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Spurs win behind strong second-half defensive effort

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NBA: Detroit Pistons at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs won their second home game of the season against the Detroit Pistons. It wasn’t the prettiest of performances, with the first half resembling the last couple of home losses, but this time the deficit wasn’t enough to bury the Spurs. A dominant defensive performance in the second half lifted the Spurs to victory, improving their record to 6-3 for the year.

After giving up 73 first-half points to the Clippers and 63 first-half points to the Rockets, the 52 points the Spurs gave up in the first 24 minutes to the Pistons wasn’t too bad. Except that the Pistons came into the game with the 24th ranked offense. At halftime the Spurs, who are still finding their way offensively, trailed by just three points.

In the second half the Spurs did what they’ve been doing all season and picked it up on the defensive end and held the Pistons to just 34 points. I don’t get it – they’re playing the same guys but for some reason it’s taking a half of play to get the team to hunker down defensively.

I don’t expect that trend to last, but it’s frustrating and perplexing. The team is clearly capable of playing great defensively, and I don’t think it’s an effort thing. Nor do I think it’s a result of overlooking opponents, the Clippers and Rockets are certainly not being taken lightly by the team. In fact, of all the teams in the association the Spurs have always done a great job of respecting the teams that they are facing; it’s part of what has made them such an unbelievably consistent winning team. They play hard and take care of the teams they are supposed to beat early. At least that’s what we’re used to seeing.

Which makes what we’ve seen over the last several games so intriguing. It’s something different. But they’ve only played nine games this season and as we all know it will take time for the team to find themselves with so many new parts to integrate into the system. It’s also worth mentioning that they still haven’t played their preferred starting five together this season.

Danny Green got the night off in preparation for the second game of a back-to-back but San Antonio did get Tony Parker back for this one, and while many fans are already calling for the longtime offensive captain to be benched, he provides a steadying hand for the team. His chemistry with LaMarcus Aldridge (who posted a 14-12 double-double) will be important for the team.

The Spurs will definitely need Aldridge to take much of the scoring burden off of Kawhi Leonard and the big man is certainly more comfortable playing with Parker than with Patty Mills. That’s not a knock on Patty, who is obviously very talented, a great value and an exemplary teammate, but Parker and Aldridge have something together that isn’t present when Mills and Aldridge share the floor.

At this stage in The Wee Frenchman’s career he’s never going to be what he used to be, and I hesitate to say it but he may be borderline unplayable against certain teams with mobile bigs. Having said that, he’s still very valuable to the team. He’s seen it all and is unfazed by adversity. He provides the ability to calm the team down that they lost with Tim Duncan’s retirement. He’s also still a pretty good player. The Tony hate needs to be reined in.

Back to the scoring burden that Kawhi has had this season. His usage rate is nearly 34%. Last season it was a little under 26%. That has resulted in him putting up impressive point totals but it’s also made him resemble prime Kobe, for good and bad. He’s taking more ill-advised shots than ever and drawing far more attention than in the past. He’s had an incredible ascension to a dominant offensive force but with that he’s receiving much more attention when he has the ball than he ever has.

He’s responded really well to all of the extra attention so far, turning the ball over at a career low 7.4% coming into the game and upping his assist percentage to a career-high 19.8%, but it’s not realistic to ask Leonard to play ultra-elite defense and carry that kind of offensive load for an entire season. It’s just not.

Something else strange has been happening over the past couple of games – Whi has been knocking down his deep attempts but has really struggled inside the arc, which is the opposite of how this season started. Tonight he hit 4-of-5 from deep but was just 1-of-13 from inside the arc. He finished with 17 points on 18 shots, not terrible, but a handful of his midrange attempts were far less than ideal. He finished minus-1 for the game.

It’s something to keep an eye on as the season progresses, he’s going to need help on the offensive end, no question. He’s just too important on the other end and no one has enough energy to play all-out both ways with 35+ minutes a night.

Tonight he had Pau Gasol, who had his second 20-point game of the year. Pop’s explanation for Gasol’s night, “I think he just got tired of losing.” The Spaniard had a great night, finishing with 21 points, nine boards, a team-high six assists, a steal and two blocks. He also didn’t turn the ball over. It’s been a slow start for the offseason pick-up and a game like this was great to see.

The Spurs did what they were supposed to do in beating the Pistons to improve to 6-3 and sit in the fourth spot in the West. It wasn’t a pretty offensive performance with the team shooting under 45% from the floor but there were plenty of good things in the game. Pau’s nice night, only eight turnovers, out-rebounding Detroit, 24 assists on 36 buckets and the return of Tony Parker. With any luck we’ll be treated to the full roster being available tomorrow night.

Quick Notes:

  • Manu Ginobili had a nice night, giving the Spurs 10 points and four assists. He hit back-to-back triples in the third quarter that pumped up the crowd and gave the Spurs an eight-point lead that would prove to be enough on the night. The first three was one of those how-did-he-do-that shots that we’ll all miss soon enough. But not this year.
  • David Lee sure does play with a ton of energy when he’s on the floor. I’ll admit that while I didn’t view the signing of the two-time all-star as a negative I also didn’t view it as a positive. So far I’ve been more than happy with what the Spurs got. He’s been tougher than advertised and has been much better on the defensive end than expected. He’s also been efficient on offense, shooting 60% from the floor. In all he’s averaging 15 and 10 per 36-minutes, 1.3 steals and an impressive 3-to-1 assist to turnover margin. He’s also notched a somewhat impressive plus-4.3 per-36.

Up Next:

It’s a quick turnaround for the Spurs who will travel to Houston tonight to get ready to try to avenge their Wednesday night loss to the Rockets on Saturday night. That game tips at 7 p.m Spurs time and can be seen on Fox Sports Southwest and NBA League Pass.