Nothing seems to come easily for the Spurs on their AT&T Center home court this season, and Friday night’s 107-105 win over the Washington Wizards is the latest evidence that last season’s complete ascendancy in the building is lost somewhere outside Loop-410.
It took a 20-foot jumper from Kawhi Leonard with 6.1 seconds remaining to give the Spurs their margin of victory and a missed hook shot by Washington’s Otto Porter to preserve it. The fact it was just their fifth home win in nine games underscores the problems the Spurs have had there, but consider the angst among Spurs fans that would have ensued had they not recovered from a 103-102 deficit with 52 seconds left.
“It’s taking us a while to get into the rhythm, the aggressiveness we need to get leads,” said veteran guard Manu Ginobili, who scored 13 points and had a team-best 7 assists. “So, yeah, we’re not playing well (at home). But the good thing is that meanwhile we are getting wins and we are maintaining a good record. So, hopefully, when we start improving, the wins are going to keep coming and we’re going to feel even better about ourselves. So, we’ve got to keep fighting, got to keep working.”
Indeed, Friday’s win was an exercise in perseverance for the Spurs, who ran their record to 16-4, the second-best record in both the NBA and the Western Conference. They trailed by as many as 11 points in a desultory first half in which they allowed 60 points.
Their diligence was epitomized by guard Danny Green, who spent the first 47 minutes and 41 seconds in a fog, unable to get a shot to fall, guilty of three turnovers and helpless to keep Wizards guard Bradley Beal from making all five of his 3-point attempts in a game that had see-sawed through the second half.
But NBA basketball always seems to provide moments for atonement, and Green’s came after a time out called by Gregg Popovich with 24.4 seconds remaining, his team trailing, 103-102. The Spurs coach drew up a play for Kawhi Leonard, but the ball ended up in the hands of Green, unguarded at the 3-point line.
Despite his game-long struggles at both ends of the court, Green launched a perfect 3-point shot that gave the Spurs a 105-103 lead and brought a sellout crowd of 18,418 to its feet.
“The play was drawn for Kawhi,” Green said. “He made a great read, swung the ball to Patty in the corner. (Patty) had the confidence in me to make the extra pass. I was just thinking, ‘Catch it, and fire.’ ”
The ability to forget all that has gone before is what separates the most reliable NBA shooters from those who rarely get the ball in crunch time. Green has learned the knack for selective amnesia.
“It’s just years of mentally preparing or getting used to it,” said Green, who entered the game having made 20-of-46 3-pointers this season, 43.5%, third-best on the team. “It’s the NBA. You can’t think about the last shot or the last play or the last game. You have to move forward to the next play. There’s 82 games, 48 minutes, four quarters. If you think about the first quarter, how bad you played, you’re not going to focus and play as well as you want to in the fourth quarter. You want to let those previous plays go, think about the positives and step up to the plate.”
On a night when grit was required, much more so than precision, Popovich had to draw up another play for Leonard after the Wizards tied the score on a driving layin by All-Star guard John Wall. This time, the play freed Leonard for an open shot of his own, and the team’s season-long scoring leader nailed a perfect, 20-foot jumper, giving him a team-high 23 points and the team its margin of victory.
“Coach Pop drew up the play and told me how to execute it,” Leonard said. “I came off, probably about a half a second, I’m open. Manu delivered a great pass and I just made the shot.”
Green’s doggedness Friday was matched by that of Pau Gasol, who had to forget one of the worst free-throw shooting games of his 15-plus seasons in the NBA. The 7-foot center from Spain missed 6-of-8 free throws but still managed to score 19 points and grab 10 rebounds in a game-long battle with Marcin Gortat, Washington’s 6-foot-11 center.
“A rare night at the free throw line for me but I tried to make up for it in other aspects,” Gasol said. “So, I’m glad it didn’t cost us the game.”
Friday’s game was the 20th of the 82-game season, meaning it roughly marked the end of the first quarter of the long, regular season grind. And for all their struggles on their home court, only team in the league, the Golden State Warriors, can arrive there with a better record.
“We have an 80% winning percentage and we don’t feel like we are playing that well,” Ginobili said. “Of the four we lost at home, maybe three we feel like we should have won. We can do much better, and that’s a good feeling in the sense of, with all that, we still manage to have a great record.”