You were probably tempted to pity the Spurs. There they were, with the league's best record, cruising through the playoffs, when Derek Anderson
came crashing down in the blink of an eye. You watched as he writhed in pain and the doctors announced that Anderson would be sidelined for three-to-six weeks with a separated shoulder. He had been the team's prized offseason acquisition, the "X-factor," the reason why San Antonio would reclaim its championship after a one-season detour in Los Angeles.
But then Anderson went down and things began to look bleak. Where would the Spurs replace his scoring and athleticism? How could they defend Michael Finley
? No one can replace Anderson of course, but the Spurs were not without answers for sitting on the bench was Antonio Daniels
No, Daniels is not Derek Anderson -- there is a reason why Anderson started all 82 games this season -- but he played the part well in Game 2 of the Spurs' Western Conference Semifinal series against the Mavericks. He scored 12 points in 34 minutes in his first playoff start, displaying Anderson-like athleticism and a consistent shooting stroke. Based on his recent performance -- in his last three games, Daniels has averaged 13.7 points on 15-for-25 (9-of-13 from three-point range) -- the Spurs may be just fine without Anderson.
"I don't want to put pressure on myself. I'm just going to go out and play the way I know how to play," Daniels said before Game 2. "Continue to be aggressive and continue to play off Tim [Duncan]
and Dave [Robinson]
. If I have a shot, shoot it. If not, drive it. But most important, play by the system."
The system certainly helps. With Duncan and Robinson demanding defensive attention in the paint, Spurs guards are constantly left open for jump shots or drives. Daniels was fortunate to step into a situation where others could create opportunities for him. In Game 2, he took advantage of open looks but rarely forced the issue.
"Antonio filled in like he'd always been there," Robinson said.
It's not that Daniels is incapable of being a creator. Quite to the contrary, he is blessed with remarkable athleticism and is a good enough ballhandler to play either guard position. In fact, before this season, he was known mostly for being a talented player who had yet to find his niche. Selected by Vancouver with the fourth pick in the 1997 Draft, Daniels struggled after being handed the starting point guard position, and was jettisoned to San Antonio after one season. He saw limited playing time in the Spurs' 1998-99 title run and worked his way into the Spurs' rotation the following year.
But it is this season where Daniels finally has displayed the talent that made him a high pick. During the regular season, he was the Spurs' fourth leading scorer at 9.4 points per game and added 3.8 assists per game. He started 23 games at point guard when Avery Johnson
was hurt, and responded with averages of 12.4 points and 5.5 assists in that role. And though Daniels returned the bench, the 26-year old showed that his future might be as bright as it looked on draft day four years ago.
"Basically, Vancouver wasn't the place for me, plain and simple," Daniels said earlier this season. "And I think it was a blessing in disguise, me being traded to San Antonio. I like my situation here. I love the team we have. I like the organization a lot. And hopefully I can continue to grow."
His growth has been evident through his improvement in areas that were once weaknesses. Formerly a spotty outside shooter, having entered the season as a career .281 three-point shooter, Daniels has found his stroke from downtown, nailing 40.4 percent during the regular season and 55.6 percent in the playoffs.
"That's what I spent a lot of the summer working on with the coaching staff, shooting a lot of threes and a lot of in-between shots," Daniels said. "My strength has always been getting all the way to the bucket and now I'm trying to expand my game a little."
With Johnson 36 years old and Terry Porter
38, Daniels could be team's point guard of the future, maybe as early as next year. Or, he could solidify his role as a third guard, providing 25-30 minutes of scoring and energy off the bench. Regardless, Daniels has arrived, and his time will have to be now if the Spurs hope to capture another title. Though the deep Spurs will utilize a variety of players to replace Anderson, it is Daniels who will be asked to fill most of that void. He's ready for the challenge.
"I'm not going to make up for the loss of Derek," Daniels said. "I've got to be Antonio."
In Game 2, Antonio was more than good enough.
Compiled with material from the
San Antonio Express-News.