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What we learned from the Spurs win over the Thunder

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The San Antonio offense finds itself again, and LaMarcus Aldridge goes full supernova.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at San Antonio Spurs Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

The San Antonio Spurs played as complete a game as they have all year, downing a pesky Oklahoma City Thunder team that ran hot early in the game and refused to go away late, all the while showcasing what this team might consistently look like once they fully gel.

In a lot of ways this game felt a lot like the early contests against Washington and Portland. The Thunder started off hot from three-point land, and even though San Antonio’s offense was humming right along, the much repeated ‘3 is more than 2’ mantra (combined with the Spurs erratic defensive play and some ticky-tack foul calls) was earning its keep and keeping the score close between the two teams for most of the first half. Then, as has often been the case, the Spurs defense tightened up just a bit, and the offense (and LaMarcus Aldridge) exploded for a thirty-six-point third quarter and they found themselves with a double-digit lead going into the fourth.

It was at this point that I found myself physically leaning forward towards the television in anxious anticipation of the somewhat customary close finish. Not that I was hoping that would be the case, but I’m still just a wee bit traumatized from the narrow escape against Dame Lilliard and the Trailblazers, and this is the same team that gave up a thirty-eight point fourth quarter to a somewhat undermanned Atlanta Hawks team just two nights ago. To be sure, Chris Paul is getting up there age-wise, but his reputation as a Spurs killer is well earned, and the degree of his decline much exaggerated.

To my immense relief, the San Antonio offense continued to click, and the defense maintained a sturdy enough level of play to keep a stubborn Thunder team (and a whirling dervish version of Danilo Gallinari) at bay. And it wasn’t just LaMarcus Aldridge going off against Oklahoma City, Dejounte Murray made sure his presence was felt as well, with the two of them seemingly taking it in turns to torture their opponents, while zipping passes out to the perimeter with an almost ‘Beautiful Game’ degree of vision.

In fact, in spite of one lowly twenty-three-point quarter, San Antonio’s offense hummed with lethal intent for most of the outing. For one game at least (and hopefully more to come) Murray and DeMar DeRozan meshed with ease, appearing to have begun to sort out their roles in the natural flow of the offense, each of them distributing and scoring with prejudice when needed, carving out space for each other to go to work, and more naturally setting up LaMarcus Aldridge in his spots with a regularity that has been sorely missed in the opening stretch of the season.

Indeed, DeRozan was one of the biggest unsung heroes of the night, keeping the Spurs in it early, and contributing shrewdly without forcing shots or possessions. It was a performance that reminded me more of the DeMar DeRozan of last season and made me hungry for more of the same. Defensive issues aside, San Antonio can win a lot of games with that version of DeMar on the court.

And of course, no commentary on this game could go without mentioning Aldridge’s on-court detonation against the Thunder. We’ve seen this sort of game from Aldridge before, but it’s always nine kinds of thrilling to see it again, particularly in the wake of some rough shooting nights. There’s just something so artful about watching a player that height and size spin and fall away from the elbow while draining a barrage of shots in the faces of a helpless defense. I loved watching it when it was Tim Duncan banking it in from distance, and I couldn’t help but squirm in flinching admiration when Dirk would do the same with an absolutely inhuman degree of arc on the ball. There are just some remnants of the mid-range game that age like fine wine, and it won’t be long until nights like this from LaMarcus make that list of things we all miss while we shake our fists at the kids on our lawns. I like to think that certain aspects of the game (not unlike certain aspects of fashion) are bound to come around again, but as ‘antiquated’ bigs like Aldridge fall out of favor, it’s hard not think that it might be a while before we see nights like this again.

That being said, if there’s anything we can take away from tonight’s victory, it’s that: 1. LaMarcus took the Thunder’s playoff victory in 2016 VERY personally.

And: 2. San Antonio doesn’t necessarily need to be a defensive juggernaut to win games. Not with this offense. Marco Belinelli’s struggles aside, the defense is (on the whole) visibly improving, and while it’s true of most teams, if the Spurs can continue play with the level of consistency they displayed in this game, (on both sides of the ball) this season might get really interesting really fast.

Takeaways:

  • Trey Lyles absolutely balled out. Well, insofar as a player in his role can. In addition to canning a pair of triples, he displayed great vision as a passer, was solid defensively, and made precious few mistakes on either end. He didn’t tally as many rebounds as he usually does, but I’m guessing Murray’s eight rebounds had something to do with that. And honestly, if he continues to pass and shoot from three like that, I won’t care. San Antonio invested in him with the hope of turning him into a stretch four, and unlike the teams he’s played for before, San Antonio seems like they might be beginning to glean a bit of that potential out of him, as his +/- of 12 accurately testified to. It’s just a tease for now, but admittedly Lyles looked a lot more comfortable out there, and if it becomes more regular, he’ll have earned his right to the starting four slot.

  • Danilo Gallinari was the peskiest of thorns in San Antonio’s side for most of the game. Responsible for half of his team’s made threes (he went 5-6), he also drew a lot of fouls and scored seemingly at will with a variety of tricky moves and finishes. If not for Aldridge’s explosion in the third quarter, he’d have been the offensive player of the night for both teams. I was honestly just as worried about him getting hot in the final half of the 4th as I was Paul.

  • In addition to nearly tallying a triple-double in just twenty-six minutes and making one of his shots from the flat of his back, Dejounte Murray visibly frustrated Chris Paul on several occasions, using his length and speed to somewhat neutralize Paul’s drives, hazard his handle, and take away his once-transcendent ability to separate from his defender. It. Was. Glorious.

  • After a woeful performance from three to start the season, the Spurs shot 45% from three in this game. That still only added up to nine makes in total, but if the Thunder hadn’t shot almost 48% from distance, this might have ended up as a blowout. I’d still like to see San Antonio take a few more threes, but if they can continue to shoot them at a 40% rate, they’ll be a tough out regardless of whether Pop listens to my advice or not.
  • Marco Belinelli on the other hand, is still shooting 18% from three, and sporting an overall FG% of 27. I love Marco, but he’s currently carrying a career-low in FG%, 3pt%, FT% as well as a number of other categories, despite averaging sixteen minutes (16!) per game. I cannot see this continuing. I don’t care if it’s DeMarre Carroll or Lonnie Walker IV, but I’d love to see a change, even if it’s just to send a message. I’m not even saying Belli has to be benched, just give eight of those minutes to someone (almost anyone) else. I have a great deal of faith in Gregg Popovich, but this is the rare hill that I am willing to die on. C’est atroce!
  • The Thunder might have really made this a game if Dennis Schroder wasn’t busy doing his best ‘Bad Russell’ Westbrook impression. In going 5/14 on the night, it was almost as if OKC 0 had never left, minus the rebounds. Having cost San Antonio a crack at (at least) two more championships, it’s nice to know that his specter will haunt the Oklahoma City Thunder for years to come.
  • It’s also worth noting that San Antonio shot 90% from the free throw line. Given Pop’s career-long emphasis on free throw shooting, I can’t say I’m surprised. Hopefully that holds up. Much as I dislike the league-wide degree of emphasis on the importance of the three-pointer, you can’t be giving up points on shots *and* and the free throw line if you’re committed to the mid-range offense in this era of the NBA.
  • While I’m somewhat less invested in Assistant Coach Duncan’s nightly vestment as some of PtR’s staff, I do get a kick out of him wearing his ever-so-fundamental-and-understated black-and-white blazer and dress shirt combo. Something about it just seems...right. As does seeing him laugh on the bench next to Pop and his other coaching peers. Never change, Tim. Never change.