If all you took from the Spurs’ 121-103 Saturday night demolition of the Houston Rockets at The AT&T Center was the sudden emergence of Danny Green from a season-long shooting slump you need to listen to Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs forward who has had his own emergence this season as a legitimate challenger to Golden State’s Steph Curry in the race for NBA Most Valuable Player.
The reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Leonard understands the Spurs have run out to the best 35-game start in franchise history, 29-6, not because of anything they have done at the offensive end of the floor – not even Green’s 6-for-8 shooting from beyond the 3-point arc against Houston on Saturday – but because of the league’s stingiest defense.
Oh, there was plenty of offense on Saturday. For the first time since Dec. 19, 2013, the Spurs had three players score at least 20 points. None of them were named Duncan, Ginobili or Parker. In fact, the Spurs’ Big Three stars – Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker – combined for only one basket and 10 points and Duncan failed to score for the first time in his illustrious career.
Saturday’s 20-point scorers were LaMarcus Aldridge (24, on 10-for-16 shooting), Leonard (22, on 8-for-12) and Boris Diaw (20, on 8-for-13). Green had to settle for 18 points, all on his 3-point makes.
Still, what Leonard appreciated about Green’s play against the Rockets on Saturday was his ability to put the defensive clamps on Rockets scoring star James Harden in the second half. Harden entered the game averaging 28.4 points per game, second only to Curry (30.5 points per game) in the NBA scoring race. And when Harden made 6-of-7 shots and scored 16 points in the first half, the Spurs found themselves in a tight game against the team that defeated them on Christmas night, 88-84.
Green was the point man of an aggressive, physical second-half defensive focus on Harden that allowed him only three shots in the third period, all of them misses. By quarter’s end it didn’t matter a bit that the Spurs’ Big Three starts – Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker – had combined to make only one basket.
Leonard understood the relative merits of Green’s offensive output and his defensive efficiency
“Danny did a great job on (Harden) last time we played those guys on Christmas,” Leonard said. “Tonight he got the matchup on him again and did a good job, made things uncomfortable for him.
“Then, (Danny) making 3-point shots on the other end is just a bonus.”
Make no mistake. Green’s most successful shooting night of the season – his accuracy from behind the arc raised his season 3-point percentage from 30.1% to 32.4 % – was a relief for him and teammates who had worried along with him as he had struggled with the long-range shot all season.
“It felt great to see the ball go in for me,” Green said.
“We need him to make those shots,” said Ginobili. “It was good to see him get his rhythm back. Hopefully, this helps him get out of the shooting slump.”
Gregg Popovich, the Spurs coach, has let Green work through the slump on his own, never saying a word to him about it.
“He comes in and shoots, he practices,” Popovich said. “He’s a pro. There’s nothing I can tell him to help. You have to participate in your own recovery.”
Green appreciated the hands-off approach. Part of his problem related to the personnel changes that have required adjustments, an on-going process that Popovich swears won’t be finished for months.
“Obviously, it’s a different year and a different team,” Green said. “We’re all still getting used to each other. We wanted it to happen right after pre-season but sometimes it takes a little longer than we like it to. But now we’re starting to build a rhythm. Guys are still feeling each other out and finding the spots where they’re getting looks and feeling confident and shooting them. Every time I shoot it my teammates have got my back and are encouraging me.
“So (Pop) doesn’t worry about it. He knows, night in and night out, I’m going to do my best to play defense and I’m going to continue at that. When I start slacking at that, that’s when he’ll get after me.”
It is testament to Green’s defensive abilities that he, not Leonard, gets the assignment on Harden.
As solid as Green’s defense was, the Rockets still managed to make 50% of their shots and become just the seventh team this season to score more than 100 points against the Spurs.
Still, the milestones keep piling up for the Spurs. They remained perfect on their home court, 20-0, the first Western Conference team to open the season with 20 straight home court wins since the Rockets did it in 1985-86.
Top Image: The San Antonio Spurs 2015-2016 Roster and Coaching Staff. Photo by Scott Ball.
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Mike Monroe, Longtime NBA and Spurs Writer, Still in the Game