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What we learned from the Spurs win over the Clippers

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The Spurs are turning many corners as they continue to improve heading into 2019.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Los Angeles Clippers Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes it’s hard to take the close losses that come with a growing team, like the one in Denver two nights ago. After a slow start, the Spurs used a strong third quarter to get back in the game against the Nuggets and had every chance in the world to steal a game on the road from the top team in the West, but a confounding poor free-throw shooting night from the otherwise best team in the league at that particular stat resulted in a loss.

Next, the Spurs had to travel to Los Angeles for a SEGABABA against another hot team in the West: the Los Angeles Clippers. The Spurs had not won on the second night of a back-to-back all season, so it felt like what should have been a 1-1 road trip at worst was going to be a wasted opportunity. However, something was different last night at the Staples Center. Maybe it was being back down at an altitude they were familiar with, but the Spurs never appeared out of gas last night despite Pop sticking to a nine-man rotation until garbage time.

They followed a similar second-half M.O. last night as they did in Denver — specifically a game-changing, dominant third quarter — but this time it wasn’t needed just to get back into the game. Because the Spurs played well enough in the first half to play the Clippers to an even draw, a 39-19 third quarter was used to put the game away and gave the Spurs room for error in the fourth quarter (which was helpful as the Clippers attempted to make a comeback from the free throw line). The result was a 122-111 win that showed more signs that this team is continuing to improve.

Some losses are frustrating, especially considering how close the Western Conference is and the difference just one win can make. However, it’s games like last night that show us how far these Spurs have really come, and why their ceiling is raising before our very eyes.

  • One of the biggest differences in December’s Spurs compared to the struggling November version is the teamwork and ball movement, which as a result is requiring less heroics from the Mid 3. However, sometimes the Spurs seem to be a little too unselfish, resulting in passed-up lay-ups for threes. It’s a genius move when the shot is made, but other times it can be frustrating when the outside shooter misses and you’re back to wishing the driver had just taken the lay-up. We’ve seen Gregg Popovich harp on players to “just dunk it” or be more selfish at times, and after passing up a few looks last night DeMar DeRozan may have gotten the message, and this was the result:

More of this, please.

  • Another underrated part of Spurs improvement has been defense, specifically from the role players, and a big part of that is the hard work of Davis Bertans and Derrick White. The effort has always been there for Bertans, but his defensive instincts appear vastly improved. He is almost always in the right place now, is good at staying vertical, not falling for pump fakes, and is showing an ability to contest shots both at the rim and on the perimeter. The result is he’s finally getting the playing time he deserves over Dante Cunningham.
  • As for White, the defensive instincts have always been there: something that wasn’t completely unnoticed in his scouting report. However, he is exceeding expectations on that end with a Manu Ginobili-esque knack for snatching steals out of opponents hands on help defense and the length to not only contest, but also block shots on the perimeter. White’s offense is coming along, but his defense is what’s keeping him on the floor. He’s had a positive +/- in each of the last 11 games, including a +20 or more three times. That included a +26 last night, which was largely thanks to once again his aggressive play out of halftime spearheading the Spurs’ strong third quarter. White is becoming the Spurs’ do-everything glue guy who should only keep getting better.
  • Speaking of strong third quarters, one of the Spurs’ bugaboos this season has been poor showings coming out of halftime. They currently average 27.4 points in the third quarters this season, which may sound decent enough, but it’s only good for 16th in the league. However, in the last two games, the Spurs have come out and dominated 28-17 in Denver and 39-19 in LA. Hopefully this is a sign that the Spurs are turning things around on that end, especially considering strong third quarters have always been a staple of Pop’s teams.
  • MARCO WATCH: Marco Belinelli dunked on Boban Marjanovic. That is all.

(Just had to continue Charlie Thaddeus’ amazing tradition of “Marco Watch”, and what better way than a traditional play that is anything-but for Marco?)