It's only November, when most teams are just starting to gel and their ceiling is far from apparent. The Spurs are experiencing some injuries, with Kawhi Leonard set to miss a couple of weeks and both Manu Ginobili and Gary Neal returning after missing some games. The rotations are starting to settle, but not yet established, with some players making their case for more minutes. But even with all those extenuating factors, this week could tell us a lot about this Spurs team and their ability to adjust to different styles.
Los Angeles Clippers
It all starts tonight against the Clippers, who administered the Silver and Black a beat down the last time they met. After a sweep in the conference semifinals in which the Spurs out-rebounded the Clippers and held them to around their season average in points at the rim, the Clips managed to assert their dominance inside in their first meeting.
Despite the athleticism and length of their front line, the Clippers are not adept at getting offensive boards. So with a little more attentiveness and effort to get in good rebounding position, the Spurs should be able to control the amount of second chance points they allow. What Chris Paul, Eric Bledsoe and others excel at is getting steals, which is a huge problem for any team they face, considering Paul usually runs the break masterfully and Blake Griffin or Deandre Jordan trail to clean up any misses.
During recent games, the Spurs have done a better job taking care of the ball. Now it's time to show that progress against a team that feasts on lazy passes and inattentive ball handlers. How the Spurs handle the Clippers disruptive defense and how disruptive the team manages to be against a turnover prone offense may help us figure out if turnover differential will be one of the Spurs' strengths going forward.
After that, the Boston Celtics await with their grind-it-out approach on offense and intermittently good defense. Once a defensive powerhouse, the Celtics are struggling mightily to get stops without Kevin Garnett on the floor, not unlike the Spurs without Duncan. With The Big Ticket, the Celtics are the best defense in the league (94.6 DEF RTG) by far, but when he's resting they are by far the worst (114.2). Unfortunately for the Celtics, Garnett is only playing 28 minutes, so the Spurs' bench should be able to feast on the Celtics second unit. Unlike the Clippers, Boston simply can not match the Spurs' depth, and with Manu looking better, this game could be won while the starters rest.
Execution in the half court will be key on both ends, since the Celtics rarely turn the ball over and rank last in offensive rebound percentage. In a way, they are like the vintage Spurs, who used to limit the opponent to one shot per possession and only took one themselves. On offense, the Celtics excel at hitting the long jumper and are somewhat dependent on it. Defending the long jumper was a huge problem for the Spurs last year, but this season the team is doing a much better job at contesting those shots. If that trend continues, the Celtics offense will have to rely on great individual performances to get a win instead of a team effort, which is exactly what the Spurs should be going for.
Indiana already dropped a game to the Spurs and needs to start winning, fast. They are 4-7 right now and are missing Danny Granger more than any prospective contender should. Their offense is atrocious; we are talking 2011/12 Bobcats level of ineptitude here, as the Pacers rank last in the league in offensive rating and effective field goal percentage. They are only surviving thanks to having the stingiest defense in the league, with a defensive rating of 98.2. The Pacers do it by enticing teams to take long jumpers, instead of threes, and using their length to bother shots in the paint. Their defensive rebounding is stellar and they rarely turn the ball over. Basically, the Pacers are last season's Celtics on the defensive side of the ball. Going against such a tough defense should force the Spurs to execute as a team, but also figure out if there are players ready to step up and provide some offense when needed.
Then early on Sunday afternoon, the Spurs go against the Raptors in Toronto in what has "let down game" written all over it. The Dinos best player, Kyle Lowry, will likely be out with injury along with Landry Fields and Alan Anderson, which means the Spurs will have every excuse to take this game lightly. Dwayne Casey won't have his starting PG available, but the Raptors still have Jose Calderon to man the point and potential matchup nightmare Andrea Bargnani as a pick and pop partner. The Raptors are also good at causing turnovers and have a lot of athletic players like Ed Davis, DeMar Derozan and rookie Jonas Valanciunas that could cause the Spurs problems, if they are not focused. This game could show us how ready The Spurs are to take advantage of favorable circumstances, considering how often the team has let leads slip away.
The Next Week
So the Spurs will start against a team that thrives on chaos, that causes turnovers, and that likes to run as led by a master playmaker. The Clippers also love to pound teams inside using their length and athleticism, and are young and deep enough to go toe to toe with the Spurs bench.
Next, the Spurs face a team that largely depends on Garnett for defense and runs most of their offense through an elite point guard that likes to slow the game down and execute in the half court. The Celtics often go small and their second unit struggles defensively, providing a great chance for the Spurs bench to make an impact. Boston's propensity to launch long jumpers should be a good test of the Spurs improved defense.
Then comes a Pacers team that plays awful offense but excels at defense. The Pacers will make the Spurs work for points by not allowing many offensive boards or turning the ball over much. The Spurs will need to be alert on defense to prevent the underperforming offensive players from waking up, while trying to be efficient on offense without forcing things.
And as a capper to the week, a game against an injury-riddled inferior team that could surprise the Spurs if they don't show up ready to play.
This stretch is not crucial in terms of standings and playoff positioning; it's too early for that. But going against teams that use contrasting approaches could give us a good glimpse of how well these Spurs are at adapting to different opponents. After this week, the Spurs will have a couple of easy games (on paper) before facing two teams that are elite, but diametrically opposed in terms of lineup construction, in the Grizzlies and Heat (one of which could be a potential playoff opponent). In today's NBA, versatility is king. Let's see if the Spurs have it.