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Spurs ride mid-rangers and defense to victory over Lakers

The Spurs showed shades of who they might become in downing LeBron James and the Lakers for the second time in a week, 110-106.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at San Antonio Spurs John Glaser-USA TODAY Sports

In a league where 3 and D reign, it’s poetic that the countercultural Spurs have scraped by without either early on.

Their first five games have been characterized by jarring defensive struggles and an eschewing of the three ball, as they cope with the void left behind from trading away Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, saying goodbye to Kyle Anderson in free agency and losing Dejounte Murray to injury. Gregg Popovich’s group is adjusting by slowing contests down to a slog and pummeling opponents with 15-footers, modern basketball’s version of the nun-chuck. The Spurs remain last in defensive efficiency while leading the NBA in shot attempts per game from both the 8-16 feet range and 16-24 feet range.

At least one of those two qualities, the team hopes, won’t endure much longer, and Saturday night’s win over LA may prove to be something of an inflection point.

“Well, they scored 46 points in the second half and 18 in the fourth quarter,” said Pop. “You know that sort of thing is what we are used to. That’s really the first time this year that we have done that, but if that can be come a habit we are going to have an opportunity to win a lot of games.”

Facing a Lakers team that had Rajon Rondo back but was still without Brandon Ingram, it was the Spurs who fell behind early this time around. Inserting Davis Bertans in the starting lineup in place of Jakob Poeltl (who once again fell out of the rotation and ended up with the DNP-CD) did little to help the Spurs contest the Lakers’ plucky wings, who helped drop 36 on the home team in the opening period. The struggles continued in the second, although San Antonio did manage to close the lead to 6 at the half behind their new All-Star.

“You just gotta stay with it,” said DeMar DeRozan, who paced his new team once again with 30 points, 12 rebounds and 8 assists. “It’s all about how you sustain it, how you throw that next punch back at them and understand when you need a stop, when you need a bucket, and just keep building.”

Finding the right lineup combinations will continue to be a challenge for Gregg Popovich, partially because of the unfamiliarity between players but mostly because of the number of lineups that feature multiple defensive liabilities. The Lakers relished putting Patty Mills and Pau Gasol in pick and rolls, and Kyle Kuzma didn’t hesitate to fire two early threes despite having Bertans’ hand in his face. Then, when you consider that the bench rotations have included lineups featuring Mills, Gasol, Marco Belinelli and Bryn Forbes, it’s not hard to understand how opponents thus far have taken advantage.

The Spurs have been fortunate to fare much better on the other end of the floor thus far. With DeRozan operating as both hammer and nail, LaMarcus Aldridge attracting attention inside, and Rudy Gay filling in the gaps all over, San Antonio’s cobbled together the league’s 7th best offense relatively on the fly.

Against the player who’s been the greatest single hurdle in his career, DeRozan’s brilliance was on full display once again. He feasted on mismatches against JaVale McGee, had some lovely up-and-under moves, and did most of his damage from midrange, which included a bucket that pushed the Spurs’ lead back up to three with 15 seconds left.

Gay (16, 10, and 5) was a much-needed counterpunch to DeRozan on a night where Aldridge (15 and 5) couldn’t quite get it going. Gay shares a penchant for the same maligned long twos as DeRozan and Aldridge, but has also looked great when deciding to attack downhill and get into the meat of the defense.

“Well, Rudy is a scorer,” Pop said. “He can score and he is very confident in those regards and he did a good job tonight.”

For a moment, it looked like events might follow the same end-game script as last Monday, with San Antonio pulling away late only to crumble defensively and squander an 8-point lead with a minute-and-a-half to go. Two differences this time: Rajon Rondo was there to leave his own lasting imprint on the game, and LeBron James had a Rudy Gay hand in his face when he attempted his game-tying three.

At least part of the defensive turnaround should be attributed to the tactical use of Dante Cunningham, who got the second start of his Spurs tenure to once again try to slow down one of the greatest players in NBA history. And though LeBron eclipsed another incredible milestone for his career by passing Dirk Nowitzki on the all-time scoring list, Cunningham indeed appeared to offer a certain resistance, while giving the entire lineup a much-needed defensive edge. He’s logged his two highest minute totals (29 last Monday, 26 on Saturday) against the Lakers, and it’s hard to see how a player Pop can trust against James shouldn’t be getting 25-30 minutes every night on a team that lacks defensive playmakers.

Among Cunnningham and his teammates, the operative word for why the Spurs were able to dig in and get some stops was the same:

“Communication. [When] we started out, I had a lot of miscommunication cues with other teammates and things of that nature. Once we got that under control and really just settled down, that’s when everything just started clicking and working.”

“I think we locked in better,” added Gasol, who chipped in 11 points, 12 rebounds, two momentum-swinging putback dunks, and the final free throws that iced the game. “We communicated better and we got stops.”

The Spurs don’t have the same defensive chops as years past, but they also won’t remain in the league’s cellar much longer. Games like this one should push them in the right direction and, ultimately, help them hone an identity all their own.

Some final notes and quotes . . .

Cunningham buying into The Motto

Multiple guys got asked if they’ve been “indoctrinated” into the Spurs’ Pounding the Rock philosophy. “Yes, of course,” said Cunningham. “We have to read the sign over there. When you first walk in, it’s the rock right there. It’s definitely something that Coach Pop would tell you.”

That weird Rondo play

With 16 seconds to go and a chance to trim the Spurs’ lead to one, Lakers guard Rajon Rondo decided to forego an open layup to try and find a teammate for a three-point look that would’ve tied the game. Passing on a two for a three? Your favorite professional basketball team would never.

More experimentation in the starting lineup, and more likely to come

Make that three different starting lineups in five games for Pop, with the insertion of Davis Bertans alongside Cunningham, Forbes, Aldridge and DeRozan. Given Bertans’ ineffectiveness on the floor, I don’t imagine we’ll see this same starting five for a while.

Another moment of post-game levity, courtesy of Rudy and DeMar

DeRozan was in the middle of answering whether he felt he’s more of an all-around player this season. He began, saying, “I always was a —” when a voice broke out a few feet away:

“No, he wasn’t,” said Gay.

“Yes, I was,” responded DeRozan, somewhat convincingly.