Patty Mills ran down his own miss after pulling up for a three in transition, narrowly beating Russell Westbrook to the ball before driving and kicking it left to Marco Belinelli, who dribbled past Terrance Ferguson’s close-out only to get stripped mid-gather, bobbling the ball once, twice, then batting it towards the rim with his out-stretched fingertips, sending it careening off the backboard, then off a Thunder defender’s hand and finally into the mitts of a well-positioned LaMarcus Aldridge, who dropped it in for two of his 15 first-quarter points. It wasn’t quite like they drew it up but, as has been the story for in 2018-19, they made it work anyway.
Playoff teams aren’t meant to improvise on the fly this late into the season, but here the Spurs are in March, shaking up the starting lineup and rotations once again, dabbling in zone defensive schemes, and settling everyone around a second-year player thrust into the starting point guard spot due to injury.
While a 116-102 win over the Thunder (and the first string of back-to-back victories in a month) suggests progress is being made, expect Gregg Popovich to remain skeptical after having seen this team shine in December only to crash down to Earth immediately afterward.
“For about 10 or 12 games we did really well in all the defensive categories, and then it kind of went away,” he said, waving his hand. “It’s kind of mercurial. Now, we’re hoping we can get consistent with it down the stretch . . . because we can score the basketball, but we have to make stops.”
For the second game in a row, the Spurs started off by matching up big with their visitors, turning to Jakob Poeltl over Rudy Gay to contain the bruising Steven Adams and rim-running Jerami Grant. Despite missing a couple of bunnies around the rim and not quite replicating his stat line versus Detroit, Poeltl was a contributor on offense by setting screens, moving, and volleyballing back every offensive rebound (he had 6) that he could. More importantly, his presence around the rim alongside LaMarcus Aldridge gave the Spurs the air of a settled, competent defense. Pick-and-roll coverage looked tighter, rotations less frantic, and mostly stayed in front of a Thunder team that looked to push the pace whenever Russell Westbrook touched the ball. Pop also sprinkled in a little zone defense every once in a while, typically when Aldridge was seated.
Getting the Westbrook assignment again, Derrick White shook off early foul trouble to slow the former MVP down and make an impact on the other end. Westbrook finished with a decent 19-9-8 line, but it came with 7 turnovers. With Paul George sidelined with a shoulder injury and only Dennis Schroder and the Ghost of Raymond Felton to pick up the slack, OKC struggled to consistently create quality looks. Here’s White on what he felt made the difference in the Spurs’ second consecutive strong defensive performance:
“We were flying around, helping each other, showing crowds, getting back in transition — I think that’s where things really start is transition defense. So, we’ll try to keep building on that end.”
Poeltl’s promotion meant Gay coming off the bench again and anchoring the reserve unit’s offense while Aldridge, DeRozan and White sat. It usually had the versatile forward seeking out mismatches either on the block against smaller dudes or off the dribble when switched on to someone like Nerlens Noel. Either way, things usually worked out in his favor, as he made 9 of his 16 shots from the field to finish with 22 points and 8 rebounds.
Between Gay, Aldridge (a game-high 27 points and 10 rebounds), DeRozan (18 points, 7 assists, 6 rebounds) and White (14 points, 8 rebounds, 3 steals) the Spurs got the full complement from what are quite clearly their four best players. Near the end of the first half, that quartet had matched the entire Thunder team’s output at 57.
While other teams aspire to be Ferraris, the Spurs offense is fine as a Canyonero — plodding, overwhelming with size, and imposing its will from the midrange in. With White’s methodical penetration (and surprisingly developed pull-up game), DeRozan and Gay’s isos, and Aldridge’s turnarounds all clicking, the Thunder had their hands full all night.
Pop will want to sustain the balance with these four as he focuses on fine-tuning the defense. In doing so, it will be interesting to see if Gay leading the reserves remains matchup-dependent, and if that dynamic is preferable to that unit’s typically free-flowing style. Likewise, White-Poeltl pick-and-roll action means a new geometry for the starters, including Aldridge and DeRozan, who aren’t at their best playing off the catch. Amid it all: can the Spurs still function when the two Hs — health and homecourt — aren’t on their side? The window for answers (and, ideally, positive ones) is getting smaller, adding more intrigue to an already unpredictable playoff chase.
A few more notes and quotes . . .
Pop on the recently bought-out Pau Gasol
Absent from the Spurs’ bench was Pau Gasol, who the Spurs reached an agreement on a buyout just in time for the veteran to be eligible to join another playoff team. Here’s Pop, touching on the decision:
“Pau’s a class act, and he wants to play. The way we’re constituted and are playing, he wasn’t getting those minutes. So we tried to work something out and it happens. RC [Buford] did a good job. He’ll do great work in Milwaukee with Bud. He’s a great teammate and obviously an intelligent guy, but a real classy guy. Not playing was difficult for him, but he was very helpful to everybody on a consistent basis. He was wonderful.”
It won’t be long before the Spurs see Gasol again — he’ll likely be returning as a Milwaukee Buck on March 10th.
On DeRozan’s improved numbers coming out of the ASB
DeMar’s improved play coming out of the All-Star break continued on Saturday. Here are the numbers since the calendar turned, before and after the mid-February hiatus:
- 2019 until All-Star Break: 17.9 points, 42.6% from the field, 4.4 free throw attempts, 6.8 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 3.3 turnovers
- Post-All-Star: 22.6 points, 55.8% from the field, 6.8 free throw attempts, 7.4 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 2.6 turnovers
I asked Pop before the game if the thought there was any more to the swing than fresh legs. Here’s what he said:
“I think that’s part of it. He kind of hit a wall, I think, after the first part of the season. We played him a lot and he had a couple of nagging injuries, and he’s gotten through that. And I think he feels more comfortable in the offense with his teammates. So, he’s been doing a good job for us.”
When asked if playing alongside Derrick White (who missed time during the Rodeo Road Trip with a heel injury) was a factor, he added:
[Playing alongside Derrick] is huge. You know, Derrick gives everybody a better feel and continuity of where they need to be on the court. Things work more smoothly with Derrick on the court, for sure.”
A look at the standings and tie-breakers
Depending on how tight the Kings and Lakers are able to make things down the stretch, this tool may not remain super helpful. For now, you can at least see why the Spurs are the theoretical 7 seed over the Clippers, despite posting the same record and splitting the season series:
Here are the standings as they relate to tie-breakers. Spurs and Clips have the same record and split their season series, 2-2, but SA gets the edge thanks to a better conference record. pic.twitter.com/PKZHMczwVm— Bruno Passos (@bouncepassos) March 3, 2019
(As someone noted, the Warriors and Nuggets H2H should read 1-1 and not 1-2)