Spurs get off to a great start

BY foxsports • December 11, 2009

Game Time: Spurs 113, Hornets 96

One game does not a season make, but the ease with which San Antonio drubbed New Orleans raises an important question:

Is San Antonio this good?

At the very least, the Spurs proved that they're a big-time ball club.

  • They made the extra pass on literally every possession. Indeed, their ball-reversals opened up uncontested shots for just about everybody.

  • They set formidable screens all over the court but concentrated on elbow-high screens and weak-side screens. The resulting curls, pops and handoffs resulted in even more open shots.

  • Tim Duncan studiously avoided setting up in the low post. Consequently, the middle was always open to accommodate drivers and cutters.

  • Tony Parker had his way against Chris Paul, slashing deep into the paint and either converting tricky layups or kicking assist-passes out to unattended baseline shooters.

  • Manu Ginobili was also up to his old tricks, filling the bucket with jumpers and/or crossing over to his left, and eventually winding up in the shadow of the hoop.

  • Matt Bonner, Michael Finley and Roger Mason all had hot hands from the outlands. As ever, the key to the Spurs' fortunes will be their ability to consistently hit their outside shots. If they can accomplish this, they can beat any and all comers. If not, they'll struggle to compete with the league's elite ball clubs.

  • Antonio McDyess knows where to go and how to get there.

  • George Hill's adhesive defense, driving flippers and long-distance bombs demonstrated why he's Gregg Popovich's favorite player.

  • DeJuan Blair can clean the offensive glass without using a ladder — and he even knocked down a 15-foot jumper.

  • Richard Jefferson was aggressive with the ball, made several terrific passes on the move, executed flawless defensive rotations and didn't give Peja Sojakovic room to breathe.

  • On defense, the Spurs challenged every pass and every passing lane while still providing excellent in-the-paint help.

  • The firepower off the bench was overwhelming.

  • At both ends of the court, the Spurs played with championship-caliber precision.

  • In fact, it looks like the only way to beat San Antonio is to match their ball movement and to consistently drop long-distance shots.

    What did they do wrong?

  • Starting the fourth quarter with a humongous lead, the second unit played some unforgivable sloppy defense.

  • David West went right at Matt Bonner for fun and profit.

  • Blair made rookie mistakes on defense.

  • McDyess had difficulty defending anybody who could turn, face and go.

  • Worst of all, their transition defense was much too spotty.

    So, the answer to the leading question is this: Yes, the Spurs are this good.

    But there's one more question that's just as unavoidable: Are the Hornets this bad?

    A detailed answer to this query will be addressed when it's New Orleans' turn to be investigated. But a preliminary response is, "Yes, they probably are."

    Vox Populi

    You have gone on record as saying that American basketball will get worse before it gets better. Do you think European basketball will have to become the best in the world for Americans to finally get the message about fundamentals? — Daniel, London, England

    Lost in the celebrations and jingoistic patriotic boastings when Team USA won the gold medal in Beijing was the fact that it took some spectacular one-on-one plays by Kobe Bryant in the clutch to close out Spain, 118-107.

    Indeed, on too many occasions throughout the Olympic tournament, the Americans relied on isolations whenever they faced man-to-man defenses. In addition, they were also guilty of taking too many quick shots and committing too many unforced turnovers, and the Americans were noticeably uncomfortable on offense when their opponents managed to slow the pace — not to mention yet another subpar performance at the stripe.

    At the other end, once the Americans' aggressive perimeter defense was breached their interior defense was untrustworthy. Weak-side help was too often either late or not forthcoming. Plus, reckless gambling led to a bunch of silly fouls.

    Moreover, as long as college freshmen are allowed to graduate into the NBA, there will continue to be a large gap in executing basic skills and concepts between the Americans and their foreign opponents. That's because our coaches at the junior high school, AAU and high school levels are not nearly as organized, as well-schooled themselves, or as able to discipline their players as are their colleagues overseas.

    Still, the Americans triumphed — mainly on the basis of their overall team speed, the brilliant individual efforts by the likes of Kobe, LeBron and D-Wade, and most of all, because of their overwhelming depth.

