The “Ginobili rules” of the West don’t put the Spurs in title contention

He took the ball on a bounce after a sloppy, tipped inbound.  He held it too long, allowing precious seconds tick away, robbing his team of any chance for an offensive rebound if his final shot missed.  He advanced then toward Luc Mbah a Moute, one of the best defenders — if not the best defender — in basketball.  He drove hard left but Mbah a Moute was there first.  He pushed Luc off with his right arm but not far enough — Mbah a Moute stayed right on him as he planted a pivot foot.  He had no time and no choice but to jump full back, with both feet — traveling — and tossed up a 20-footer that barely lofted over Mbah a Moute’s outstretched hand.

No whistles.  The jumper poured through the hoop at the buzzer, giving the Spurs a 92-90 win over the Bucks.

“He” is Manu Ginobili, Charles Barkley’s second favorite player.  How about Charles’ boy this week?

“You mean that he travelled?” – Sir Charles doth speaketh.  “… That’s a travel. In all 50 states, that’s a travel.”

Not in San Antonio, Texas, on a Wednesday night in December — and not when the 10-13 Milwaukee Bucks were on the verge of pulling off a Texas sweep of the teams with the best records in the West.  Are the Spurs and Mavs truly title contenders?   Maybe.  But no, not if Boston and Miami continue playing the way they’re playing, not really.  Not if they’re struggling — and the Mavs failing — to beat the Bucks in Texas.

It’s been two-plus seasons since Ginobili, Parker and Duncan made the West Finals but the story seems to be that this summer they “banded together” for a title run in 2011. It’s an improbable story when you consider that they haven’t really been close to a title since 2007 when they last won; and it’s not a story everybody’s buying into — the Denver Nuggets certainly didn’t on Thursday night.  FoxSports “In the Paint” NBA analyst Marques Johnson this week qualified  his take on the Spurs and Mavs as “the best in the West” with a telling … “for now.” And he says it twice for emphasis.

Marques (1977-1984) was the greatest forward to ever wear a Bucks uniform, the only Buck not named Kareem or Sidney to be a 1st team All-Pro.   It’s always strange to see Junior Bridgeman‘s #2 up in the BC rafters (though they on the court together for roughly half the game, Bridgeman was Marques’ backup) while Marques’ #8 is still in circulation, worn by rookie Larry Sanders (heck, I’d wear it too if I were a Bucks rookie).  Like Barkley, Marques is more keen on the Mavs chances — probably figuring that Dirk Nowitzki is the one player whom none of his contending Bucks teams would have had a defense for.  The Spurs?  “The Spurs are the Spurs,” Johnson shrugged.

But the thing that’s going unmentioned in the NBA this week by Marques, Barkley or anybody is that neither the Spurs or Mavs looked like championship contenders against the Bucks — a concession perhaps to the idea that the Bucks have the unluckiest 10-14 record in basketball and are so-under-the-radar in terms of contention that you need sonar to track them.  The Bucks haven’t backed away from any challenges since Andrew Bogut came back into the lineup, including the Heat, but that’s not the point — nobody’s going to talk about the Bucks until they start putting the ball in the basket with more regularity, go on a winning streak and actually beat the Heat, which they’ll get two chances to do the first week of January.

The point is, the Bucks were screwed in San Antonio — no other way to put it.  The refs didn’t just eat their whistles on Ginobili’s buzzer beater, they were loathe the entire game to call fouls on the Spurs starting five.  That isn’t going to happen if and when the Spurs meet Kobe, Gasol and the Lakers in the playoffs.

Here’s the foul story: One on Manu, one on Parker, one on DeJuan Blair and three on Tim Duncan, who was guarding Bogut most of the night and basically humped his arm with the score tied 90-90 and the Bucks trying to feed their All-Star center in the post.   No fouls on Richard Jefferson.  That’s six fouls in 150 minutes played by the Spurs starters — or an astounding one foul per 25 minutes played, which means the refs were not about to whistle even 5 fouls on the Spurs starters per 120 mins of available PT in a half.

Brandon Jennings was hacked all night by Tony Parker and battered to a 4-18 shooting night.  Yet the Bucks, with John Salmons and Corey Maggette all but benched for the game and Carlos Delfino still recovering from a head injury, had the ball with the score tied at 90 and 30 seconds to play.

The following night in Denver it was more of the same for the Spurs, playing at full strength against the Chauncey-less Nuggets.  Duncan fouled out two or three times by my count but was only whistled for four, even as his counterpart, Nene Hilario, was fouled out.  Parker — who fouls everybody in sight — was caught for all of one foul playing 37 minutes.  In the end it was Manu twisting for a layup to give the Spurs the lead and then saving the game by leaping into Carmelo Anthony‘s path to draw a charge as time expired — taking the winning points off the Denver scoreboard.

Was Ginobili there, planted in position in time?   It was close, too close not to question — but it was Manu.  Of course the call went his way, whether or not what he did was to jump — leap, literally, both feet in the air from the weakside — under Carmelo as Carmelo (31 pts in the game) was gathering to lift to the rim.

But hey — it was Manu.  Tough luck, Carmelo.  “Bullshit,” said Nuggets coach George Karl.  The Spurs are now 22-3, the best record in basketball and they’re playing at full strength in December. It’s the fastest start in Spurs history.  But I watched the Spurs lose twice this week, and so did you — only to see the refs award them the wins.  No, the Spurs are no title contender — they don’t have the muscle in the paint to help Duncan and truly contend, and no amount of magical refereeing will allow the Manu and Parker and RJ show to carry them to the finals.

Call the Spurs a lucky 22-3, as lucky as the Bucks 10-14 mark has been unlucky and injury riddled.  As lucky as the Bears 9-4 record atop the NFC North (oh, that’s probably stretching it).  The luck of things in the NBA have a tendency to even out over the grueling 82-game schedule — let’s not go ahead and crown their asses yet.   Remember, against the Bucks, the Spurs were posterized in the 4th quarter by, of all people, Drew Gooden.

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“I still don’t think he’s a center” — Kevin McHale on the Hawks Al Horford — who is not a center despite the Hawks insistence (under Mike Woodson anyway) that Horford is a 6’11″center.   In Boston, Horford had just hit an early 18-footer against the Celtics, and McHale noted that Horford’s improving 18-footer was the thing that “separates him from other big forwards.”  Al Horford, power forward.  Too small to start against Andrew Bogut and other centers (that task goes to Hawks big man Jason Collins), and too small at 6’9 to appear on center ranking lists.  Hopefully, commentary like McHale’s is a sign that Bogut will be making his All-Star game debut in Los Angeles in February.

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Bogut since his return against the Magic Dec. 4:  19.8 pts – 14.2 rebs – 4 blks – 1 steal – 2.3 assists per game.  Add in the possessions that he turns over by taking charges and the result is a center playing better now than Dwight Howard.  Overall, Bogut leads the NBA in blocks per game (3.1) and has the 3rd-best defensive rating in the league (96.5 pts allowed per 100 possessions when he’s on the court) behind Kevin Garnett and Howard.  That’s the sort of company AB keeps these days.

If Bogut keeps it up and continues hitting 55% of his shots (50 of 89 since tipping it off against the Magic), the Bucks should weather the current scheduling nightmare (and AB’s horrendous free throw shooting) by earning a few tough road wins in the West — and be right on the Bulls’ tails by late January.

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Speaking of centers and the Bulls, Joakim Noah will be out nursing a broken right thumb until after the All-Star break.  With the Bucks in the middle of the toughest stretch of basketball in the league this season, fate (or Bulls management) has conspired to make sure the Bulls don’t run away with the Central.  The Bulls can’t and won’t keep up their 16-8 pace (and 3rd-ranked defense) without their defensive anchor in the paint having the All-Star season he was having — but the Bucks have a six game hole to climb out of while playing the toughest December-early January schedule in the league.

The Bucks play Dec. 28 and Jan. 24 in Chicago.  Noah will miss both of those, which means the Bucks won’t get a chance to see the Rose-Noah-Boozer Bulls until Feb. 26 in Milwaukee.  That’s too bad, because a Bucks-Bulls game without Joakim Noah is like playing the Celtics without Kevin Garnett — it takes the fun out of the battle for the paint.  I wonder if Bogut will miss him.

I can’t help but wonder, though, given that 2-handed push shot that Noah throws up at the rim,  what he needs his right thumb for?

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