Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Post Is Prologue: Spurs @ Knicks

Spurs (35-16)
Knicks (21-31)
7:30 P.M. EST
Madison Square Garden

The home stretch of the Knicks' 2008-2009 season begins tonight. Looking back to the other side of the All Star Break, the Knicks are on a six-game skid. Which is likely to reach seven games with the San Antonio Spurs in town. This group is not exactly who you'd consider a slump-buster.

It's not that I don't think the Knicks can beat the Spurs. I think the Knicks can beat anyone in the NBA on any given night. Yes we can! But I also think that the smart money picks the Knicks to lose this particular matchup more times than not. Getting +5.5 points from oddsmakers, it seems that I'm not the only one who thinks the Knicks are capable of, albeit unlikely to, win this game. This middle-of-the-road point spread makes the Spurs a smart bet. I won't take it, of course. After all, it's a smart bet. But, I'd think it would win two out of three times. Which just happens to be the percentage by which ESPN.com's Accuscore also favors the Spurs tonight at the Garden. The Worldwide Leader's Magic Eight Ball gives the Knicks about a 33% chance to end their losing streak. That sounds about right.

As (is again becoming) per usual, I've been trading emails today with a blogger who covers the Knicks' opponent. Below you'll find a back-and-forth with noted Spurs blog Pounding the Rock. If you head on over to their shop, you'll find my answers to their queries.

WWOD?: Coming out of the All-Star Break the Spurs are top their division and tied for second place in the West. Although most of the talk coming into the season was about the Lakers, is it Finals or bust for the Spurs? What are your expectations? What result makes this not a disappointing season in San Antonio?

Pounding the Rock: As you said, for most Spurs fans it's Championship or bust. There's a strong belief in the capacity of any Spurs team with a healthy Big Three of winning any given night against the elite of this league - and this season so far, that belief has been rewarded by important wins with an often hobbled team.

If there's one team that still seems a step beyond the Spurs, that's the Lakers, and the loss against them was probably the worst of this regular season. Regardless, if Manu can use both of his legs in the playoffs and we peak at the right time, I truly believe we definitely have a better-than-good chance of winning that series.

As long as Duncan plays like his MVP self, there can't be any goals other than championships.

WWOD?: Is it just a matter of being healthy or is there another reason that the Spurs seem to have clicked after a pedestrian (by your club's standards) November?

PTR: Well, our health has definitely been a factor. Tony is one of the best point guards in the league, and Manu is an All-Star caliber player, even though he's always snubbed. I dare you to find a top team in this league capable of losing two of its best three players and not plummet in the standings, especially in the West.

However, that's certainly not the entire story. The Spurs have a solid system and they stick to it. It takes new players some time to buy into it, to understand the general philosophy Pop enforces and accept their roles. The new guys, Mason and Hill, slowly adjusted and rose up to the occasion. When Tony and Manu came back there was a new adjustment period for both of them, but through the season Hill and Mason in particular have propelled the team beyond last season's limits.

Last but not least, Matt Bonner's emergence as a true NBA starter was as unexpected as welcome. While not completely consistent, his accurate 3-point sniping has opened up lanes for Tony, Manu and Tim. He's even developed the ability to create his own shot at odd moments... The sky's the limit for the Red Rocket. (Okay, not really.)

WWOD?: We all know about The Big Fundamental, Manu and Mr. Longoria. Who are the Spurs players flying under the radar that we should pay special attention to tonight?

PTR: I think I answered you in the previous questions, more or less. It's always difficult to stop the Big Three, unless they're having a rare off night, so your best bet is containing everyone else. The obvious and biggest threats are Mason and Bonner, capable of making triples rain if left open. Finley is a streaky shooter, so if he starts on and scores in his first few jumpers, you're better off putting a good defender on him. Hill can drive and get fouls and has a deceptive jumper that turns on at the best times, and can make momentum-swinging defensive plays.

But the real threats are Mason and Bonner, from beyond the arc. And that's a statement I never thought I'd type not four months ago...

WWOD?: The Spurs allow the second fewest points per contest and the Knicks score the third most while attempting the most field attempts per game. How does San Antonio impose their own style on an opponent like the Knicks?

PTR: Honestly, in the past the Spurs haven't done a good job imposing their style when playing D'Antoni's Suns. Occasionally they've slowed the games through half-court sets and lockdown defense, but rarely during the four quarters. Our success against the 7-seconds-or-less Suns came from out-D'Antoning them, really -- we were chameleons, beating them at their own game in high-scoring affairs.

Nowadays we've slipped a bit on the defensive end (stil probably among the top 5 in the league, though), but we have more true scoring threats. Unless we up the intensity after the ASG, I expect the Knicks to sink because of a three-point barrage from our wings.

WWOD?: In the past, Robert Horry has been the guy who hit the dagger three in a big spot. And even Bruce Bowen had a handful of spots on the floor where he was deadly. With Horry gone and Bowen mostly gone is Roger Mason, Jr. officially the guy who is going to hit that HUGE shot in the playoffs? I'm guessing the ideal spot would be a buzzer-beating three from the bench-side corner in a Game 5 upset over LA in the Conference Finals, which would allow the Spurs to clinch at home in Game 6. Sound good?

PTR: It sounds godly. Where do you want me to sign? I'm not sure how "gone" Bruce will stay as we approach the playoffs. In any case, yes, Mason is now the man. We are all convinced of his clutchness, and the best thing is, he's convinced too. He shoots without conscience -- he took that game-winner at Boston two weeks ago after a horrible shooting night, with a lot of time left in the clock and off-balance. I was already trying to kill him with my mind when the ball went in, and I simply couldn't believe it. He's everything we hoped he'd be (which isn't much) and more.

In last-play situations I still prefer Manu and Tim over him, but if Tony has to kick the ball out to an open shooter, that shooter has to be named Roger Mason Jr.

WWOD?: I'm a huge fan of RC Buford and the work he has done as a GM. Having my club run by Isiah Thomas for a few years only cemented my adoration of Buford. Depending on how he doles out contracts and extensions, the Spurs can be a big player in the much-ballyhooed Summer of 2010. How do you think he should play it? Does he re-sign Manu and try to extend Parker or try to construct another, younger core (maybe with Joe Johnson, or even Wade or LBJ) to compete for titles as Duncan gets older (and possibly takes a reduced role)?

PTR: I sincerely doubt Wade or BronBron would come to San Antonio. It's a small market and they won't be able to sell much, rosin powder and personalized band-aids notwithstanding. No, letting Tony go to rebuild around an enigma doesn't make any sense.

Personally, I wish Manu retired as a Spur, and I think he can bring a lot to the table even if he were 40-years-old. I expect Manu, Tony and Tim to accept cuts in their salaries to let Buford and Pop to shop for a fourth banana when the time comes, because I don't have the shadow of a doubt that championships are first and foremost in their minds. Panic trades and wild gambles have never been part of the Spurs' organization, so I doubt that will change in the near future.

Unless we trade for Carter or 'Sheed in the next two weeks, that is.

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