    These positive attributes will almost certainly remain in effect for the foreseeable future — as will the Americans' shaky approach to fundamentals. However, by virtue of sheer talent, extraordinary depth and the NBA players' commitment to participating in offseason training sessions, the Americans should be able to consistently dominate international competition.

    That's why it's hard to see European basketball ever becoming better than American hoops. The only real threat to USA's supremacy in the near future would be a particular international team that's made up of NBA veterans.

    Straight Shooting

    How long before Shaq swears that Mike Brown is the latest best coach he's ever played for?

    Wouldn't it be a relief if Stephen Jackson stopped foaming at the mouth and started being as good of a player as he thinks he is?

    Why would anybody in his right mind spend real money to watch the Knicks dawdle their way through what is obviously a throwaway season?

    And what earthly reason could LeBron have for even considering signing with the Knicks next summer?

    Charles Barkley has voiced his desire to become a general manager, but how can he manage a team if he can't manage himself?

    Similarly, Vince Carter says he wants to coach in the NBA when he retires, but if he can't motivate himself to hustle every minute of every game, how could he possibly motivate anybody else?

    Doesn't it look like the already oft-injured Blake Griffin will have more trouble staying on the court than playing on the court?

    Travels with Charley

    Part 2 of 2

    (For Part 1, please click here.)

    The Yankees' tryout invitation was also a surprise to Coach Irace. "But you can't go there wearing dungarees and sneakers," he said. "You have to look like a player or they won't take you seriously."

    The Hunter College equipment room was locked for the summer so Coach lent me his own minor-league uniform, and I borrowed a pair of size-13 spikes from a former teammate. I may have looked like a ballplayer when I arrived at the stadium, but Coach was only 6-foot-1 and my own pedal extremities were size 15. So I used several large safety pins to secure my shirttails to my pants, and I walked like my feet were broken. Fortunately, only non-pitchers were forced to run timed sprints.

    Ah, the hallowed ground of the old Yankee Stadium with its expanse of fair territory shaped like a slice of Wonder Bread. The flagpole straightaway in Death Valley. The immortals' plaques at the base of the bleacher wall. The grandstand roof overhung with a cold iron bunting. And the folded seats resembling rows and rows of blue tombstones. In the old days, each of the starting pitchers would warm up on portable mounds set up just behind and off to the sides of home plate. The warm-up catchers crouched perhaps 30 feet from the choicest box seats.

    After the pitching prospects warmed up by playing catch with one another, we took turns throwing to a battery of barrel-bellied coaches all dressed in Yankee uniforms. The coach who caught me wore No. 89.

    As always, I was as wild as a hurricane, but he scrambled and caught everything I threw. And I sure was fast that day.


    Most of the other pitching hopefuls threw for about 10 minutes, but my inspection lasted nearly a half-hour. I didn't care that all of my toenails were bleeding. I didn't pay much attention to the opened safety pins piercing my skin.


    "You got a good arm, kid," the coach said. "Just wait there a minute."

    He conferred with several colleagues and presently an old man in a stiff blue suit stepped gingerly out of the home team's dugout. Being a loyal citizen of the Bronx, I instantly recognized Johnny Johnson, head of the Yankees' farm system. Johnson assumed a front-row seat about 20 feet to the right of Coach 89. Then Johnson folded his hands over the top rail and squinted at me from under his straw hat.

    This was it! My chance for greatness!

    By now my shoulder was aching so I wound up slowly, closed my eyes and tried to throw a 200-mile per hour fastball.

    Before my eyes reopened, I heard the sounds echoing through the majestic ballpark. BONG! BONG! BONG!

    And there was Johnson, sprawled beneath his seat, his hat still rolling toward first base. The coach looked at me and held his hands to show I had missed the old man by inches.

    "That'll be all, son," the coach said. "We've seen enough."

    I'd never make the bigs, and I limped for a month. But I'll never forget showering and dressing in the Yankeee clubhouse ... Where Babe Ruth soaped his belly. Where the Mick put his pants on one leg at a time.

    Afterwards, we were given free Yankee lunches: A pint-sized carton of milk, served along with two slices of white bread wrapped around an official sliver of bologna.

    The frost is on the pumpkin. Yesterday's newspaper headlines are turned yellow. And as the past recedes into the black yaw of time, I still have several pinpoint scars on my waist to remind me of the last pitch that I ever threw.

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