“I’m tired right now,” he said. “That’s for sure.”
After surrendering a season-high 32 points in the first quarter and falling behind by as many as 15 in the opening half, San Antonio relied on hustle and lockdown defense to edge the Cleveland Cavaliers 99-95, which extended its winning streak to 10 games.
The victory makes the Spurs the first team in NBA history to put together a 10-game winning streak in six consecutive seasons.
“We just played better defense,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said when asked about what changed defensively between the first and second halves. “They did the same stuff. They just played it more aggressively, and did a better job execution-wise and competitively. That’s what it’s all about.”
Parker scored a game-high 24 points on 11-of-18 shooting, but most importantly, the guard virtually shut down Kyrie Irving, holding him to 16 points on 6-of-17 from the field. The last time Irving hit the court at the AT&T Center, he lit up the Spurs in March for 57 points in a Cleveland overtime victory, which coincidentally was San Antonio’s most recent regular-season home loss.
This time, no dice, as Parker limited Irving to four points on 2 of 7 attempts in the first half. On the offensive end, Parker poured in 18 of his 24 points in the first two quarters to keep San Antonio within striking distance. Led by LeBron James' 14 points in the first half, Cleveland took a 50-44 advantage into intermission after leading 32-20 at the end of the opening quarter.
“The first half, we were just flat offensively,” Parker said. “So I was just trying to create and make stuff happen. I just got going and my teammates were setting picks and Pop kept calling my number. So I was just being aggressive because we had a hard time getting it going in the first half. They were playing more physical than us. They were playing with more energy. So in the second quarter, I felt like our energy was better. We tried to play more physical and go after it. So the second quarter was a lot better. Even though we were down six at halftime, our energy was better. So it was positive going into the third quarter.”
After James’ big first half, Leonard held the four-time MVP to eight points in the second. James hit 6-of-10 over the first two quarters, with six of those attempts coming from inside the paint from an average distance of 9.1 feet. James started the second half 1-of-5 from the field, with no shots from the paint as the average distance of his attempts increased to 19.4 feet, according to research from ESPN Stats & Information.
James finished the second half 3-of-7, taking just three shots in the third quarter for two points. Leonard served as the final defender on James on 72 percent of Cleveland’s half-court possessions, and forced James to pass the ball on 73 percent of his offensive touches. When guarded by any other Spur, James dished the ball on just 32 percent of his touches.
James produced a usage percentage (a possession ending in a shot attempt, foul drawn or turnover) of 10 percent when guarded by Leonard in Cleveland’s half-court offense. When guarded by other Spurs, James’s usage percentage increased to 62 percent.
“It’s just not playing against LeBron or a top-tier guy. I’m trying to go out with the same mindset every game,” Leonard said. “That’s what helps me when I do play somebody that’s great like him.”
West mentioned a key to stopping James is to “make him play defense,” which is precisely what Leonard did in dropping 20 points to go with 10 rebounds, five assists and two blocked shots.
Interestingly, both teams made 38 shots from the field for the game. The difference is that 45 percent of San Antonio’s made field goals came on open looks, compared to just 26 percent for the Cavaliers.
That’s lockdown defense, and Popovich praised both Parker and Leonard for their hands in it.
“Tony has carried us a lot this year because of his two-way play,” Popovich said. “He’s working his butt off on Kyrie Irving, who is a great player. That’s not easy to do, and he still was aggressive offensively. Kawhi made LeBron work for everything he had. So all together, it was a heck of a win because we gave away the first quarter. But after that, I thought we hung in, were consistent, were patient and did a pretty good job.”
Especially West, who provided a physical presence inside on defense while scoring 13 points to best Cleveland’s entire bench (12 total points), in addition to contributing five rebounds.
“This was a big game for us,” West said. “We’re trying to protect home court against a very dangerous, explosive team.”
San Antonio accomplished the mission.
Manu Ginobili, who finished with 10 points, acknowledged that Thursday’s victory might just be San Antonio’s best of the season.
“One of the best opponents we could play against. They gave us so many mismatches,” Ginobili said. “They play different than most of the teams. Of course, when you have a guy like LeBron, the whole team plays differently. Kawhi did a very good job of making him play uncomfortable. And as a team, we were very sharp after that first quarter. Great win. We realized that we were giving them too many open looks. We were not guarding the pick-and-roll very aggressively. So we’re lucky that happened in the first quarter. We had time to adjust things. So, a great way to pick up the defense. Then offensively, it’s tough. They are long. They are athletic. It’s not easy to score against them, and we missed a lot of shots too. Overall, I think it was a good game, a very good defensive night.”
Just wait until the Spurs' offense finally gets rolling.