There were plenty of stat lines to fawn over from the Spurs’ recent demolition of the Pistons, but one in particular was extremely encouraging to see. Rudy Gay, who has been struggling mightily with his outside shot this season, went 4-for-7 from beyond the arc for the second game in a row.
Thanks to his last two performances, Gay is now shooting 38 percent on three-pointers in the month of December and 32 on the season after hovering in the 20s for a while. Those numbers still pale in comparison to the career-best 40 percent he averaged last season from long range but they show that Rudy is slowly starting to heat up, which is tremendous news for the Spurs.
One of the big reasons why San Antonio has struggled finding balanced lineups this season has been the lack of production from their forwards. DeMarre Carroll has been glued to the bench all season. Trey Lyles has been a passable rotation player but his passivity on offense makes it hard to play him more than 15 minutes a game. Gay, meanwhile, had an awful start in which his defense seemed to lack its usual bite, his decision-making was questionable and, more importantly, his outside shooting was atrocious. With Davis Bertans gone the Spurs needed someone with size to provide floor spacing and Gay simply couldn’t do it.
His minutes fluctuated as a result, with Gregg Popovich leaning more and more towards lineups featuring three guards alongside LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan, since units featuring the two stars and Gay struggled to score. A lack of effective three-point shooting was a big reason why, since the Spurs shot just 32 percent from beyond the arc with those three sharing the court. For comparison, last season San Antonio shot over 40 percent from outside and scored over 110 points per 100 possessions with that trio playing together, a gargantuan mark. Clearly the regression of the DeRozan-Gay-Aldridge frontcourt is not all on Rudy, but he was counted on to be the most versatile and adaptable of the three on offense and until recently he simply couldn’t deliver.
If the past few games are any indication, Gay is slowly getting back to being the glue guy that filled in the gaps last year. He’s been providing some valuable scoring off the bench and in the limited minutes he’s played with the two stars, the Spurs have outscored opponents by a lot. Aside from improving his shooting, Rudy is also getting more defensive rebounds and has upped his steals and blocks numbers, bringing once again some much-needed defensive play-making to the equation. The turnovers remain a problem, but if Gay can continue to be an active defender who hits his threes and creates some matchup problems for opponents, the Spurs will live with the occasional unforced error.
A month with some very good performances and a few bad ones is not enough to declare that Gay is once again a big positive presence for the team, but it’s certainly encouraging to see him show signs of recovery, considering how important he is to the Spurs. His improved effort level, which has resulted in more consistent contributions on defense and on the boards, is certainly a welcome development for a team that has often played without urgency. More importantly, Rudy regaining his shooting touch from outside could have a huge impact on the team’s lineup flexibility, since it could allow Pop an option he’s been missing: the possibility to once again have bigger units on the floor in key moments without losing spacing and firepower.
After a rough start of the season Gay is closing 2019 strong. The Spurs need him to continue to slowly regain his level in 2020, because he’s clearly one of the most important pieces of their rotation puzzle. If he does, a push up the standings becomes much more likely.