It’s early January and we’re all trying to eat our greens, swear less, or do whatever else is necessary to strive for that new, better normal. The 2020 Spurs are no different — players are dropping sound bytes of a fresh mentality to the season in late December and, more tangibly, the starting five is showing flashes of what appears to be a new approach to offense, eschewing mid-rangers for more threes and looks around the rim. The results, at least against more middling competition, have been promising on a few different fronts.
In the opening half of their 109-103 loss to the 7th seeded Oklahoma City Thunder, the Spurs appeared on the right track. Through a series of meaningful drive-and-kicks, the starters’ first 16 points were all in the paint or beyond the arc leading to a total of 10 attempts from deep in the first period.
No Spur is loading his plate with spinach more than LaMarcus Aldridge, who had 3 three-pointers in the first half alone, and 4 in the game — making all of them. The big man, once known and criticized for his anachronistic game, has now made 14 of his last 20 attempts from beyond the arc over the past 50 games, pushing his clip up to 43.8% on the season. There were multiple instances of him rethinking what might have been a typical 21.5 baseline jumper by minding the line, taking a half-step back, and attempting a shot worth 50% more points than the one he’d been considering.
The benefits of Aldridge’s new range were visible on a number of possessions where DeMar DeRozan’s isolations were able to get deeper into the lane than usual without Steven Adams nearby, or for the general dribble-drive attack that the starters in general seem to be embracing more of. (No, shooting more threes won’t make the Spurs inherently better on defense — where their true problems lay — but who knows what more defensively inclined lineups may be unlocked by Aldridge simplifying things on the offensive end)
The starters did well in that they played their counterparts to a draw, progress for the 2020 Spurs, and the 2nd unit (which once again featured a bounding Lonnie Walker IV) did their part to wedge open a lead. Taking the movement-heavy tone set in the 1st quarter to the next level, the reserves found more seams in the defense and got more stops on their own end. It didn’t hurt to have the two-way pair of Walker and Derrick White serving as positives on both sides of the ball.
White (a quietly effective 5 points, 5 assists and 7 rebounds) and Walker (16 points, 7 rebounds) make for an interesting young combination, one still figuring out when to turn it up while the other is one big bass drop. Factor in a Dejounte Murray (who got some rare run alongside White late and still finding his groove in an up-and-down return season) and it’s easy to find a silver lining for this team, even in an otherwise disappointing loss.
And this was still one of those, thanks to a 2nd half that far more closely resembled the late-2019 Spurs. Struggles containing the OKC backcourt were compounded by Steven Adams’ big body in the middle, operating as a destructive roll man, running the floor and perpetually crashing the offensive glass. As the scoring dried up for San Antonio, the Thunder continued to execute well, with Chris Paul serving up vintage Chris Paul and Gilgeous-Alexander showing a rare poise and all-around package for a 21-year-old guard.
Still, enough good things happened on Thursday to suggest progress could still be in the cards. Clinging to the 8th seed in the West for now, the Spurs will hope that enough carry through the challenging slate ahead and beyond, and why not — early January belongs to the resolutions we make, even the occasionally doomed ones, as well as the pains it might take to realize them.
More notes and quotes . . .
The Spurs’ change in shot distribution
Here’s the SA shot chart in the 1st half . . .
. . . and the 2nd:
Sure the team went a bit colder, but the shift from threes to mid-rangers tells part of the story of an offense that wasn’t clicking in the same way that it did in the 1st. Part of that is on the Spurs, but also credit the Thunder defense that tightened up its closeouts and brought the right physicality in the interior.
“We didn’t move the ball very well tonight, I don’t think,” Pop said after the game. “We didn’t really attack. I thought they attacked a lot better than we did — just straight ahead. And we were too much out on the dribble, we just never got out of it.”
Winning the whistle
In his pregame availability, Billy Donovan touched on his team’s emphasis to not foul (a Spurs staple) and sure enough the Thunder did a good job of it. OKC got to the line more (20 attempts, versus 12) and contested around the rim without rewarding Spurs players with free throws.
Pop, on the game slowing down for Lonnie
Lonnie Walker had 16 points in his 21 minutes of playing time. He shot 6 of 10 from the field and continued to look more comfortable balancing athletic forays to the rim with
“You know, Lonnie, he’s playing smarter and smarter everyday,” said Pop. “Understanding when to use his speed, when to use his head. I think he was impressive again tonight.”
“Everyone has their different process, depending on who you are, what team you’re with,” said Walker when asked about it shortly after. “But all in all it’s just about listening, continuing to grow day by day, listen to your coaches. They want what’s best for you. That’s what I’m doing.”
Tough night for the Spurs’ undersized guards
The result could’ve been different had either Patty Mills (1 of 8 from the field, 0 of 5 from three) or Bryn Forbes (1 of 9 from the field, 1 of 7 from three) been a little bit sharper on their looks. A combined 2 of 17 is always going to be tough to overcome, especially when someone like Forbes gets the tough task of trying to stay with Gilgeous-Alexander — which didn’t go well.
DeMar, on the challenge ahead
DeRozan was asked if this was a bad time to go up against the top team in the NBA (the Bucks) in an upcoming home and home:
“It’s a great time . . . you’ve gotta love the challenge.