonio International Airport the Warriors had completed a 121-106 win that pushed their lead over the Spurs back to three-and-a-half games, just as it was before the big doubleheader began.
Where’s the drama in that?
The real drama awaits in the playoffs.
*Top Image: The San Antonio Spurs 2015-2016 Roster and Coaching Staff. Photo by Scott Ball.