Way back in August, it was a delight to see that good friend David "Southern Hospitality" Thiessen of Spur of the Moment was actually high enough on the Celtics to take the time to project the outcome of a potential 2008 Finals match-up between the C's and his beloved Spurs. Roughly three-quarters of the way through the joy that has been the 2007-08 season, that match-up looks like it could very well come to fruition, and the season's second preview of it comes tonight, as the Celts head down to San Antonio to battle the boys of the Alamo. Over the weekend, DT took a few minutes to chat about all subjects Spurs-related, including how his initial projections have changed over the course of the season and his comparison of stud power forwards Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan this season. You might be surprised by some of what you read...
SW: You and I have chatted several times about what a weird year this has been for the Spurs. Early in the season, even though they seemed to be engaged in their usual "mail-it-in until the calendar turns" routine, you told me you thought it was clear that there was 'something different about this team,' and it seemed that many pundits felt similarly. We got to February, and the Spurs ran off eleven straight to hop atop the West, and all the "They did it again! They mailed it in for several months and then awoke at just the right time!" sentiments came out of the woodwork from folks around the country. Now, the Spurs have lost five of six during one of the toughest stretches of their schedule, and I have no clue as to how to read this team. So what's the deal? Are they same team as always, one that simply can't be bothered with regular season games? Will we see the same bastion of efficiency and consistency that we always have come playoff time? If not, what's missing?
DT: That's a very good question, one that every Spurs fan is asking but struggling to find an answer to. To me, the biggest difference is that that they haven't found any consistency in their play. The biggest culprit has been injuries. Throughout December and January, they were hit hard by nagging injuries to Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Brent Barry, which kept them from establishing a consistent rotation. After the All-Star break, it looked like they were finding some consistency with the Big Three all healthy. They reeled off 11 wins, and they looked good. Then came a huge test with five games against playoff teams in eight days, and the Spurs failed that test by going 1-4. Compare this to last season when the Spurs went 23-6 after the All-Star break, with three of those losses coming at the end of the season when most of the starters didn't play or sat most of the game. Even though the Spurs might have struggled earlier last season, they found consistency after the All-Star break. I can't say the same this year.
I’m not so sure that we will see the same efficiency and consistency come playoff time. Only the Big Three can be counted on every night. The role players have been too inconsistent throughout the year. Robert Horry looks washed up most nights. Michael Finley believes he is a great shooter when in reality he shoots under 40%. Bruce Bowen can’t score. The Spurs simply haven’t shown that they can play at a high level for more than a few games at a time. At some point age will catch up with this team, and we might be seeing that moment.
SW: In the latest edition of the Blogger MVP Rankings over at TWolvesBlog, the Spurs had two finishers in the top ten...and, of course, one of them (Manu Ginobili) isn't even a starter! I found this comment by TWolvesBlog's College Wolf particularly intriguing: "To borrow from The Scholars at We Rite Goode...is there any way the MVP is a guy that comes off the bench? Or even a guy that came off the bench at any point during the season? I don't think so." How do you respond to that?
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DT: I respond by saying, "Loosen up." There is no way Ginobili should win the MVP, but I think it is fair to say that he has been one of the top 10 players throughout the year. Look at his numbers for February, when he started all 11 games and played 36.6 minutes per game. He averaged 24.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 6.5 assists while shooting 50.9 percent on field goals, 47.6 percent on threes and 87.1 percent on free throws. Those numbers rival Kobe Bryant’s. If he started every game and played 36 minutes, I don’t doubt that he could duplicate those averages. Throughout the year, Ginobili has been arguably the second best shooting guard after Kobe Bryant, even though he averages 31 minutes per game. I don’t see anything wrong with putting him in the top 10 of MVP voting based on these numbers, and recognizing his great season.
SW: As you're well aware, I was (and still am) quite jealous when the Spurs acquired big man Kurt Thomas from the Sonics before the trade deadline. What is your impression of him as a Spur thus far? How much of a difference do you think he will make in the playoffs?
DT: I’m happy with Thomas so far. His shooting percentage and rebounds are down slightly compared to his time with Seattle, but that’s to be expected when a player joins a team midseason. Thomas brings three things to the Spurs: mid-range shooting, rebounding and defense. He has shown each asset at different times. Against Phoenix a few games ago, he executed the pick-and-roll with Ginobili perfectly. When his man helped on Ginobili, he stepped out for a 15-to-18-foot shot. In other games, he has hit the boards hard and helped there. I think he will have a nice impact in the playoffs. Thomas fits in well with the Spurs and has shown the ability to blend in without causing any problems.
