The narratives aren’t always obvious, but sometimes they can be: two days after punting a 21-point lead versus a young Bulls team led by a former assistant coach, the Spurs found themselves in a similar situation versus an objectively more talented Philadelphia 76ers group. This time they left nothing to chance, winning the third and fourth quarters and holding on for the 123-96 victory.
“It was pretty clear that we messed up that night,” said Rudy Gay, who 21 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists. “We let that one go so — two games in a row? It can’t happen”
Likewise, the pregame coaches’ quotes don’t usually frame the matchup so neatly — especially in San Antonio where, as a general rule, you can expect Gregg Popovich to balk at the more abstract questions he’s asked, which is why so many of mine end up clinging cravenly to the back of my throat. But in this way, too, the visiting Brett Brown obliged:
“I get nervous coming into this building and playing against this program after a disappointing loss,” said Brown, who spent much of his professional career in San Antonio before heading to Philadelphia in 2013. “There were stages in our Spurs life . . . where losing two in a row just wasn’t allowed. It was an unspoken rule, so to speak. And after a disappointing loss to Chicago, you’re coming in here with that type of mentality that I expect we’ll face and I think that (Pop) manages this situation as we all expect him to.”
The past continues to contextualize these Spurs, whether you’re going back a game or comparing this team’s resiliency versus the fortitude of a seemingly bygone era. Can Pop take a jarringly new roster and instill the same principles, defensive habits, and aptitude for bouncing back that his counterpart alluded to? A few hours later, they gave reason to think so, shrugging off a shaky start that included two quick fouls for LaMarcus Aldridge and a deficit that was as high as 9 — the most they trailed during their entire six-game homestand — before buckling down and putting their inside-out offensive attack to work.
Pop has spoken about the importance of rhythm and balance for his three-headed, midrange monster and how the two go hand in hand:
“We gotta make sure we distribute it,” he said on Saturday. “[Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay] are such unselfish players that they pretty much do it on their own. After free throws, timeouts, dead-ball situations, I just have to evaluate who needs the ball at the time, and consider matchups, that sort of thing.”
Much of that was on display against the Sixers, as the trio took turns seeking out mismatches — Aldridge (20 points, 10 rebounds, 3 blocks) bullying Mike Muscala, DeRozan (20 points, 7 assists, 6 rebounds) seeking out switches versus T.J. McConnell and Gay against pretty much anybody — and keeping a Sixers defense on its heels. They combined for 61 points on 27-of-45 shooting, almost all of it coming from inside the arc.
The Spurs’ 6th-ranked offense appears to have a few things figured out. Where they hope (and need) to have taken a step forward through the past 6 games is on the defensive end, an area that they showed some of the most promising flashes we’ve seen all season on Monday. Working more as a unit, they knew when to send help and contested shots around the rim without fouling, leading to a quiet night for two of the most physically imposing players at their respective positions in Joel Embiid (13 points, 11 rebounds) and Ben Simmons (16 points, 6 rebounds).
“I think they’re starting to figure out each other more than anything,” said Pop. “Defensively we’ve got a bit more rhyme and reason to what we’re doing. And it’s shown on this homestand. I’m pleased with the progress. We still have a long way to go.”
“We’re resilient,” added Gay when asked what the team’s learned about itself. “Now we know we can do it. We have to do it more consistently.”
The Spurs went into their 6-game homestand at 11-14 and emerged with a plus-.500 record, improved defensive awareness, and a better overall understanding of the team they can be. They posted a 119.0 offensive rating and 100.0 defensive rating through that stretch, which were both 2nd best in the league in that span. It would be hyperbolic and borderline-glib to say they’ve turned a corner, but, hey, sometimes things are that simple.
LaMarcus’ hot streak continues
Aldridge hit his first two jumpers and finished 8-of-14 from the field, continuing a torrid stretch that goes back to Thanksgiving. He’s averaged nearly 21 points on 57.8% shooting over the past 14 games.
Brett Brown on Patty Mills
Brown, who coached on the professional and national level in Australia, had plenty of praise for the Spurs’ longest-tenured player:
“He was my captain in the London Olympic Games. I’ve seen him grow from a young dynamic scorer to an amazingly prideful athlete. His indigenous heritage is something he’s incredibly prideful and proud of, and represents that side of the Australian community with an amazing sort of grace . . . He’s grown into something that I’m very proud of. I’ve seen him since he was a teenager and he’s very special to the Australian basketball sporting community.”
A distinctly half-court game
There was a total of five fast-break points scored between both teams on Monday, which will happen when you have a team like the Spurs take on a gassed opponent like the Sixers who, Pop was sure to note, came in on a road back-to-back. Nonetheless, the style and pace (97 possessions) was much to San Antonio’s liking.
A big lift from Bertans and the rest the bench
Led by Davis Bertans’ 16 points, the Spurs reserves outscored their counterparts, 56-to-35, playing a big role in the team sustaining momentum throughout the game. Here’s Pop speaking about Bertans after the game:
“He’s obviously a good shooter and has no conscience whatsoever, which is good. But at the other end he’s rebounding, he’s guarding, making me put him on the floor because he’s playing on that end also.”