SAN ANTONIO — The San Antonio Spurs are without Tony Parker and their usual fire on defense, but they still have Tim Duncan. They needed the All-Star power forward to overcome their alarming lack of defense Saturday.
Duncan had 30 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks, and the Spurs beat the Cleveland Cavaliers 119-113.
Kawhi Leonard added 24 points and 13 boards, and Manu Ginobili added 14 points and 10 assists for San Antonio (51-16), which is 1½ games ahead of Oklahoma City for the top seed in the Western Conference.
“Tim saved our (butt),” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who was ejected midway through the second quarter. “He obviously carried the whole night for us. He was great. It shouldn’t have to be that way.”
Nando De Colo had 11 points and Tiago Splitter 10 for the Spurs.
Playing without its top two players in point guard Kyrie Irving and center Anderson Varejao, Cleveland (22-44) led 103-102 with five minutes left in the game.
Opponents were averaging 96.2 points against the Spurs entering Saturday’s game, but the Cavaliers had 90 after three quarters. For a franchise and a coach that has won four NBA titles on the shoulders of its defense, the lack of focus is troubling to say the least.
“We’ve got to step up and play better,” Ginobili said. “The playoffs are around the corner; 15 games to go and we are doing worse than at the beginning of the season. We’ve got to go by this slump and get our things together.”
Wayne Ellington had 21 points and fellow reserve Marreese Speights added 19 for Cleveland. Shaun Livingston had 16 points, and Alonzo Gee and Dion Waiters added 15 apiece.
Neither offense was slowed by the loss of its starting All-Star point guards. Parker is expected to miss another two weeks with a Grade 2 left ankle sprain and Cleveland will be without Irving (shoulder) for another three weeks.
It was defense that both teams were lacking.
“We’ve been emphasizing for two and half weeks and it hasn’t done any good,” Popovich said. “I need to learn another language or I don’t know what. But, very disappointed in our defensive execution in the last two to three weeks after we raised our stock from being a middle of the road defensive team last year to one of the top two or three this year.
“Then in the last three weeks, we decide to toss it; that it’s not important. I’m really concerned and disappointed in that.”
Frustration with that defense may have led to Popovich’s ejection. He was ejected with 6:33 left in the first half after arguing a charge Ed Malloy called on Boris Diaw against Luke Walton. After the initial technical, Popovich was quickly assessed a second and ejected after storming onto the court, yelling and pointing at Malloy.
San Antonio outscored Cleveland 19-12 down the stretch, but the Cavs shot 51 percent from the field.
Duncan blocked Tristan Thompson’s layup attempt with the Spurs leading 113-109 and 54.9 seconds remaining. Duncan also blocked Waiters’ shot with 17.9 seconds left and San Antonio leading 116-111.
It was two of the few defensive highlights for the Spurs.
“It’s not been great and I don’t know why,” Duncan said. “I think the effort is there. We’re playing hard. We’re giving up too many straight drives right to the rim. We’ve got find a way to kind of counter that; find a way to clean that up.”
Duncan had 13 points in the first quarter, going 6 for 9 and collecting six rebounds.
He tossed in a 2-foot jumper that gave the Spurs a 30-21 lead with 3 minutes left in the first quarter. Leonard picked up an assist on the basket, hustling in from out of bounds to tip his own missed shot to Duncan.
“We’re moving the ball and it’s gone to the post a little more,” Duncan said. “That’s where I’m a little more effective. I still haven’t gotten my shot back the way I want it. I’m just trying to be aggressive.”
Waiters’ 3 with 7 minutes left in the first half capped a 13-5 run that gave the Cavaliers a 48-44 lead.
After CJ Miles made both free throws on Popovich’s technicals, the Spurs closed the first half on a 22-11 run to take a 66-61 lead. Ginobili had eight points in the run and Duncan added seven.
Cleveland shot 61 percent from the field in the first half.
“I think they’re the best team in the league,” Cavaliers coach Byron Scott said. “I don’t know if they’re going to win it. They have the best talent and the best coach, so they have a great shot of winning another championship. I think for us, we played this game really well.”
The Spurs never trailed in the third quarter, but Livingston’s layup with 1:20 left tied the game at 90 to set up the fourth quarter.