Ring the bell, sound the alarm, notify the press. The San Antonio Spurs have just landed the first successful blow in a three-way contender's battle that will define this NBA season.
The Spurs' 99-95 win against the Cleveland Cavaliers on their home floor Thursday was the first of three upcoming meeting between the NBA's three true contenders in the next 11 days, a list made up of those two and the NBA's best Golden State Warriors. All three teams will play each other in January, starting with San Antonio's surprisingly dominant extermination of Cleveland.
The Cavaliers won just one quarter, the first one, but they won it big, holding a 32-20 lead after the opening 12-minute salvos were exchanged. After that, San Antonio turned the game into a steady grind, slowing climbing back into the action before finally charging ahead with a strong push to begin the final frame. After that, they didn't give up the lead again.
Tony Parker, the biggest question mark coming into the year for San Antonio, continues to make us wish we'd never doubted him. He dropped 24 points on 18 shots on Thursday, continuing a fantastic season in the smallest role San Antonio has asked him to play yet. He's still crucial, of course, make no mistake, but there's plenty others who can step in when Parker doesn't have it, just like a retro performance from the French blur like Thursday's can cover up others' inequities. Against Cleveland, Parker was making up for LaMarcus Aldridge, who only scored six points on seven shots. The old Aldridge would be mortified by such a performance, as would we, but facing some fabulous Tristan Thompson defense, the Spurs' chances weren't harmed by a team-first Aldridge taking a backseat. That's the Spursian way, one that has never been easier to implement with this stacked roster.
The only exception is Kawhi Leonard, who has graduated from his place as a rotating star and taken on the burden of nightly expectations that used to be Tim Duncan's. Nobody's filling in for Leonard, but nobody needs to. On Thursday, Leonard had an evening just like any other: 20 points on 14 shots, 10 rebounds, five assists and the smothering, asphyxiating defense that still makes our eyes pop sometimes even after seeing it for years now. Most of it was directly at LeBron James' expense, but he didn't even need to be guarding him directly to get in The King's head -- all while recovering to abuse poor Richard Jefferson anyway.
Welcome to the new Spurs, which are basically the old Spurs except deeper and scarier than ever. I mean, Gregg Popovich got 13 points from David West in Thursday's win. He played Jonathon Simmons nine minutes and Kyle Anderson five! Eleven-man rotations don't typically make appearances in games like this, not with the playoff atmosphere of the AT&T Center that still hasn't seen a loss this season, but Popovich used it like it was the most normal thing in the world.
The Spurs will meet the Cavaliers in Cleveland on Jan. 30 and there's a great chance we'll see a different result. While there's other teams that could factor into the race for the Larry O'Brien trophy -- the Thunder, mostly, but it's still a bit early to rule out the Clippers or Bulls -- we're all pretty sure it's going to be either these two or the Warriors still standing at the end of it. And while Golden State's still lurking on the sidelines, it was San Antonio that just landed a convincing punch.
3 things we learned
Jimmy Butler decided to score 53 on one leg
Butler was going to sit this game out. It was just the Philadelphia 76ers that Chicago was playing, after all, the NBA's worst team. But Butler doesn't like to sit, especially since he has a bet with a trainer that he was going to play all 82 games this year. And so, as the Bulls decided to practically disintegrate around him, Butler started scoring and really never stopped. After Philadelphia took their first 20-point lead of the season, Butler just about single-handedly forced overtime, scoring 51 in regulation before E'Twaun Moore's seven points took Chicago home in overtime. (Wait, what the hell did I just type.) What a showing from Butler, with dunks and and-one jumpers and so, so many free throws helping him tie Stephen Curry for the top scoring output in the NBA this year.
Let's pour one out for the Detroit Pistons
In December, Matt Barnes pulled up for half-court shot with multiple seconds left in the game with Memphis down two. His coach was screaming for a timeout. His teammates were yelling for a better shot. It went in anyway, because f*** it, he's Matt Barnes and that's just the weird things that happen when you're Matt Barnes. The Grizzlies won.
So yeah, if I'm the Pistons, that's at least a sore wound. Really a buzzkill way to lose a game. And then on Thursday, Memphis saw that, pulled up in a fire truck and hosed down the wound with hydrogen peroxide with this finish right here.
Rudy Gay with the fading, falling game winner
What a night in the NBA because we're not even going to get to Stephen Curry, who hit eight triples, giving him more games with that many threes in his last 72 games than Ray Allen has in his career. Nor will we touch on a pretty fun Raptors win against Orlando that also went to overtime. Why aren't we going to touch on those? Because Rudy Gay won the damn game for Sacramento.
Beating Utah is pretty important in the Kings' push for the Western Conference's eighth seed, so props to Sacramento. They're just a game out now!
Play of the night
Tony Parker, capping off his sensational night with this absurd move.
4 fun things
Tristan Thompson's 15-foot free throw went about, uh, 12 feet?
Jonas Valanciunas is straddling the line between aggressive inbounds defense and ... I don't even know. Please, I'm a poor, underappreciated millennial and I don't understand the jokes people keep making about this and now the Suns' owner is probably going to yell at me.
Jerry West wants to euthanize Kobe Bryant. Well, OK, something like that.
We also got another Pop-Craig Sager interview, which are always delightful:
Spurs 99, Cavaliers 95 (Pounding the Rock recap | Fear the Sword recap | SB Nation recap)
Raptors 106, Magic 103 (OT) (Raptors HQ recap | Orlando Pinstriped Post recap)
Bulls 115, 76ers 111 (OT) (Blog a Bull recap | Liberty Ballers recap)
Grizzlies 103, Pistons 101 (Grizzly Bear Blues recap | Detroit Bad Boys recap)
Kings 103, Jazz 101 (Sactown Royalty recap | SLC Dunk recap)
Warriors 116, Lakers 98 (Golden State of Mind recap | Silver Screen & Roll recap)