A visiting reporter lobbed a familiar question for Gregg Popovich to swat away before facing the Nets, asking what he’d seen from Opposing Player X this season. It doesn’t matter who the player was or what Pop thinks about that player because the answer is always some variation on the same thing: “Nothing. I’m too busy worrying about my team — have you seen our record? Next question.”
And while there is some combination of empathy for the reporter and entertainment taken when he storms off a few minutes later, the larger takeaway, for the fly on the wall, is the lingering sensation that you’ve seen this bit before: same IP, diminishing returns, few new ideas. It’s something I thought would carry over through the course of the night.
After all, it was the Spurs’ turn to host Star Wars Night on Thursday, a co-branded venture between Disney and the NBA to drum up excitement for the latest installment in a franchise that’s famously struggled to balance old material with the new. There’s a version of this recap where I force that same metaphor on the Spurs, where I conflate the repurposing of the same formula, where I talk about going from anticipating the next chapter to, instead, skimming the spoilers before bed, putting my phone down and falling immediately into a dreamless sleep.
That story changed in the 3rd quarter of the Spurs’ 118-105 win over the Nets. After two and a half periods of largely the same beats we’ve seen through the team’s first 26 games — inconsistent defensive play, static offensive sets — Pop found a combination that breathed some life into his team, down 73-62 at the time. The insertion of Lonnie Walker and Jakob Poeltl, in addition to Patty Mills and Derrick White, gave the Spurs more dynamism than they’d seen through much of the night. Walker and White, a game-high +25 and +26, gave the team two-way activity; Poeltl manned the rim (3 blocks) and was his typical productively low-usage self on the other end; Mills (27 points on 8-of-14 shooting) thrived as the tip of the spear with an evergeen light to shoot the ball. Together, they helped San Antonio wrest the lead away for the first time as the quarter closed, 83-81, before building on that in the first few minutes of the 4th.
Fans understandably bristled as Pop gradually pulled the pieces who’d helped build the lead in favor of the oft-maligned starters plus Twitter lightning rod Marco Belinelli -- but then something funny happened: that group closed the game well.
It wasn’t an entirely special 6 minutes or so except for that they were the last 6 minutes of the game, a stretch where the Spurs have struggled to execute and rarely created separation from opponents. LaMarcus Aldridge (20 points, 10 rebounds, 4 blocks) knocked down his usual suite of mid-range pick-and-pops, Dejounte Murray (13 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals) played under control and disrupted on the defensive end, and Mills continued to turn the finest slivers of daylight into buckets. Slowly the Nets unraveled.
It all makes for a difficult win to unpack. The Spurs bench delivered, as usual, but the team also thrived doing many of the same things it has for the first third of the season, only better. Victory under the same process can signal meaningful improvement, but it can also cloud the difference between folly and success. We’ll see which side the Spurs are headed down.
Some more notes and quotes...
A streak extended
The Nets extended their regular-season losing streak in San Antonio to 17. It’s a streak that Brooklyn coach Kenny Atkinson said his players probably weren’t aware of heading in, although he indicated he might use it as bulletin-board material during his pregame pep talk.
Pop on the pace and defense in the 2nd half
“That defense and pushing it got us over the hump. Obviously you gotta score, but I thought we did a good job of moving the basketball, and we executed some things very well.”
Patty Mills on his role and doing whatever it takes to win
This was great from Patty following the win, so I decided to include it all.
“Just finding ways for you to be great at that role. I kind of don’t expect anything, don’t ask for anything, just try to be great at what you gotta be great at. And I think that a lot comes with my role now to leading by example. I take a lot of passion in bringing that leadership to these younger guys so they have that leader to follow. That’s the Spurs culture, that’s what it’s always been, and I take pride in that — in being that for these young guys. So they have something to follow, a core value to follow. I don’t even know where the question was — that’s where my mind went.”
“It’s one of those things you learn on the fly. I don’t think I knew what to expect. That’s why you don’t ask for anything. Obviously I had some great leaders that I could follow, and learn from. And every year’s been different, I feel like. It might not be a major change in role, but slight differences which feels like it’s a lot. For a while now it’s been that leadership role. Throughout a season you gotta knuckle down and find out what you can do great and better for the team. And it’s not easy to do — especially for young guys.”
Still (almost) zero time with the next trilogy of young Spurs
Going into Thursday, 208 three-man lineups for the Spurs had seen the floor more than Walker, White, and Murray, who logged 4 garbage-time minutes. That total didn’t change.
Continuing to get it done with blocks
The Spurs are 6th in the league in blocks per game at 5.9, one of the few feathers in a cap for a defense that’s not been too inspired but appears to be trending in the right direction. They got another 8 tonight, with Aldridge (4) and Poeltl (3) leading the way, the well-timed beneficiaries of ball-handlers being funneled into pockets where they could make the play.