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What we learned from the Spurs win over the Hawks

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The Hawks bring out the best of White, who brings out the best of the Spurs.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Can the Spurs just play the Atlanta Hawks every night? Not because they’re an easy match-up — they have been coming into their own over the second half of the season and have made the Spurs sweat for both victories — but because they seem to bring out the best in Derrick White, who in turn brings out the best of the Spurs.

Consider this quote from the Final Score of their 111-104 victory in Atlanta back on March 6, a game in which the Spurs were in control most of the night but never really pulled away:

White was the man of the fourth quarter, with 7 straight points to perk up his slacking Spurs team, and his effort on defense got contagious down the stretch. The Spurs actually played defense, controlled the clock well before creating good looks, and hit their free throws to close this one out. I think we know whose hands the ball should be in during the clutch from here on out.

In that game, White had a stat-stuffing line of 18 points, 9 assists, 6 rebounds and 6 blocks while playing his usual stellar defense on ROY candidate Trae Young. He also put the Spurs on his back when they needed production down the stretch.

Now look at this quote from last night’s Final Score:

...the starters came back in midway through the fourth and led the Spurs on a 19-6 run to regain the lead as the young Hawks started settling for bad shots. White led the way with 11 points in the fourth quarter, and overall the Spurs outscored the Hawks 31-21 for the very important win to stay above the Thunder in the standings.

Looky there: White to the rescue again, and in similar fashion as before but this time with much more on the line and the Spurs trying to crawl out of a 9-point hole instead of maintaining a lead. This game was a big confidence booster for the 2nd-year guard, who had been in a six-game slump, including averaging just 5 points over the last four games. The Spurs had gone just 2-4 during that stretch and given up valuable cushion in the race to stay out of 8th.

As has seemingly been the case in nearly every game, White’s performance appeared to directly impact the outcome for the Spurs. He was aggressive on defense, spending much of his time guarding Young — who was held to just 15 points on 5-15 shooting (0-6 from three) for the night — while showing a determination to not just create for others, but for himself as well: something had been lacking in recent games. Overall he went 10-12 from the field for 23 points, including all manners of scoring such as driving to the basket for nifty lay-ups and confidently letting it fly from three when open.

This is the Derrick White the Spurs need to be competitive in the postseason. They’ll get their share from LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan, and Rudy Gay, and they’ll need more than just White to show up as well (more on that below), but when he is playing well everything around him seems to go right. Maybe he can just pretend every team is the Hawks, and every guard is Young.

Takeaways

  • Another player who broke out of a mini slump last night was Patty Mills, who scored 14 points and hit 4-8 from three after going just 4-20 over the prior three games. He was the only bench player who was productive last night as the rest of the bench combined for just 10 points on 4-16 shooting. Overall they were inexplicably outscored 47-24 by the Hawks’ bench despite them missing six players. Most of that was thanks to a 26-point night from Kent Bazemore, but it’s still inexcusable for a Spurs team that is supposed to have one of the best bench units in the league. As has been extensively covered here already, the role players have to step more for the Spurs. The Spurs have a solid starting unit, but not a spectacular one in comparison to several other playoff teams, so they need the bench unit to do what Spurs benches have always done and take advantage of their weaker counterparts. If not, it will be an early exit from the playoffs.
  • It’s time to give Bryn Forbes his due. This wasn’t the season he was supposed to have, not by a long shot. Some complained when the Spurs resigned him on a cheap 2 yr/$6 mil contract his summer because he was too similar to Mills: an undersized shooting guard primarily known for shooting threes. The guard position appeared in oversupply while the Spurs were short on wings. However, no one could have foreseen the season-ending injury to Dejounte Murray before it began, along with other injuries to White and Lonnie Walker IV that would sideline them at the start of the season, forcing Forbes into a starting role. Not only has he taken complete advantage of that chance, but he has thrived in the role to the point that he has not given it back up all season. He has expanded his game from just a spot up shooter to master of the floater, and has improved his play-making and defensive skills. He’ll be coming off the bench again next season, but he has definitely proven he’s an NBA player and another fantastic find by PATFO off the scrapheap. He’s one of those amazing Spurs stories, and it’s time he got the credit for it he deserves.
  • Some might call the Spurs’ league-leading three-point percentage of 39.5% misleading considering they attempt the fewest in the league (25.3) and seem to do worse as those attempts arise. However, that is not necessarily the case. When the Spurs shoot them well, it’s because they are taking them within the confines of their offense, playing inside-out while shooting threes at the right opportunities. Last night, they did just that for the most part, and the result was an efficient 14-30 outing. When they don’t shoot threes well is when they start jacking them up outside the flow of offense, in transition, out of desperation at the end of the shot clock, or in an attempt to make a quick comeback. That was apparent in Sunday’s loss to the Kings, when they shot just 8-24 from the three with many of those misses coming from desperation heaves in the fourth quarter. In other words, the idea that the Spurs’ three-point shooting percentage is a farce is inaccurate. No matter the amount they shoot, it mainly depends on how those shots come about as to how accurately they go on. When within the flow of offense, they are efficient. When they start jacking them up, they aren’t because they don’t have any Steph Currys or James Hardens on the team with the level of shooting skill to get away with such attempts.
  • MARCO WATCH: It wasn’t the best of games for Marco Belinelli. He was a part of the bench unit that, outside of Mills, didn’t have it going last night. He was just 2-8 from three for 6 points, but his last attempt may have been the biggest shot of the night. With the Spurs having regained the lead in the fourth and desperate to expand it, Beli found himself out near mid-court with just five seconds left on the shot clock. With everyone else pretty well covered and no other option, he let it fly from 32 feet out on the Spurs logo. It went in, giving the Spurs a 4-point lead and seemingly taking the last bit of the wind from the Hawks’ sails. As Bill Land said, that was one spicy meatball.