It’s always fun when the schedule sets up two teams to face each other in consecutive games, as it gives fans a chance to witness during the regular season the type of adjustments coaches typically only make in playoff series. This time, however, what determined the result was not the strategic chess match between two of the best coaches in the league as much as the simple fact that one team was scorching hot on jumpers and the other one wasn’t. Gregg Popovich has lamented that in the modern NBA knowing who hits more threes often reveals the winner, and he was definitely correct on Monday, as his Spurs set a season record of 19 made outside shots that were largely responsible for getting them the victory.
While outside shooting was clearly the determining factor on the matchups, there was also good coaching and nifty adjustments on display that are worth mentioning. The Spurs continued to try to deny Giannis Antetokounmpo any opportunities to drive on the half court by sending up to two extra defenders to disrupt him or outright deter him to venture to the paint, but they also cleaned up their transition defense some and did a better job of containing Eric Bledsoe at the point of attack and the Lopez twins inside. The Bucks, for their part, did their best to not only deny LaMarcus Aldridge pick and pop three-pointers but also to limit his impact in the post by doubling him often to neutralize him and force San Antonio to beat them from the perimeter.
Both game plans were good, but only the Spurs’ worked. Antetokounmpo made the right reads as the Spurs overloaded his side and played off shooters, but his supporting cast couldn’t make San Antonio pay for leaving them open. With Dejounte Murray, back after missing the first matchup, and Derrick White containing Bledsoe and the entire team making it a priority to prevent the Lopii from hurting them as much as they did on Saturday, Milwaukee needed Khris Middleton to carry the offense. He couldn’t, as he missed three-pointer after three-pointer and could only score on some DeRozan-esque isolation pull-ups from mid-range. Despite making some runs that could have fueled a comeback, the Bucks never looked like the scoring Juggernaut they are.
While Milwaukee struggled the Spurs feasted. Again, Mike Budenholzer had his players do the smart thing and leave some of San Antonio’s least effective shooters open to focus on bigger threats, but everyone was feeling it for the home team. Patty Mills hitting six long bombs won’t surprise anyone, but eight of the team’s 19 makes from outside came from players who went into the game shooting below 34 percent from beyond the arc. Those makes opened things up for DeRozan to do work and allowed the Spurs to not have to play shooters at the expense of the defense, which made it hard for a stagnant Milwaukee offense to get the east buckets it needed to snap out of its funk. The win only seemed at risk at the start of the third quarter, but the Spurs showed resilience and weathered the storm.
There’s no real lesson to take away from this game, really. For one night the Spurs couldn’t miss and they made one of the best teams in the league look ordinary. The performance is not going to be easy to replicate, but that’s fine. As long as the wins keep on coming, it doesn’t matter how the Spurs get them, at least while they are in survival mode for the next month.
- DeRozan and Aldridge did exactly what the team needed from them. Both got their buckets but neither forced the issue and as a result they scored efficiently and dished out a combined 10 assists.
- Dejounte Murray made three of his four three-pointers and has now made at least one outside shot in each of the past five games. If he can continue to develop as a viable off ball player, the questions about his iffy playmaking could be moot.
- Bryn Forbes returned to the starting lineup, to the chagrin of most Spurs fans, and didn’t have a great game. Fortunately returning to a bench role didn’t seem to affect Lonnie Walker IV much. He finished with eight points, seven rebounds, two assists, one three-pointer made and one missed dunk that would have made the AT&T Center erupt.
- Patty Mills and Rudy Gay combined for 38 points off the bench and helped make up for the lackluster offensive performances of Forbes and Trey Lyles. Mills only took threes and made six of 10 while Gay showed off his versatility and scored in a variety of ways. The Spurs need those two to lead the charge for the second unit, since White and Walker can be a little inconsistent. The veterans did exactly that on Monday.
- Coach Bud not only shares some of Pop’s best attributes after years of learning under him but also some of his most divisive habits. The Bucks needed a jolt of energy, which DJ Wilson could have provided, but Bud stuck with Ersan Ilyasova despite the veteran power forward’s poor performance. It’s Lonnie vs. Marco/Bryn on a smaller scale, and I’m sure it infuriates Bucks fans as much as Pop’s decisions sometimes anger Spurs fans.
Next game: @Celtics on Wednesday
The January gauntlet continues, as the Spurs start off a four-game road trip by facing another elite East team in Boston. The Celtics did lose to the Wizards on Monday, so maybe there’s hope for another upset.