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San Antonio Spurs Fans Revel in the Return of Kawhi Leonard vs. Blazers

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The Spurs are the world champions and they won't let you forget it.

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Me: "Y'all are having a rough year. Are you nervous yet? Do Spurs fans get nervous?"

Spurs Fan: "Not until the postseason"

Spurs fans are a different breed. Every criticism of the team begins with a caveat and ends with a yet. As in, "I have the utmost confidence in whatever decision the organization makes but I just don't like that trade yet." It's clear they know the game might be over by the middle of the third quarter so the energy starts early and often. I was shocked when a loud D-Fense chant rained down from the rafters on like the third play of the game.

So it's only fitting that the AT&T Center is unlike any I've ever been to. For starters, the parking is all surface without a single garage to be found. Texas has so much space it doesn't know what to do with it all. Why build up if you don't have to? The next "I'm in Texas" realization came from the painted championship cowboy boots tastefully displayed on the charter level. I was lucky enough to score floor seats thanks to Jeff Mills, son of Larry Mills who's situational leadership techniques are an invaluable asset to the Spurs' organization and a key reason for the team's success (according to Jeff Mills). This meant walking through the Spurs' offices to get to our seats, navigating a series of corridors centered around a circular room lined entirely with basketball leather.

Emanating from this mecca of themed decor are hallways adorned with acrylic paintings depicting previous season's rosters. These team portraits are done as a big group, middle school style, complete with glitter outlines. These masterpieces reminded me of the existence of Fabricio Oberto and Fabricio Oberto's hairline.

In terms of professional athletes with old man hairstyles, that's right up their with Manu Ginobili's bald spot.

We walked by Peter Holt, owner of the Spurs, and saw David Robinson on our right as we made our way to the seats. Mr. Holt wears cowboy boots under his jeans but manages not to scuff up the floor. Oh, excuse me. I mean his floor.

The Texas experience was completed when the guy sitting next to us turned out to be a very rich, very drunk good ol' boy who's daddy owns a series of car dealerships in the greater San Antonio area. His name is Hank Cavendish, as he told us many times, and he was thoroughly amused by my pen and paper.

"Hey. Write that down. Tony scored. Write that down."

Tony did in fact score early and often as the game began. I haven't seen the Blazers struggle to keep a guard out of the middle that bad since last year. And the screening of the Spurs was so much more impressive up close. They absolutely stick every one and mix up angles better than most. The guards read it beautifully and do what I've always called scraping.

Scraping is when, instead of sprinting around a screen, a guard will start below the screener, give his defender a shoulder nudge to create an inch of separation and then scrape around the screen touching shoulders with his big man and curling tightly towards the hoop. The guard doesn't move as quickly but it's pretty much impossible to fight through the screen. As a result, the offensive players gets inside position on his man forcing help to come.

This was the starkest difference between the two teams. I wrote a few weeks ago about the Blazers slight regression on offense. I argued a piece of the explanation was that the wings were rarely catching the ball moving towards the rim. I don't recall Portland curling around a screen until garbage time. The Spurs did it multiple times a play. Now, the Blazers' help was usually there to prevent layups but San Antonio got lots of five foot floaters. As a team, the Blazers have struggled to defend these types of shots allowing a fifth worst 42% field goal percentage between three and ten feet, according to basketball-reference.com. The Spurs excel in this area of the floor and it showed tonight.

The Spurs attention to detail and focus on the fundamentals was reflected in the arena. It felt smaller than the Rose Garden with less of a corporate presence. You could actually see parts of the ceiling and walls where they could have hung ads but chose not to. The in-game entertainment was simple but engaging and the Coyote mascot absolutely commanded his stage. It was amazing how responsive the crowd was. The Coyote, all alone at center court with nothing more than a few hand gestures, could elicit emphatic and resonant screams from the fans. I tried to imagine Blaze doing a similar thing and it just felt awkward. Plus, the Coyote's bug eyes are much less scary in person. Seems like a well deserved Mascot of the Year award.

His performance culminated in the machine gun t-shirt cannon, which shoots multiple shirts a second in one large spinning motion obscured by smoke and loud noises.

You gotta give it to ‘em. That's pretty cool and it really only fits in San Antonio. Everything about the experience reminded you where you were. Including the banners for the Rodeo of the Year.

There were more banners for rodeos than there were for NBA championships. Priorities.

"Oooh! And-one. Write that down."

This burst of repetitive, drunken exuberance took me out of my rodeo disbelief and back to the game. Our cadillac selling good ol' boy rarely acknowledge good plays by the Blazers but Jeff, of less intoxication and more basketball savvy, couldn't help but comment on the play of Meyers Leonard. A perfect shooting night and solid overall play made this a great night, period. Not just a great night for Meyers Leonard. His shot looks pure coming out of his hand with great rotation, unlike his buddy Thomas Robinson who literally had the ball spinning sideways on his one jump shot. Honestly, my biggest critique of Meyers tonight was his choice to wear those pink, plasticky looking shoes. Just awful. And, of course, my other friend noted he looked like a genetically engineered Justin Bieber.