SW: We talk all the time about how this is a team that cares more about being healthy and rested than seeding and match-ups heading into the playoffs. Is that still the case this season? How important is seeding for this Spurs team? Who would be an ideal match-up in the playoffs? Is there a team that would be a particularly difficult first-round match-up for your boys?
DT: That is still the case, to an extent at least. I would much rather have everybody healthy, but they need home court advantage for the first round at the minimum. They are 27-5 at home this season but 17-17 on the road. Like I said above, they haven’t been consistent for more than a month all season, and a deep playoff run requires consistency for at least two months. I don’t think it makes a difference if they are first or fourth in the West, as long as they are one of the top four seeds.
As for match-ups, I don’t think anybody in the West will be easy. There is no ideal match-up for the Spurs. Whoever wins the West will have played three very tough series that will be on par to the conference finals in the East. I’ve gone back-and-forth on the toughest match-ups. New Orleans has absolutely dominated the Spurs in two of their games, with David West having an easy time and Chris Paul doing his thing. They could be a very tough match-up. If the Lakers are healthy, they are obviously a very tough match-up for everybody. The Spurs have owned Phoenix the past few years, but the Suns' win the other week might have boosted their confidence. Basically, every team is a tough match-up.
SW: Give us a feel for the Spurs this year. What have been the top three themes or moments of the season thus far, and where do you think the Spurs will end up in the Western Conference? Feel free to provide projections of the playoffs if that's helpful.
DT: The three biggest themes to me are injuries, inconsistencies and Ginobili. All three are in some ways interconnected. The injuries defined December, January and early February. Every Spurs fan kept wondering when all the players would be healthy again. These injuries then played into the inconsistencies. With the starting lineup constantly changing, players were forced into roles they weren’t physically capable of filling for too long, which led to some up-and-down moments. Then with the Spurs struggling to find themselves, Ginobili decided to take over in the month of February, playing better than just about anybody. Some members of the media, especially John Hollinger, predicted that Ginobili would decline this year, but he has played better than ever.
Wow, playoff projections. That is pretty much impossible in the West. A week ago the Spurs were first in the West, and now they are sixth. The top seven teams are separated by two and a half games, making this race closer than ever.
SW: Now, on we go to a few questions designed to get the readership of this site jumping down your throat. Who has done more for his team this season: KG or Tim Duncan? Who would you rather have going into the playoffs, the 2007-08 Kevin Garnett, or the 2007-08 Tim Duncan? Why?
DT: Thanks Steve. I’m going to have both fan groups jumping down my throat after this answer.
I think KG has done more for his team this season. Just look at how he has transformed the Celtics' mindset. Before the season, I wasn’t sure that the Celtics could compete defensively, but he single-handedly made them one of the best defensive units. Tim Duncan has of course been extremely important to the Spurs, but he hasn’t had to transform a team like KG has.
However, I would rather have Tim Duncan come playoff time. I know that KG hasn’t had great supporting casts throughout his career like Duncan has, but I can’t overlook the experience factor. I don’t know how much we can blame KG for his lack of [deep] playoff experience, but Duncan has been there numerous times and knows how to perform in the playoffs.
SW: I remember being amused back in the summer when you wrote a column projecting how a potential Celtics-Spurs Finals would play out, although I could have done without your prediction that the Spurs would take the series. Now that we're through three-fourths of the season, how have your perceptions about such a series changed?
DT: Well, you’ll be happy to hear that I think the Celtics would win such a series right now. Call me a skeptic, but the Spurs haven’t impressed me this season and have left me wanting more. Part of that column was about breaking down the individual match-ups. I would still have them playing out the same way for the most part. Tony Parker has an edge against Rajon Rondo. Manu Ginobili has an edge against Ray Allen. Paul Pierce has an edge against Bruce Bowen. Tim Duncan and KG nearly cancel each other out, but I give TD the slightest of edges because of experience. Kurt Thomas and Fabricio Oberto edge out Kendrick Perkins.
The biggest difference in such a series comes from the bench, which I gave handily to the Spurs. Besides Ginobili and Ime Udoka on occasion, the Spurs bench has been extremely disappointing while the Celtics bench has blown all expectations out of the water. With Big Baby, errr….I mean the Pugnacious Papoose [SW: Atta boy, Dave!], Tony Allen, James Posey, Eddie House and now Sam Cassell and P.J. Brown, the Celtics have more options than the Spurs. I just don’t trust the Spurs bench to provide scoring anymore, which is a big issue. The Celtics would win because their bench has improved throughout the season and proven capable of winning games for the team.
SW: Got a score prediction for tonight's game?
DT: How about Boston 102, San Antonio 94? Like I said, call me a skeptic.
As always, it's a pleasure to hear from David, and we can't thank him enough for taking the time to provide some insightful and well thought-out responses. Enjoy the stretch run, sir.