The Hornets enter tonight's contest against the reigning champion San Antonio Spurs on a five-game winning streak, their best stretch of the season. And while they're playing as well as they have all season, the Spurs have hit an injury-induced rough patch, having lost to both the Detroit Pistons and Washington Wizards in the past week. San Antonio will be traveling overnight after a Tuesday night match in Washington, and even their terrific depth probably won't be enough to overcome the natural fatigue caused by a road back-to-back, so the Hornets, who have been off since Saturday's blowout win over the New York Knicks will have that going in their favor.
Unfortunately, though, most advantages in this game will be held by the Spurs. Even though they'll (likely) be without the services of Marco Belinelli and Kawhi Leonard, both of whom sat out last night's loss, they're still one of the most talented and balanced teams in the league. Tim Duncan is sone of the best big men in the NBA- a statement equal parts ludicrous, inevitable, and factual- and Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are exactly what any team would want their veteran players to be. Add that to the part where San Antonio's coaching and front office collaborate to get the maximum possible value out of their role players, and you've got a veteran, injury-marred squad who still rank among the most imposing teams in the league.
Yes, it's more of the same in San Antonio (although with tempered expectations for a championship this season), and their system will win out in the long run. Every player on the Spurs can pass; eleven of them have assist percentages of 10% or higher. Their offense ranks 12th in efficiency, which is low for them, but their defense is sixth. They're sixth in the league in three-point percentage, eighth in two-point percentage, and fifth in defensive two-point percentage (translation: Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter still don't let anyone score). How deep are the Spurs? Twelve different players have started a game for the team this season. Manu Ginobili is not one of those twelve.
The good news for the Hornets is that the Spurs' game has quite a few more holes in it this season. They struggle with turnovers on both ends of the court, and they aren't getting to the free throw line as often as they typically do. Add that to the typical back-to-back fatigue, and the Hornets may see a few things they could take advantage of. They'll need to play great defense (I am genuinely excited to see Bismack Biyombo defend Duncan) and be efficient with the basketball, so it may be a good thing that the turnover-prone Lance Stephenson will be coming off the bench tonight. Also, Lance Stephenson returns from injury tonight. Surprise!
Okay, if you hadn't heard that news already, I'm sorry for springing it on you so late in this article. In my defense, I wanted to make sure everyone knows that beating the Spurs is going to be a daunting task with or without Stephenson. Naturally, more eyes will be on him than the team's defensive play, I'm sure, but the difference is going to lie on how the Hornets stop the varied Spurs attack. While I'd love to see Kemba Walker put up another 30 points, like he's averaged in the last five games, it's important to note that none of those five games came against a team that ranks in the top half of the league in defensive efficiency. The Hornets are going to need offensive production from their secondary options and bench in order to stay competitive with a team that's more than willing to match any other team with depth.