Yes. Yes he does. But dang if he didn't look good out there.

The other person of interest fared less well as Nicolas Batum had another rough night. It was clear he had heard the criticism as he came out more aggressive and looking for his own shot. Too bad that meant forcing things against a very disciplined defense. At one point, Batum sparked a mini-run for the Spurs turning the ball over or missing badly on three straight possessions. The frustration boiled over as he hounded the refs before Stotts joined in and earned himself a technical.

For the next few minutes, he looked like the old Batum, deflecting the ball on defense and hitting an aggressive pull-up three pointer. He disappeared after that but at least we know it's in there somewhere. That's the best I can spin it at this point.

The other thing to note is that Batum was up against Kawhi Leonard tonight. The whole Spurs team does so many things you don't notice on TV but Leonard is probably the best example. He bumps cutters, tracks the ball, and has this nasty habit of putting his 9.75 inch hands right in front of a guy's face whenever possible. I started to understand why so many female Spurs' fans swoon over this guy describing his quiet demeanor as a part of his charm. "Ugh, I just want to take him home and introduce him to my mother." That's an actual quote.

The Spurs -- sex symbol athletes you can bring home to your parents. That's a better description of the Spurs' ethos than anything I could ever come up with.

Wilson Chandler would have been a huge help checking him but CJ McCollum, a potential trade piece, had himself a game. I'm not sure I learned anything new about him but everything I thought I knew was amplified up close. He stops the ball a bit too much and still hasn't figured out all the reads but man is he committed to the defensive end and he can get by his defender almost at will. He left multiple Spurs looking silly which is not easy to do. Finishing at the rim is still an issue but getting good looks won't be a problem for the next many years. If he gets more comfortable, look out.

Unfortunately, when Meyers and CJ are the best performances the game probably didn't go well. Earlier this week we saw the Clippers take Damian Lillard out by ignoring LaMarcus Aldridge but the Spurs were able to handle both of them tonight. They also didn't let Wesley Matthews shoot. Our young guns found some success in the cracks but the supporting cast as a whole wasn't able to turn those cracks into a sizable hole. Since the Spurs also put up 110 points it became one rough night.

"Did you see that? Write that down."

We can only hope the Blazers were taking notes.

Random Observations:

  • The one corporate partner that was omnipresent was HEB, a popular grocery store chain in Texas. Everyone seemed to be happy about this probably because they make some of the best commercials around.
  • Tim Duncan argues calls exactly how you think Tim Duncan would argue calls. After a Tony Parker drive resulted in a no call, Old Man Riverwalk really lost his cool saying  "Hey. Hey. That's a foul. That's a foul. He got swiped across the neck. That's not a foul?" Man, I don't know how the ref took all that abuse. He was probably right too as Tony had a visible scrape across his neck for the rest of the game.
  • After a timeout is called Gregg Popovich walks very slowly to the block on his team's side of the floor. His assistants join him in a circle. They all arrive at the same time and Pop turns to face them as they all arrive. It looked exactly like a color guard when they march out to present the flags. After further consideration, this similarity is totally not surprising and probably not an accident.
  • A particularly funny Coyote gag asks a fan to come down and pitch squishy Spurs' baseballs as Coyote hits them into the crowd. Coyote eventually gets mad, starts a tussle and his eyes fall off allowing him to pretend to blindly run into things and people as he exits the court. Just a brilliant mixture of hilarity, physical comedy, crowd interaction and free stuff.
  • People absolutely love Patty Mills. He might be the most popular Spur getting huge cheers whenever he checks into the ball game or hits a jumper. Makes you wonder what could have been. But we've got Robin now so maybe we don't need another cult hero.
  • When Aldridge caught the ball with Mills guarding him on the block, Patty immediately started calling "White, White, White". Apparently it's code for "holy sh--" or "panic" because three other Spurs immediately swarmed LaMarcus.
  • The dance cam was the absolute worst exposition I have every seen. I don't know if the camera man didn't have much to work with or couldn't find people but nobody featured on the jumbotron had any personality or energy. Some even sat back down right as the camera panned to them. The Spurs play brilliant, beautiful, mistake free basketball on the court. The least you can do is strive for the same.
  • At one point, the two teams both featured two point guard lineups. As soon as Wesley Matthews checked back in Pop immediate called Danny Green clearly afraid of a mismatch. Wesley's post-up game scares even the Spurs.
  • Ironman was also the first one greeting the garbage time guys as they came back to the huddle on a TV timeout. Man I love that guy.
  • I can't believe the crowd booed Barton for his 360 dunk in garbage time. I get the whole "we just win" attitude but c'mon. What's he supposed to do, just lay it in? That would be letting his spirit be crushed by the weight of the score. These fans clearly don't know the People's Champ.
  • Last but not least, one of my friends asked if any of the players were "imported". After explaining that some of the players did grow up in other countries and that "imported" seemed mildly offensive, she decided to continue using it anyway. Later, we found out that the man sitting in front of us was Tiago Splitter's father, imported all the way from Brazil. He had turned around several times during our conversation and definitely heard us.  Foot, meet mouth.