The discord that commonly afflicts Spurs fans in 2019 — at least the ones demanding their 7th seeded team take care of business at home and avoid the perilous drop to 8th — is that, well, they’re a 7th or 8th seed, and games like Tuesday’s against the young but spunky Atlanta Hawks are hardly business as usual. Things occur non-linearly, focus and execution fluctuate on both ends of the floor, and sometimes it takes a timely three-pointer or a pass-first playmaker to take charge in order to provide the necessary oomph on a weirdly pivotal night.
Luckily for San Antonio, they got both and more down the stretch, outscoring Atlanta 24-11 in the final 7 minutes to beat the visitors, 117-111. They improved to 45-33 on the year, the 20th season in a row they’ve eclipsed that win mark.
The two players that spoke to reporters immediately after the win were a big reason why. They were also a reminder of the non-linear path that perennially non-lottery teams have to take in order to foster young talent while remaining competitive.
First was Bryn Forbes, undersized, undrafted, and the unlikely starter of all but one game this season. The third-year guard scored the game’s first bucket off a confident midrange pull-up and coolly stepped into a three that pushed the Spurs lead to 115-109 with a minute to go. He finished with 19 points on 7 of 11 shooting from the field and 5 of 7 from beyond the arc. He did his best Patty Mills impression on one of them, faking an off-ball screen before darting from baseline to baseline and, in one motion, receiving the pass from Mills himself, getting his toes behind the line, and burying the corner three.
Then there was Derrick White, who bounced back from 4 straight games scoring in single figures to put up 23 points (on 10 of 12 from the field), 4 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 impressive, albeit very different, blocks — the first on a Trae Young stepback 3-point attempt and the second on 7-foot Isaac Humphries at the rim.
“I haven’t really been playing too well as of late,” said White, a nabbed by San Antonio with the 29th pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. “So I knew that I just gotta shoot with confidence, just trust the work that I put in. I got some good looks and tried to knock them down.”
White took control in the final 5:23 of the game, scoring 11 of the team’s final 19 points through a series of aggressive drives to the basket and one of a trio of three-pointers he made off the catch in the game. The 24-year-old’s defense (as expected, he got the assignment on the rookie phenom Young) and steady playmaking have become dependable qualities, but games like Tuesday’s show how much of a difference he can make when he also creates for himself.
“Derrick White was fantastic,” said Gregg Popovich. “Really took the game over for us. That was great because LA and DeMar can’t do it every night. Everybody else has to contribute, and Derrick was fantastic.”
Is Pop surprised by anything White does anymore, having routinely noted the unexpected role the 2nd year guard has taken on?
“What you saw, that’s his game,” he answered. “He’s just kind of steady and picks his spots. I loved seeing him get more confident with the three, knocking down a couple. That’s great. That’s the next step for him.”
The win also came courtesy of the kind of late-game defensive stops that were absent in recent losses to the Kings and Hornets. They may not come “on demand,” like the Spurs could once count on back when they were holding onto homecourt advantage this time of the year, but Pop will take them all the same whenever he can get them.
“Stops win basketball games,” the Spurs coach reiterated. “Sure you gotta make shots, but when we lose these games, it’s because we don’t make stops — especially in the 4th quarter. Holding them to 21 was what it was all about.”
In a season rife with inconsistencies, it’s been hard to tell whether the Spurs (who, as Pop reminded before the game, needed to integrate an uncharacteristic number of pieces in the early months) will muster up enough defense when it mattered most. Much like Tuesday’s win, the hope is that things are just taking a little longer to come together.
A few more notes and quotes...
Offensive balance, strong production from DeMar and LaMarcus
Seven Spurs attempted between 9 and 12 field goals on Tuesday, with the ball whipping around (sometimes a bit too wildly) for the open man to make a play.
Despite fouling out and picking up an 11th technical foul, DeRozan put together an all-around stat line while carrying the Spurs for stretches. His game-high 29 points came on just 11 field-goal attempts, as he excelled at getting to the line (16 attempts, 2nd most this season) and forcing defensive collapses. The 5 turnovers aren’t great, but he did have 7 assists — 4 of them for three-pointers, meaning he had a hand in at least 47 of San Antonio’s total points.
Aldridge took a step back on offense amid all the driving and kicking, but still got a few touches in the post and held things down on the other end. He finished with 16 points to go with 11 rebounds and 3 blocked shots.
Pregame praise for Rudy
It was recently announced that Rudy Gay was one of 12 finalists for the Twyman-Stoke Award, which recognizes the best teammate in the NBA. Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce, who coached Gay in Memphis as an assistant, was asked about him and touched on the journey the now-Spur has taken.
“He’s always been a good guy... Rudy’s always been class, a true professional, carries himself well... He’s probably learning more about what it takes to be successful in this league. A great organization, a great time in his career coming off an injury, understanding the impact of coming back and still being an impactful player. I think he gets it, and there’s a lot of reasons why, but he’s always been a great person all around.”
Marco’s shot from the logo
With the shot clock winding down and the Spurs up 1, Marco Belinelli — who was 1 for 8 from the field until that point — collected a loose ball from near half court and stepped into a 32-footer, casually swishing it and giving his team a 4-point lead with 3:39 to go. Naturally it was a topic of conversation afterward.
“Beli draws up his own plays,” Pop joked.
“That was an amazing shot — we needed it too,” said Forbes. “You can expect that from Beli. You can expect the unexpected.”
With the Thunder also winning on Tuesday, the Spurs kept a tenuous grip on 7th place by virtue of their season series tie-breaker. Both teams have 4 games left, with the Spurs’ most challenging on Wednesday in Denver. The Thunder meanwhile finish their season at Minnesota, at home versus Houston, and on the road against Milwaukee, although who’s to say if the Bucks will be playing any of their core players on the last game of the season and with the 1 seed already locked up.