The greatest challenge of the Spurs-Suns game at Talking Stick Resort Arena in downtown Phoenix on Thursday night was maintaining the appropriate fear Gregg Popovich mandates every time his team takes the court.
It’s hard to fear a team that had lost 14 of its previous 15 games, including a 112-79 humiliation administered by the Spurs at The AT&T Center on Dec. 30.
And on Thursday, Suns coach Jeff Hornacek was able to suit up only nine players. Five of his players, including his top two scorers, were on the injured list. Then, starting forward P.J. Tucker, his best defender, left the game in the first quarter when he tried to take a charge and instead took Kawhi Leonard’s knee in his sternum.
The only surprise of the 117-89 win that extended the Spurs win streak to 12 games and ran their record to 37-6 was a third-quarter rally by the Suns that got them within six points.
The Spurs responded by outscoring the Suns 38-20 in the fourth quarter to record their 12th win of the season by at least 25 points. It was their 16th win by at least 20 points.
Kawhi Leonard followed the pre-game announcement that NBA fans had voted him to the Western Conference starting lineup for the Feb. 14 All-Star Game in Toronto by leading the Spurs in scoring for the 25th time this season. In just 22 minutes he scored 22 points.
In a televised post-game interview with TNT’s Louis Johnson, All-Star Leonard put his latest honor in perspective.
“You just know you’re headed in the right direction,” he said of being an All-Star for the first time in his career, “but that’s not the goal for me. I’m just trying to win another championship.”
The only real drama of the game was Spurs rookie Boban Marjanovic’s pursuit of the first double-double of his career. The 7-foot-3 Serbian got it when he grabbed his 10th rebound of the game with 7:20 remaining in the fourth quarter. He finished with 17 points and 13 rebounds in an efficient 22 minutes.
With another game on the schedule on Friday night in Los Angeles, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich also sat two starters. Four-time All-NBA point guard Tony Parker got another night off to recover from a right hip contusion and team captain Tim Duncan got another night off to rest his 39-year-old body.
Manu Ginobili, the third member of the team’s Big Three stars, the most successful trio in NBA history, got a virtual night off. He played the final six minutes of the first period, then sat out the remainder of the game.
Popovich played all 13 players who were active and spread the playing time. Ray McCallum, who started in Parker’s point guard spot, logged a game-high 26 minutes. Only Ginobili failed to score.
Leonard’s selection as a Western Conference All-Star starter was more contentious than Thursday’s game. The fifth-year Spur made a late surge in voting that was conducted via social media and passed Golden State’s Draymond Green, who had led Leonard by about 12,000 votes when preliminary totals were announced two weeks ago.
There was nothing argumentative about Leonard’s being voted to the starting lineup by fans in balloting conducted via social media. The Spurs’ scoring leader this season, Leonard has been even more effective and disruptive at the defensive end than he was last season, when he was voted Defensive Player of the Year.
No, what was roiling about the unveiling of the final vote count was the fact that Leonard’s late surge in votes made him a relatively slim choice for the third and final frontcourt spot in the West, not over Green, but about 14,000 votes ahead of Dallas center ZaZa Pachulia.
Yes, the same ZaZa Pachulia who has averaged 7.2 points per games and 5.9 rebounds for four teams over a 12-year journeyman career. The same ZaZa Pachulia who missed 6-of-7 shots in the Spurs’ thumping of the Mavericks on Sunday night at AT&T Center.
*Top Image: The San Antonio Spurs 2015-2016 Roster and Coaching Staff. Photo by Scott Ball.