As San Antonio looks to continue its 31-game home winning streak, the club meets the perfect opponent in the Cavaliers, who own the designation of being the last team to drop the Spurs in their home arena during the regular season.
ESPN NBA reporters Dave McMenamin and Michael C. Wright take a look at the teams and the matchup:
Wright: Cleveland was the last team to come to AT&T Center and knock off the Spurs in the regular season in March during a 128-125 OT shootout. How different is this Cavaliers team compared to that squad, and what do you remember most about that game?
McMenamin: The first thing that comes to mind is the seat I had for Kyrie Irving's 3-pointer to send it to OT. What a shot. What a view. In terms of what's different, there are a few things, but nothing too drastic. In that game, Kevin Love was benched in the fourth quarter and extra period, and it was a big deal because of his impending free agency. This season, Love has been benched twice in the fourth quarter and it barely has been a footnote because it's just a reality of his defensive liabilities against certain small-ball lineups. Other than that, Tristan Thompson has replaced Timofey Mozgov as the starting center, Matthew Dellavedova is playing a much more steady backup point guard role, and Richard Jefferson is replacing James Jones (for the time being, at least) as the ninth guy in coach David Blatt's nine-man rotation.
Kawhi Leonard's résumé, punctuated with an NBA Finals MVP under his belt already and the sterling season he's putting together so far -- 20 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals while shooting 52/49/88 -- should make him one of the faces of the league. Yet he is as an enigmatic superstar as they come. Have you noticed him coming out of his shell at all?
Wright: Definitely. Now, Leonard isn't going to come out and tell you his life story or anything like that. But you can certainly tell he's starting to get more comfortable with sort of taking over as the face of the franchise. Even though Leonard isn't a huge talker, he's always available to reporters after games, almost as if he knows it's his responsibility as one of the team's leaders to serve as a spokesman, win or lose. And given the way he has performed over the past couple of seasons, more people want to interview Leonard. So with increased interview repetitions, he naturally has gotten better at handling those situations.
Many don't realize it, but the Spurs are a very close, but loose group, which means lots of sarcasm and jokes in the locker room. Coach Gregg Popovich and many of Leonard's teammates have definitely noticed the forward has become more comfortable in social situations. On the court, you've got to realize, Leonard has waited quite a while for this opportunity to be "the man." So with each passing game, you're seeing more assertiveness from Leonard as his confidence continues to grow.
LeBron James, Irving and Love seem to generate all the headlines out in Cleveland, but how big has J.R. Smith been for the Cavaliers, given that he seems to be playing at an All-Star level, which in turn opens up things inside?
McMenamin: When I wrote about Smith's 3-point credentials earlier during the Cavs' current six-game road trip, I almost did him a disservice. Yes, his offense has been on an uptick during the Cavs' eight-game winning streak, averaging 16.4 points while shooting 44.9 percent from 3. But his defense has really been admirable, too. He's also averaging 1.6 steals during the streak. When I was working on that story about his 3-point acumen, both Irving and James made a point to mention to me Smith's defensive attentiveness this season. He's one of those guys who can really make an opponent play because while they're game-planning for James, Irving and Love, Smith can sneak up and hurt you.
Wright: The Spurs are still Duncan, Ginobili and Parker's team. But we're certainly in the midst of the transition from the old big three to a new one comprising Leonard, Aldridge and Danny Green. The front office deserves a ton of credit for making this transition virtually seamless. Now to answer your question about what's left in the tank for those guys, that's a tough one because of the way Popovich has managed their minutes this season.
Obviously, you see that Duncan's numbers are somewhat down, and for the first time in his career he has finished a game without scoring any points, and another one in which he didn't net a rebound. But in gauging what Duncan has left, I keep going back to the 2014-15 playoffs, when he was the club's most consistent player in that series against the Los Angeles Clippers. I don't think Duncan can contribute big numbers on a nightly basis anymore, which is why Popovich is making sure to manage his minutes. But once the playoffs hit, I doubt any of us will be talking about Father Time catching up with Duncan because we won't see any real drop-off in his game.
Ginobili is in the same situation as Duncan, but plays more minutes, and is still highly effective as the catalyst for the second group. If the desire to continue playing is there, I could see Ginobili and Duncan being productive players for at least two more seasons. Parker is just 33, and in a slightly different situation. Now that he's fully healthy, Parker looks like the Parker of old and remains one of the NBA's fastest players. Popovich obviously is thinking long term with Parker, too, as he definitely manages his point guard's minutes, and sits him out of games for rest just like he does with Ginobili and Duncan.
Given the emphasis the Spurs place on chemistry and seeing up close how the whole dynamic is working out here, how would you gauge chemistry in Cleveland, considering all the big-name players on that team?
McMenamin: It really all works because of James. While some players (such as Irving) took some time to grasp his way of doing things last season or never fell in line and had to be traded (such as Dion Waiters), the Cavs have all adopted James' approach from Day 1 this season. That's not to say the Cavs aren't constantly evolving and their players are all totally satisfied with their minutes and touches at every moment of the evolution, but it is a healthy locker room, a focused group and a close-knit environment.
What's it like covering Gregg Popovich on a daily basis? Have you ever been "Pop'd"? Has he made you change your normal tactics at all as a reporter to try to connect better with him?
Wright: Man, it has been a blast. When I decided to move over from the NFL to an NBA beat, lots of folks warned me about the "secretive Spurs" while adding that Popovich could be difficult to deal with. But I've found him to be totally different than that. He's an intriguing guy with interests that go way beyond basketball, which to me is a part of why he has been so successful. Have I been "Pop'd?" Definitely, that's a rite of passage on the Spurs beat, and you can't take it personally because he doesn't mean anything by it. Popovich got me in Memphis when I was working on this feature on Leonard.
As I'm working the story, I'm starting to get a little worried about turning it in by deadline. The Spurs' public relations staff lets Popovich know the situation, and he invites me into his office at the AT&T Center around 30 minutes before tipoff of a game. I sit down, and tell Popovich we could've knocked it all out in Memphis had he just answered my question and not shot me down. Popovich starts laughing, and says, "Don't mind me." We then sit down and have this great 15-minute conversation, and Popovich gives me some great stuff for the story.
I get the impression Popovich looks at what he's doing simply as coaching basketball, which isn't saving lives, helping people or changing the world. Therefore, to Popovich, it's not serious. So he doesn't take himself too seriously, and I can tell he's got little patience for people who do. As for reporting tactics, the only thing I'm mindful of is making sure to not ask questions, but just to keep him talking (as many of us do). So basically, don't ask questions just for the sake of asking them. Also, when you do ask a question, make sure it's thoughtful. And never start a question with "talk about" (that's basic Journalism 101 though, right?). That's the easiest way to get "Pop'd." If anything, working with Popovich makes you tighten up your game as a reporter. That's a good thing.