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What we learned from the Spurs win over the Pistons

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The Spurs keep a pesky Pistons team at arms length, hold on for nice win on the road.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Detroit Pistons Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

A large portion of this game happened simultaneously with the first half of the college football National Championship game Monday night. While the Spurs were ruggedly working their way to their 24th win of the season, Alabama and Clemson were exchanging huge downfield bombs and bone crunching hits. Big play after big play. It was truly electric stuff. In fact, I probably don’t need to tell you any more specifics about it because, truth be told, there’s a good chance you’re reading this right now because you chose to watch a super fun championship football game instead of random mid-season Spurs road game against a non-playoff team from the East.

I don’t blame you even a little.

The Spurs dug themselves another weird little 1st quarter hole before managing to pull themselves together and look like a real basketball team the rest of the way. It’s almost like they’re determined to have these games function as a metaphor for the season as a whole. That’s very polite of them to think about all of us bloggers out here trying to scrape together a narrative night after night, but I think we’d all still prefer not going down double digits in the 1st quarter again for a while.

Winning on the road is tough, especially at this stage of the season. In the same way that we, as fans, probably had better things to do than get emotionally invested in this random game, it’s easy to imagine these guys struggling at times with motivation as well. When I’m cold and tired, the last thing I want to do is close out on Blake Griffin while he’s jacking up threes. That’s a totally understandable attitude to have. This game would’ve been easy to let slip away without anyone ever noticing or caring.

The thing is, in spite of all of that, it still matters. A lot. It matters as much as the blood feud match-up with Kawhi Leonard the other night, and it matters as much as our home-and-away series with the Thunder this weekend. The Spurs are scrambling back up the ladder of relevancy right now, and the only way to get to the top is one game at a time. It doesn’t matter if the whole world is tuned into TNT, or if it’s only the dozens of us who stuck this one out from end to end. Winning games like this is going to be the difference between the Spurs sneaking into a three seed in the playoffs and playing a do or die game against the Mavericks in the last game of the season.

So yeah, it was pretty funny in the first quarter when Pop called another timeout literally 10 seconds after he called his first one. I fully laughed out loud. But look closer at that moment and you’ll see the real reason that the Spurs have managed to turn things around this year. He wasn’t mad that the Spurs were losing at that point of the game. The Pistons were raining threes and our shots weren’t falling yet. That’s easy math to do and honestly, letting Blake and co. hoist as many threes as they wanted was probably a key part of the game plan anyway. No, Pop called a second timeout because right out of the break Jakob Poeltl threw a lazy pass, LaMarcus Aldridge didn’t come out hard to receive it, and the whole mess led to Andre Drummond getting an easy steal for a dunk. They were playing uninspired, lethargic basketball and, frankly, the Spurs simply do not have time for that. Not in this game and certainly not in this season.

Plenty of coaches can do stuff like this and plenty of them do. That’s not the whole picture though. The key difference seems to be that when Pop does it, his guys tend to listen. From that moment on, the Spurs shored things up. They started forcing turnovers instead of giving them up. They moved the ball a little crisper on offense, started getting to loose balls — doing the all the little things, and wouldn’t you know it? The Pistons lead started to dwindle all on it’s own. Fancy that.

Maybe fifteen minutes after I press publish on this post, I probably won’t think about this game ever again. In the grand scheme of things, it will likely fold into the fabric of the thousands of other random Spurs games I’ve watched in my lifetime. That doesn’t make it less important though. Little moments, little points of emphasis here and there . . . those are the building blocks that lead to the bigger and better things that look to be just down the road for this team.

I don’t blame you if you had better things to do with your time Monday night, but the Spurs certainly didn’t.

Takeaways:

  • It totally slipped my mind that tonight was DeMar DeRozan’s “Dwayne Casey Revenge Game.” Revenge is probably not the best word since, by all accounts, there is nothing but affection between him and his old coach, but still, you could tell there was a little extra fire behind his performance tonight. I am so unbelievably ready for DeMar to get to the playoffs and really show out. His playoff rep is obviously not the best right now (as evidenced by the hundreds of cool twitter people who respond to every positive thing about DeMar “WAIT UNTIL HE FALLS APART IN THE PLAYOFFS ON YOU LOL”), but I think he has real chance to rewrite that narrative a bit now that he’s out of that weird cycle of his Raptors teams being served up as sacrificial lambs to LeBron James every year. We won’t know until we know, sure, but the fact that his game has evolved this year to where he can have his big scoring nights and also positively affect the team in other ways bodes well. There’s no longer some binary standard on him to either score 40 or be labeled an abject failure. That’s gotta feel good, right?
  • At one point the Spurs were playing Davis Bertans and Pau Gasol as our lone big men against Andre Drummond and Griffin, and as you can imagine it wasn’t . . . ideal. It’s hard to worry too much about the Spurs when they are playing as well as they are right now, but our front court depth does scare me juuuuuuust a little. It feels like if you are looking for something on the Spurs to exploit, that would maybe be the thing. The good news is that there aren’t very many teams capable of doing that really. Even the Pistons, who have two guys designed in a lab to exploit those kind of mismatches, couldn’t take full advantage of it. The most likely outcome is that we’re going to keep playing either LaMarcus or Jakob as our lone “true” bigs as much as we can and hope for the best.
  • Speaking of Pau, it’s good to see him getting out there again. He didn’t look great, but that’s probably to be expected as he works his way back to full strength. I don’t know where exactly he’s going to fit in the rest of the way, but he was playing pretty well before he went down, and I just have to believe he’s going to make a little noise somewhere down the line.
  • MARCO WATCH: Marco Belinelli had a shot in the 4th quarter that, at this point, is as routine for him as a layup. After literally running in circles for a bit off in the distance, he sort of feigns a screen on Derrick White’s man and serpentine cuts to the basket. There, he receives a pass from DeMar and leans practically horizontal in order to bank it in for two. The angle is good, sure, but the amount of distance he covers in the air from when he starts his shot to where he actually releases it is unreal. Of course he hits the floor on his follow through and slides almost out to the three point line because when you’re given a runway like that, why wouldn’t you? He’s a master showman, and every detail matters.