This game was the embodiment of the Spurs season. They started strong, with DeMar DeRozan running roughshod over everyone as they created a comfortable lead in the first quarter. Then, things tightened up in the middle quarters, with the other team fighting back, making it a game of runs and a clashes of style. Who would ultimately come out on top: the old-fashioned team hunting for efficient twos, or the one jacking up threes and getting to the free throw line?
It turned out to be the former tonight, largely thanks to the Dallas Mavericks’ inability to capitalize at the line. Before the Spurs shot (and made) six free throws in the final 24 seconds of the game as the Mavs desperately tried to extend it, the home team held a 26-12 advantage at the line over the Spurs but only made 15 of them. That and Luka Doncic having possibly the worst game of his very young career while playing on a bum knee (an unnecessary risk at this juncture, I would say) was all the Spurs needed to pull off their second road win a row and sixth-straight win overall.
While there was nothing overly impressive about this win — some might complain about the Spurs failure to pull away or build off a double-digit lead, their poor road defense making a return, etc — take into account how far this team has come. Just a few weeks ago, this is not a win. On the road with no Rudy Gay (who is recovering from the flu but is expected to return for the Spurs’ weekend back-to-back), shots not falling for the bench (outside of one particular player, whom we will get to), the other team owning the free throw line — nothing about that scenario spells road win for the January/February Spurs regardless of the opponent, so what has changed?
In reality: a lot. For starters, DeRozan is healthy again, and getting consistently good games from both him and LaMarcus Aldridge makes life a lot more difficult for the Spurs’ opponents. The emergence of Derrick White has also been key. His steady hand on offense has allowed DeRozan to play off the ball for longer spurts and has taken pressure off him to be the Spurs’ main offensive creator. That gives him some breathers during the game and allows him to stay fresh while picking his moments to take over, which he is getting better and better at doing.
It may not feel like it because they’ve taken far different paths, but at 39-29 this year’s Spurs are actually one game ahead last season’s squad (38-30 and just beginning a six game winning streak themselves before losing five of their last nine), and with a friendlier closing schedule. As last season proved, they can’t take their foot off the gas at any point, but this squad feels like it is peaking at the right time, while last season just kept getting tougher with the drama and reality of the situation settling in.
It’s too early to tell if this team can surpass last year’s 47 wins, or maybe even start a new streak of 50 wins, but one thing is for sure: this squad appears in much better shape than their 2018 counterparts. That may not have felt possible just a few weeks ago, but no matter how frustrating this group can be at times, they definitely have something going that wasn’t there last season, and that’s reason enough to have a positive outlook from here on out.
- What else is there to say about White? He’s just an amazing young player with no apparent weakness in his game. He can shoot from anywhere on the court. He can create his own shot or for others. He stays in front of his man of defense, covers the passing lane, and blocks shots. He’s Danny Green with an actual offensive game, and it might even be safe to say that his defense is close enough that he has already surpassed Green as the better overall player. Last night may have been White’s first real exposure to a national audience. This is not to say it’s the first time he’s performed well on national TV, but this is the first time he had the announcers’ undivided attention from the outset. And yet, even as teams take more notice of him in the scouting report, there’s only so much they can do when DeRozan and Aldridge also have to be accounted for. It’s hard not to get overly excited when looking towards the future and imaging what the duo of White and Dejounte Murray can do together next season. The Spurs have not had two dynamic, defense-minded guards in as long as I can remember, and they might just have the next big guard duo in the league: The D-Bros. (You know, for Derrick, Dejounte, and defense...totally not too corny. Put that on a t-shirt!)
- As mentioned in the final score, DeRozan picked up his ninth technical of the season last night, and it was a rather pitiful one at that. To recap, after being called for traveling, he nonchalantly (and slowly) raised his arm, barely touching Tim Hardaway Jr.’s face (if at all — video review couldn’t even confirm contact). Hardaway exaggerated the contact and flopped into DeRozan, who gave him a slight shove to get off him. The refs went to video review, and to the surprise of virtually everyone in the building gave DeRozan a technical for “excessive contact”. Like many of his T’s this season (most of which have come for questioning calls), it all felt so unnecessary and something that you just feel most other players, especially stars, would get away with. While nine technicals in a season may not be very Spursian, I’m actually not mad at him. Between him seemingly being a target for the officials while so many other stars get away with much more excessive whining, and the fact that he plays off his emotions, I say keep being you, DeMar. Don’t let the refs deter you from playing your game.
- Davis Watch: In keeping with tradition, we’re honing in on a special role player from last night, but this time it’s not Marco Belinelli. While he did have a big four-point play early in the fourth quarter, it was an otherwise poor shooting night for him. Instead, today we are focusing on Davis Bertans, who has been struggling through a shooting slump lately but somewhat broke out of his shell last night. It all started with a big highlight real dunk to get the juices flowing. . .
. . .and he would go on to hit 3-5 from three, all huge ones in the late third and fourth quarters to keep the charging Mavericks at bay.
The Latvian Laser has been struggling lately, hitting just 7-27 (26.9%) of his threes over the previous 7 games. The Spurs often struggle when the trio of Bertans, Belinelli and Patty Mills fail to hit their shots, and while the other two combined for just 2-9 from three last night, Bertans showed up and was the only player besides Aldridge, DeRozan and White to score in double figures. The Spurs need him to break out heading into the final stretch of the regular season and postseason if they want to make some noise, and maybe this is the game that gets it done for him. Keep shooting, Davis!