By Rob Mahoney
The New Orleans Hornets worked their way into an unexpected first-half lead, but surrendered just enough in the fourth quarter to fall to the San Antonio Spurs, 99-95.
• When the Spurs play without Manu Ginobili, every win requires a little something extra. They might have to play slightly better defense than expected. Tony Parker may need to produce at an All-NBA level. Tim Duncan may need a throwback performance, or San Antonio's role players may need to provide some impromptu shot creation. San Antonio is deep (and well-structured) enough to give itself plenty of options, but is nonetheless in need of a wild card of sorts on every occasion.
On Tuesday night, that added element was a composite, keyed by Kawhi Leonard's 19 points, Duncan's heavy lifting in the fourth quarter, and a crucial go-ahead three-pointer from Parker — who converted just 23 percent of his long-distance tries last season. That the Spurs needed so much to go right late in this game in order to best a likely lottery team was slightly unexpected, but not entirely surprising given San Antonio's uncharacteristic inaccuracy from the perimeter.
This team led the league in three-point percentage a season ago for a reason; no offense in the NBA more consistently creates wide open looks for quality shooters on the perimeter. Yet Danny Green, Stephen Jackson, and Gary Neal combined to go 1-of-10 from beyond the arc, thus turning one of the Spurs' greatest strengths into a glaring void. Were it not for a few vintage possessions from Duncan and Parker's improbable three, the Hornets would have an inaugural win to validate their impressive season-opening effort.
• Anthony Davis was every bit as good as advertised, and gave basketball fans a peek behind the curtain to see his multidimensional potential. We saw Davis as a spot-up shooter; the rookie's catapult release connected twice from mid-range on three tries. We saw Davis as an alley-oop target; the Hornets' ball-handlers didn't always take advantage of the big man's hard rolls to the rim, but did set Davis up for a few automatic finishes via lob. We saw Davis as a unique help defender; few big men are capable of chasing down an athlete like Kawhi Leonard in transition and devouring his shot at the rim, yet there Davis was making it all look so easy. And unexpectedly, we saw Davis as a small forward; Monty Williams wasn't at all bashful about using Davis in a variety of roles, one of which was fulfilled in the frontcourt alongside Ryan Anderson and Jason Smith to mixed results.
That's a lot of breadth for just 29 minutes, and a lot of production (21 points and seven rebounds) to boot. Forget growing pains; Davis already plays like a pro, and is set for a marvelously dynamic rookie season for a New Orleans team that should be a lot of fun.
• The Hornets don't exactly have the pieces necessary to run an efficient offense over the course of a full season, but their roster limitations didn't prevent them from dropping 31 points in the first quarter and finishing the half with a cool 50. Greivis Vasquez was penetrating off the dribble with ease, and racked up 10 assists in the first half alone. Robin Lopez and Jason Smith looked like sure contributors thanks to the wide-open looks created. Al-Farouq Aminu made great cuts and appeared oddly pliable. There was a productive rotation behind and around Davis, and the Spurs' didn't seem at all interested in playing to their opponent's weaknesses to counter that fact over the first 24 minutes.
But then the second half came around, and the tenor of the game shifted immediately. The Spurs' offensive inconsistencies never allowed them to sprint the margin into their favor, but some added defensive pressure on the perimeter managed to keep the Hornets' offense under wraps from that point on. Vasquez did a good job of avoiding turnovers, but the New Orleans wings were hardly so lucky. Kawhi Leonard was fully weaponized against questionable ball-handlers and floated passes, and grabbed five steals to mark the occasion. Leonard does some really terrific defensive work for his age/experience level, but this was honestly a replicable performance for most Hornets opponents; basic ball-handling errors and ill-advised passes will put New Orleans' offense at a consistent disadvantage, so long as opponents commit some of their scouting report to aggressive on-ball defense.