Heading into his fourth season, San Antonio Spurs point guard Cory Joseph was still a mystery to the NBA, though one that some light would be shed on with Patty Mills expected to miss half the season while recovering from shoulder surgery.
Injuries to Tony Parker, however, turned opportunity into necessity, which often breeds invention. And the Spurs have needed Joseph to reinvent himself from caretaker to playmaker, the evolution showing itself in the first half of the Spurs 102-91 victory over the Washington Wizards.
With Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili struggling–each shooting 2-8 for the game–it was Joseph who kept the Spurs afloat in the first half, scoring 17 of his 19 points, while the Wizards torched the Spurs’ defense with 58 points on 60.5 percent shooting.
“He’s gotten better every year, it’s just a matter of confidence,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “You see him taking shots and making moves he hasn’t before. He feels more and more license to be aggressive.”
Coming off a dribble handoff from Boris Diaw at the end of the third quarter, with Khris Humphries switching on him as he curled through the lane, Joseph gave a subtle burst to send the big man chasing, showing the ball in an exaggerated motion to lift Humphries off his feet, spinning back around for an uncontested layup.
“Watching a lot of [Rajon] Rondo clips,” Joseph explained afterwards with a smile and hint of swagger in his voice. “I went, seen him trailing and felt like he was going to jump, which he did, and just had to finish it from there.”
This highlight of the night also proved to Joseph’s only basket of the second half; fatigue perhaps setting in from an illness that had him questionable heading into the game. But the display of aggressiveness and a defensive effort to help stymie Wall and the Wizards in the second half helped carry the Spurs through the roughest moments of the game.
“He’s been very important for us, playing sick. He really attacked the rim well and made a lot of jumpers,” Ginobili said. “He made things happen for us, especially in the first half when we weren’t at our best.”
The Spurs scored well enough, but were peppered by a slew of mid-range jumpers from John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter. In the second half defenders did a little better job of locking and trailing through screens, contesting pull-ups, and were fortunate to have the shooting percentages regress.
Playing on the second end of a back-to-back, Wall shot just 2-6 in the second half and the Wizards offense collapsed, shooting just 40 percent from the field.
“I thought we played pretty good defense. They went cold and that always makes your defense look better,” Popovich said. “I thought Tiago [Splitter} did a good job down low, I thought Boris [Diaw] helped us offensively, obviously, and we were able to use him a lot tonight and he came through in the second half.”
Diaw isn’t a great player by any means, and he’s struggled throughout the season, but if an opposing team presents him with the wrong matchup he can leverage it in ways generally reserved for superstars.
In the second half that matchup was Humphries, with Diaw eschewing his usual bag of feints and pivots; simply dislodging Humphries, turning, and lofting a simple hook shot.
Diaw scored 12 of his 14 points in the second half off of simple post isolations, a pull-up jumper off the closeout, and moving off the ball and setting screens to present open opportunities and mismatches.
It wasn’t a pretty victory, but the Spurs depth finally showed itself, hitting the weary Wizards in waves.
Patty Mills, never lacking for confidence but finding himself more comfortable with every shot, hit three three-pointers, contributing 15 points off the bench. Splitter, his hook shot hitting the bottom of the net as its wont to do once every three weeks, scored 16 points on eight shots.
And Marco Belinelli, moving seamlessly into the gaps of the defense, helped close things out with 10 of his 12 points in the second half, including this beautiful collaboration between he, Duncan, and Ginobili: