No team was better equipped to handle a nine-game road stretch–or the Rodeo Road Trip–than the San Antonio Spurs. Since 2003, the Spurs have been forced to take a nine-game road trip since the AT&T Center hosts the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo.
This Rodeo Road Trip meant a little bit more than the rest. Going into the road trip, San Antonio held a four-game advantage over the eight-seed Phoenix Suns.
There was no room for error.
Five teams (Raptors, Clippers, Warriors, Blazers, Suns) the Spurs faced were over .500; San Antonio went 1-4 against those teams. However, their most recent victory might prove to be bigger than those four losses in the long run.
San Antonio decisively defeated the Phoenix Suns, 101-74. Led by Kawhi Leonard’s double-double (22 points, 10 rebounds), the Spurs harassed the Suns all night on the defensive side of the floor, forcing Phoenix into tough, contested shots all game.
Phoenix never really got anything going, setting a record for futility in the first half. Phoenix’s 24 points set a franchise record for fewest points in a half. It was a much-needed win by the Spurs as it pushed their record to 4-5 in the road trip as well as creating some distance in the playoff standings.
By essentially splitting the road trip, winning and losing to the teams you should (except Utah), San Antonio has barely managed to pass one of the biggest tests of this regular season.
Although it may be difficult to say they passed the test when they couldn’t get the job done against teams with a winning record, but the standard for getting by is to salvage a near-split.
Flying under the radar, just like they have been during the entire Popovich Era, San Antonio began playing like a San Antonio team we are not accustomed to. They weren’t finishing games, letting them out of their grasps. In games decided by five points or less, San Antonio is 9-10.
Although, San Antonio has managed to keep grasp of the seventh spot in the Western Conference, it’s clear their inability to close out games and play consistently has shown their vulnerability, largely in part of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
Both Parker and Ginobili are averaging nearly career-worst in points, assists, rebounds, and field goals made.
Parker and Ginobili have missed some time because of lingering injuries, which has to some effect on both of these players, especially Parker. He has not looked anything like the Tony Parker of last season.
Parker can’t get to the rim like we’re accustomed to seeing with only 24% of his shot attempts coming from three feet or less. He’s also relying on the mid-range jumper, the most since 2009-2010 with 31% of his shots coming from 16-feet to the 3-PT line.
Parker has been able to get that shot before, averaging 45% from the floor the previous season from that distance. This season Parker is only converting 37.5% of those shots.
There’s no doubt that the struggles from Parker is not something San Antonio anticipated but it’s the continued growth of Leonard that has them in the playoff hunt. In 41 games this season, Leonard is averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, assists, blocks steals, and free-throw attempts.
He has become the workhorse that came to life in the NBA Finals of last season, where he took home MVP honors. Popovich has been using Leonard increasingly throughout the season, as he’s become the star of the team. Back in December, Popovich knew it was Leonard’s team from the start, (via the Washington Post):
“Now it’s like ‘to heck with those guys. The Big Three, they’re older than dirt. To hell with them. You’re the Big One. You’ve go to do your deal.’ So, we’re trying to get him to be more demonstrative in that regard.”
In games where Leonard has scored 15 points or higher, the Spurs are 16-5; in games where Leonard has scored more than 20 points, the Spurs hold a 7-2 advantage. Though the amount of high scoring games doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb, Leonard is the leading scorer on this Spurs team, five of which average double-figures.
He may not be considered a superstar around the league just yet, but he is the superstar that the San Antonio Spurs need in their push toward the playoffs.
Salvaging a near-split in the Rodeo Road Trip has set up San Antonio in a position where they can manage to create some distance. Of their next 10 games, seven of them are at home. They will be hosting the beasts of the East in Chicago, Toronto, and Cleveland. Their brief two-game road trip is against the lowly Knicks and the Milwaukee Bucks.
Six of their next 10 opponents hold a losing record, putting that much more of an emphasis on the home-stand. San Antonio loves playing at home just as much as anyone else, holding a 20-7 record in the AT&T Center.
This is an important stretch for San Antonio as the season heads into its final quarter. Currently sitting two games behind Dallas and the Los Angeles Clippers, it could be the time of the season where a major shakeup occurs in the playoff standings.
On the surface it looked like the San Antonio dynasty was beginning to crumble before our eyes. “Old age” finally got to them. Instead, the parity existing in the NBA has fooled us into thinking that the decline is real. This NBA season has arguably 10 different teams that can considered contenders for the Larry O’Brien trophy.
While we are still waiting for Tony Parker to pick it up again, there isn’t a sense of urgency just yet. Remember, we’re talking about the Gregg Popovich-coached Spurs. He does not care about the regular season one bit, like that time he decided to sit four of his five top scorers.
They currently hold a comfortable four-game lead over the Oklahoma City Thunder, who are fighting off the New Orleans Pelicans and Phoenix Suns for the eight-seed. While those teams are fighting for their lives, San Antonio’s recent “struggles” is nothing new and nothing to really worry about when it comes to playoff contention.
There’s also Tim Duncan, the ageless wonder, who’s nearly averaging a double-double (14.2 points, 9.7 rebounds).
They’re still trying to piece the team together. Injuries to Parker, Ginobili, Leonard, Mills and Splitter have caused dysfunction on the court. For a team that’s battle-tested, getting their act together is very possible and can happen very quickly. Barring a major collapse, San Antonio has their eyes set on the playoffs. Survive until April 15, wreak havoc on the 19th.
The playoffs are what the Spurs live for. Struggles are a part of the NBA season, and no team handles the process better than San Antonio.