Hanging on the wall of the Spurs’ changing room, tucked between Pau Gasol’s locker and a fridge packed with waters and isotonic beverages, is a framed poster of the Stonecutter’s Credo, white letters over a black background that champion the virtues of perseverance in the face of apparent futility.
“When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter
hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as
much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first
blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that last
blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”
Basketball doesn’t provide the singular clamor of tool against stone, nor does every possession or even game lend itself to hyperbole, but you don’t have to squint hard at the Spurs’ play of late to see a team test the limits of its ethos, still hammering away and waiting for that first crack to materialize.
Gregg Popovich has had to address his team’s performance on one end of the floor far more than the other thus far. When asked about it again before the fourth and final matchup against the Lakers, he echoed the stonecutter’s mantra: “Defense is a matter of repetition and forming habits and changing some habits.”
The first three quarters provided the same futile pangs we’ve heard all season. Riding in on a savage wind, LeBron James scored the game’s first basket and assisted on the next two on his way to a 24-8-7 halftime stat line, making simple, aggressive reads against a Spurs defense that continued to look like one of the league’s worst. Regardless of the combination of the floor, they were perpetually one step behind while he served pinpoint passes to cutters, or one man short on help defense as James forced breakdowns in the pick and roll. And when the defense did cobble together a sound sequence, it often had the spectacular misfortune of a backtap or loose ball going right into the hands of a well-positioned gold jersey for the easy finish.
That the Spurs eventually made headway in their 133-120 win was as much a result of novelty as it was grit, as they outscored the Lakers 44-21 in the final quarter by turning to a different set of tools — and ones that had been surprisingly ineffective until this win. The Poeltl-Bertans-Belinelli-DeRozan-Mills quintet had shared the floor for 13 minutes before Friday, putting up a not-great-Bob -44.8 net rating, before outscoring the Lakers by 12 in their 8 minutes of action, all in the game’s pivotal fourth quarter.
Poeltl’s performance (14 points on 5-of-6 from the field, 8 rebounds, 3 blocks) was another step in the right direction for the Other Guy the Spurs got back in the Kawhi Leonard trade. The 23-year-old protected the rim nicely as the long true big on the floor and demonstrated great chemistry with Patty Mills in the pick and roll, a point he touched on afterwards:
“We play well off each other. It’s easy to play with Patty because he moves so much and he gets me open because everybody respects his shot so much. The big moves up and he finds me in the rolls — it’s great playing with him.”
Playing at the four down the stretch, Bertans (13 points) did plenty of what he does best. All 7 of his attempts were from beyond the arc, 4 of which he made, 1 of which was a 4-point play. Mills (14 points, 5 assists) was in constant movement off ball and created off the dribble with his pull-ups and the aforementioned nifty passes to Poeltl, making a nice complement to the more methodical DeRozan (36 points, 9 assists, 8 rebounds), who was patient in finding his spots on the floor and baiting defenders to send him to the free-throw line.
Of course, the turnaround wouldn’t have happened without the Spurs tightening things up on defense — the real area where progress is needed moving forward. That included a stronger overall performance against James, who went just 4-of-12 from the field for 11 points in the third and fourth quarters.
With the Lakers up 108-107, the Lakers star found a cutting Lance Stephenson whose shot was blocked by a rotating Jakob Poeltl only for JaVale McGee to collect the rebound and score.
A few plays later, an aggressive Poeltl contested a rolling McGee at the rim following a James pocket pass, resulting in the Austrian picking up one of his five fouls on the night. 112-109, Lakers.
After a Poeltl three-point play tied the game at 112, the Austrian big forced James to alter a runner that went too strong off the back rim. The next time down, he found himself isolated against DeRozan on the baseline. He eventually made his move into the paint, lunging and hanging in the air only to have his view of the rim blotted by a vigilant Poeltl who’d been 2.9-ing the painted area from the weakside. Poeltl didn’t have the opportunity to block the shot, as DeRozan got a timely hand on it first.
Certainly in the case of Friday’s win, as the Spurs seized the lead shortly after and didn’t look back. As for teachable lessons that the now 12-14 squad can build on, we’ll have to wait and see as the 6-game homestand goes on.
A few more notes and quotes...
Good, “fun” start to a long homestand
“Tonight was one of those where we really clicked with our second unit” said Poeltl afterwards. “We had so much fun together out there playing.”
“Everyone contributed,” said Bryn Forbes, who chipped in 11 points. “I think this was one of my more enjoyable wins.”
Patty added on Twitter a short while later:
Man that was a fun team win tonight!!! https://t.co/YMork050rH— Patrick Mills (@Patty_Mills) December 8, 2018
The win marked the first of a season-high six consecutive games the Spurs will play at home. Next they get another familiar foe — the Utah Jazz, who they have already played (and lost to) once this week.
An efficient night and another strong finish for DeRozan
Often dragged for his sub-optimal game, DeRozan tied a season-high with 36 points on 20 shot attempts, thanks in large part to a 14-of-18 night from the charity stripe. Beginning at the 3:14 mark of the fourth quarter, the team’s new closer scored three straight baskets, essentially putting the game out of reach.
Aldridge watching the fourth from the bench
Here’s an angle I’m sure no one will run with: LaMarcus Aldridge watched the entire fourth from the sidelines, seeing the floor for 23 minutes (his second-lowest total of the season) and going 6-for-16 from the field.