Bucks coach Jason Kidd spoke before the game at the AT&T Center and explained why he felt the Spurs have as good of a chance of winning a title this season as anyone. It wasn't because of their not-so-beautiful offense of late. Rather, it was because of how impregnable they've been in their own end.
"They're the best in the league," said Kidd. "They've got quite a few guys who understand how to play defense and understand what it [takes] to win in this league. Everybody looks at the offensive numbers but when you talk about winning championships everybody talks about defense and they understand that."
Indeed the Spurs have set quite the standard so far, albeit against a first-quarter schedule that Gregg Popovich described before the game as "not very tough." Nevertheless, they lead the league, allowing just 89.8 points per game, they lead in defensive rating (92.3), are fourth in overall field goal defense (42.3 percent), sixth in three-point defense (32.3 percent) and tied for the lead in defensive rebounding percentage, per NBA.com.
90 points seems to be the team's new benchmark for success, at least against all but elite competition. The Spurs are a tidy 12-0 when holding opponents below 90 and 3-4 when allowing more than that, including 1-3 when allowing over 100.
With overall numbers like that, it's not too hard to visualize games like the one we got Wednesday night, where the home side shot just 41.1 percent, sank one fewer three as a team than Stephen Curry did in his homecoming at Charlotte and made only 14 free throws, yet still beat the Bucks by 25.
"It's coming around," said Tim Duncan after tying his season-high with 16 points in just 19:44 of work. "We can see an improvement, which is honestly what we want to do. Great effort tonight all around. Pop is still on us about mistakes we made, but we still look up at the scoreboard, they score 70 in a night, and that's the kind of 'D' we want to put out there every night."
We'll get to the part about Pop being "on" people in a bit, but first a word about the Bucks, who are just a stylistic nightmare for the Spurs. You look up and down their roster and no one seems like a dangerous shooter except for Khris Middleton, but surprisingly Milwaukee has been middle-of-the-pack or better in most of the traditional offensive stats, including overall field goal percentage, three-point percentage, free throw percentage, assists, and assists-to-turnover ratio. What's killed them, however, is their glacial pace. Only the Jazz play slower than Milwaukee and it's probably not a coincidence that neither team has a very good point guard situation. That pace has dragged their overall offensive efficiency to 22nd in the league.
Against the Spurs the Bucks only got up 77 shot attempts, despite a normal number of free throw attempts (18) and turnovers (17). They only tried 13 threes. They shot 33.8 percent, which is a season-low for Spurs opponents.
34 of Milwaukee's 70 points scored inside the paint but on 17-42 FG (40.4%). Bucks made only 9 shots outside of the paint (9-35 FG / 25.7%)— Aaron Preine PS (@PreinePS) December 3, 2015
As bad as that 25.7 from outside the paint is, I think the 40.4 from inside is even more of a damning number , basic math aside, for a team of freaky long, athletic young dudes like the Bucks. LaMarcus Aldridge was resolute inside with a season-high five blocks in just 22:46 and he and Duncan shut everything down inside. It probably didn't help matters any that Kidd benched Jerryd Bayless, who'd been starting for them recently, for unspecified reasons, and that Greivis Vasquez was out with a sore ankle. They started youngster Tyler Ennis in the back court instead, along with O.J. Mayo and that went about as well as you'd expect. (And Michael Carter-Williams and a, um, thicker Jabari Parker off the bench also did not help their cause.)
But oh how that length gave the Spurs problems on offense. San Antonio's ball movement found Duncan in his favorite spots and he got a few bunnies, but the other four starters shot 9-of-33. Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo showed Kawhi Leonard what it's like to be guarded by him and Danny Green continued his slump from outside. Basically with the starting lineups out there it was just like throwing a ball onto a court occupied by a bunch of octopuses.
The Spurs turned a potentially sticky game into a laugher thanks to their bench. Manu Ginobili was frisky early on
and then later Bobo somehow pulled this off
and in between there was Jonathon Simmons skying higher than any Spur since James White, probably.
That Simmons got to play as much as he did goes back to the tough love that Duncan was referring to. Kyle Anderson lost Middleton and conceded an open three and Popovich immediately yanked him at the next dead ball in favor of Simmons. Not only did Popovich talk to him on the bench, but so did assistant Ettore Messina, Duncan and Diaw.
Maybe Timmeh was showing how to plug your ears when Pop goes "Serbian"?
It certainly hasn't gone unnoticed that Simmons has gotten more of an opportunity these past two weeks, often at Anderson's expense. He's obviously more dynamic and can make a number of athletic things on the floor that the second-year man cannot. He's also a better passer, in my judgement.
What Simmons hasn't been, so far, is much better of a defender. If anything, he's been worse. He looks like he should be able to play defense, but he's too hyper out there and he's just making mistakes faster. It's the effort that separates the two, not the lack-of-execution. At least Simmons is very vigilant about getting back in transition. He's always sprinting back the instant somebody puts a shot up.
What's obvious though is that Simmons is looking more comfortable on the floor by the day. He's learning quickly. He's not the tentative guy he was in the preseason and is back to playing close to the style he showed during Summer League. Competitiveness and confidence are the biggest things for young players.
Simmons and Anderson shared the floor in the fourth quarter while the starters and Ginobili all sat. Rasual Butler, also vying for backup minutes at the three, played right along with them in some funky lineups, with Anderson playing the point the last few minutes with Patty Mills chilling on the bench and Ray McCallum inactive. They did well enough that the Spurs should have some gas in the tank for Memphis tomorrow.
It's a pretty good bet they'll pack their defense with them for the short flight.
Your Three Stars:
1. Tim Duncan
2. Boris Diaw
3. Jonathon Simmons