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What we learned from the Spurs win over the Pistons

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Another sharpshooting blowout leads to just as many questions as answers

NBA: Detroit Pistons at San Antonio Spurs
“Confound it all, Samwise Gamgee. Have you been eavesdropping?”
Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

“Winning is a great deodorant.” was a pet phrase of John Madden’s for many years. Though always loathe to credit himself for its origination, he was happy to repeat it to the extent that you could almost anticipate it’s usage. Most often he used it to describe internally conflicted or underachieving teams, as if it were his own neo-Buddhist sporting meditation.

In Madden’s hands the phrase was largely diagnostic, but sometimes it proved itself prophetic. The two occasions that I most clearly recall this being the case involved the 2001-02 St. Louis Rams, and the 2002-03 Oakland Raiders, both teams that reached the Super Bowl in spite of various strategic and chemistry-related issues, and whom were promptly exposed by more united forces on one of the sporting world’s largest stages.

For all the Minnesotan ‘aw-shucks-isms’ of his commentating career, John Madden was a much more shrewd surveyor of team composition and performance than he was given credit for. Amidst the crudely improvised yellow on-screen diagrams and the ‘booms’ and ‘whams’ of his on-screen persona it was easy to forget (or in my case, simply not be aware of) the keen strategic mind that left John Madden as the only NFL head coach to never have a single losing season in over one-hundred games played in an era otherwise dominated by Landry, Shula, and Noll. (All of whom he had a winning record against)

As it had in his years as a coach, his exterior bluster obscured the internal cleverness, presenting him as a sort of reverse Dick Vitale. Twice Madden pegged the 1993-1994 Dallas Cowboys with his pet phrase, though the full reckoning of his prediction was yet to come. He added a rustic addendum on the second occasion: “Winning is a great deodorant, but sometimes it’s got problems. Sometimes, it’s not enough of a deodorant.”

Watching San Antonio’s victory over Detroit last night I couldn’t help but wonder what the video game world’s most famous namesake would have had to say about this Spurs squad if they’d instead been the gridiron team that San Antonio has so long been deprived of by the efforts of an eternally autocratic Jerry Jones.

In the midst of the splendor of an incredibly fitting blowout retribution and the regular levitations of a certain San Antonio sophomore, I couldn’t help but feel uneasy. More than the discomfort that has been a part of late leads in recent months, it was a certain lack of trust in the upswing beyond the confines of Saturday night’s contest.

I’ve seen this film before you see. I saw it just last Monday, as a matter of fact, against the Memphis Grizzles. And though I would be remiss in failing to mention that the Spurs have played much better (and more consistently) in the last several contests, the basketball world seems more ethereal to me than ever.

The quality of defensive play has gradually improved, as has the ball movement and shot selection, but it’s hard not to look with some concern at a recent trend in which San Antonio seems to require an exceptionally good shooting night to beat even mediocre NBA teams. It’s hard to know if this is a genuine offensive resurgence, or simply another thrilling climb of the roller coaster. Only time can tell the tale in the long run, and I’m hoping that these recent performances are the signs of a team finally shaking off the lack of cohesion that has typified it’s opening stretch. But at the moment it just smells like a really good deodorant to me. Here’s to hoping for a repeated application.

Takeaways:

  • I’m not sure if this is permanent either, but the Spurs appear to be actively adopting some different shot selections over the past couple of games. Though LaMarcus Aldridge’s 5-6 effort from three in this game was certainly his flashiest performance from deep, he’s been seeing a slight uptick in attempts as of late, and it’s been a very interesting development, particularly in regards to his success. With such a smooth jumper, it’s always been hard to understand why he doesn’t step back behind the arc more often, and it has a considerable ripple affect on the starting unit. With Bryn Forbes and Trey Lyles being freed up more with the addition of a third legitimate threat, and DeRozan being granted a veritable torture chamber of operating space in the interior as Aldridge and Lyles pull any dependable rim defenders farther out, the opening unit breathes in a way it hasn’t all season. If anything has been most responsible for San Antonio’s recent offensive performances, it’s been this. It’s amazing what can happen when the bench isn’t being forced to carry all the scoring weight.
  • I can’t go without mentioning DeMar DeRozan here either. Flaws and all, it’s hard to argue that this Spurs environment hasn’t drawn out one of the better versions of DeRozan possible. Yes, I had high hopes that DeMar’s defensive game would improve as well, but this swift, dime-chucking, ironically efficient mid-range master has ascended to a offensive level that could only reasonably be improved by an ability to shoot from deep. In the absence of that ability, it’s hard to discredit the third best shooting percentage by any guard in the NBA, particularly when considering the mind boggling efficiency of his most recent performances. Derozan is shooting 40-of-56 (71.4%) in his last four contests, and while there’s no conceivable way that can hold up, it’s certainly not nothing, especially now that it’s happening at home as well as on the road.
  • Just as importantly, it appears that Rudy Gay and Bryn Forbes are beginning to return to the mean when it comes to shooting the three-ball. I cannot overstate the importance of this to a Spurs team that has frequently struggled to shoot the three in the absence of long-distance flamethrower Davis Bertans.
  • Almost as startling has been San Antonio’s increase in attempts from long-distance. Whether it’s the result of strategic changes, or just certain players finding their shots again, I can only surmise. My guess is that it’s a bit of both though, and that thrills me considering the dire necessity of that increased shot profile in this iteration of the league. There are those who will argue that Pop is being dragged into the modern NBA kicking and screaming, but I think that misses the mark on Pop’s essential stubbornness. Sometimes it’s easy to forget Popovich’s initial resistance to the changes that occurred in his system over the past twenty years, but his greatest trait has always been his ability to eventually make his peace with them, and employ said strategies effectively. Plenty of incredible coaches have been unable or unwilling to do the same, (looking at you, Phil Jackson) and it’s just as easy to forget how incredibly human that is. It’s no coincidence that the Spurs just tallied their highest number of three-point makes on the season in two of the last three games. And while there’s not a lot I’m sure of at the moment, I’d be willing to bet that this is a change that will largely hold for the rest of the season.
  • There are always so many players you want to mention when writing about a win, but since Lonnie’s tameless acrobatics have already been mentioned by other PTR writers, I’d like to take a minute to come back to Trey Lyles again. In a game against a pair of impressive bigs like Detroit’s, you’d think it would have been Jakob who would have proved to be the difference maker. But while Jakob played as well as ever (adding another two block to his total), it was Lyles’ defense on Blake Griffin that proved to be a major factor. While injuries to Griffin have sapped him of much of his former athleticism, it’s still no small task to defend him, and Lyles is not the sort of player you’d think would be ideal to do so. But Griffin went 3-16 on the night, and though it was a group effort, it is Lyles who deserves the lion’s share of the credit in this one. No player on this roster so regularly upends my expectations more than he does, and I’m starting to look forward to being proven wrong by him again and again. It’s becoming easier to see why Pop is so fond of him.

Playing You Out – The Theme Song of the Evening:

You Can Call Me Al: by Paul Simon