What a difference a couple days make. After suffering their first blemish on the year – at home, no less – at the hands of the Utah Jazz on Tuesday night, the Spurs returned the favor, in the barn they're calling the "Vivint Smart Home Arena" these days.
There wasn't much rhyme or reason for the 29-point swing in fortunes. Neither team was on a SEGABABA, so fatigue didn't factor into play. Both teams had the same rosters, more or less. The Jazz were still without Gordon Hayward and our old pal Boris Diaw. The Spurs were still without Danny Green and theoretically further weakened by the absence of Tony Parker, who has a sore knee. However, as I posited Friday morning, The Wee Frenchman being unavailable may be more of a feature than a bug these days.
Indeed for one game at least Patty Mills proved me prophetic. Parker's longtime understudy fared just as well in his second start of the season as he did against the Pelicans in the Spurs' home opener. He knocked down 4-of-7 shots from downtown in this one just as he did against New Orleans and finished with 16 points along with a game-high plus-17. Mills' frenetic pace enabled the starters to get into their sets quickly, and he helped space the floor, which is vital with Green out and his replacements not respected from outside. Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge had more room to operate playing with Mills, who sank a couple of threes to rescue them from an early 10-2 deficit. The visitors later used a 10-3 run once the second units checked in to take a 27-17 lead after one, and were never seriously challenged again.
The Spurs scored their first 17 points from the usual suspects, with Leonard contributing an "and-1" and four more freebies to Mills' pair of triples and a couple makes from LaMarcus Aldridge. Their first bench points, however, came from Nicolas Laprovittola, of all people. At long last Manu Ginobili played with his much younger countryman in an honest-to-goodness NBA game that counted in the standings and was pumped up enough about the opportunity to drive for a couple of layups in short order after checking in. Gregg Popovich experimented with all kinds of funky lineups throughout, with Davis Bertans also playing early on, while David Lee didn't make an appearance until the second quarter and Dewayne Dedmon had to wait until the third period. This was the first game of a back-to-back, remember, and the Spurs will likely need to rely on their veteran bigs against the Clippers on Saturday.
Anyway, after the Jazz scorched the nets at the AT&T Center to the tune of 15-of-31 shooting from outside the previous game, it was plain that the Spurs were more diligent and active in their own end for the encore. Utah was still pretty hot from outside, making 11-of-26 (42.3 percent) threes, but this time around they couldn't do anything inside the stripe, shooting a miserable 19-of-54 (35.1 percent) from two. Conversely, the non-Australian Spurs combined to make just 2-of-13 threes, but the squad made 31-of-63 twos and were a bit more prolific at the charity stripe, too. The points in the paint were about even, but the Spurs dominated in the mid-range area as you would expect. They also killed Utah in second-chance points 20-to-7 and didn't give the younger, more athletic Jazz a chance to get out on the break. The Jazz had to work for everything and didn't have enough with Hayward out and Derrick Favors having an off-night.
It's become a broken record over the past couple of years, but the difference was Leonard. While all the mere mortals had their ebbs and flows, Kawhi simply never let up. Seven points in the first quarter and seven more in the second, where the two teams battled to a virtual draw was all fine and good, but then he snuffed out any hopes of a home comeback in the third, with 11 points and three helpers including a pair of dishes to Mills for back-breaking threes. Leonard was responsible for 19 of 21 points in the meat of the third quarter, stretching out the lead from seven points to 17 and that was that. He got to chill for all but 2:27 of what was mostly a blah final period for both sides, a fact that I'm sure just thrilled the Clips.
It's hard to gauge just what the result means in the big picture. Neither team had a #fullsquad, both coaches are a million miles from figuring out their rotations and we have no way of knowing what either club is fully capable of at this stage. The Spurs aren't exactly racking up the assists (they're currently 19th, at 20.8 per game) or three-pointers (18th, at 8.3 makes) these days and the real frustrating aspect of that is that they rank second, believe it or not, in three-point percentage, at 40.3 percent. They're just not generating enough open looks, whether that's the ball sticking, them settling for "good" or "okay" instead of "great" or just having too many guys out there spacing the floor poorly or unwilling to fire when open.
The winning formula has been Leonard and defense, and it's one that works more often than not, even if it's not always aesthetically pleasing. It's a perfectly fine baseline, though it does take their star for granted, the same way we took Tim Duncan's consistency for granted for nearly two decades. For the Spurs to truly challenge for the brass ring, the offense will need to be more multidimensional and explosive, and I'm curious to see what it would look like with a Mills-Green back court.
Until then, we've got to take the wins and the incremental signs of progress as they come, and being able to pay back the Jazz certainly beats a poke in the eye, or, in Karl Malone's case, an elbow to the head.
Up Next Saturday Vs. Los Angeles Clippers (4-1): Fresh off a victory against their rivals from a generation past, the Spurs will face a bitter nemesis of the present in Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and the rest of the Lob City. They've only dropped one game themselves in the early going, and had a relatively easy time of it at Memphis Friday night, winning 99-88 with CP3 leading the way with 27, 11 and 6 steals. While their record isn't surprising, it's how they've won that's been counter-intuitive. To put it simply, these guys couldn't hit water if they fell out of a boat right now. Nobody on the team is shooting even halfway decent. DeAndre Jordan is barely making more than half of his shots, and his range is shorter than this sentence. Paul, Griffin, J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford are all barely shooting above 40 percent or worse.
It's the defense that's been outstanding for L.A. They're leading the league, allowing 90.4 points-per-game, second to Miami in field goal percentage allowed (41.0), and surrendering just six threes a night. As you probably guessed, they're leading in defensive rating by a mile.
You never know what the lineups will be like with Pop on SEGABABAs, but no one played more than Leonard's 31:30 against Utah and Ginobili logged just 14:07, so I'd wager there's a decent chance the same people will be available for Saturday. Whether that will be enough remains to be seen.