The San Antonio Spurs have been playing much better basketball since moving to a more pace and space style offense, but there were still questions surrounding the legitimacy of their newfound success. Most of their recent wins had been coming at home against teams outside the playoff picture. I wanted to see them beat playoff teams and gut out wins on the road before believing that this iteration of the Spurs were playoff worthy. San Antonio’s convincing win at home against the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday was a good first step, but they won’t always be able to rely on hitting 19 three pointers and feeding off the energy of the home crowd.
The Spurs next test, in a month full of tests, was on the road against the Boston Celtics, who came into Wednesday’s game having only lost two games at home, while the Spurs had only won four games on the road. Add to that the fact that none of the Spurs’ four wins on the road had come against a quality opponent and it was clear that the Spurs were going to be in for a long night unless they continued their torrid shooting from distance. Either that or the Spurs would shoot 31 percent from deep, never trail, and blow out the Celtics. You know, something like that.
The Spurs wasted no time in letting the Celtics know they came to play, jumping out to a 22-3 lead with five minutes to go in the first quarter. All five starters scored during that stretch. Actually, after Lonnie Walker IV scored on a bank shot with 10:42 to go in the second quarter, all ten Spurs that had received minutes had scored. It was such a balanced attack in the first half that for a moment I thought I had scored against the Celtics.
The first half felt like a symphony, with everybody working together to create beautiful music. The second half - in particular the third quarter - felt like a child learning to play the drums for the first time. The third quarter was loud, messy, improvised, and filled with mistakes. The Spurs were not strong with the ball in their hands, made lazy passes, and stopped paying attention to details. Gordon Hayward lost Bryn Forbes twice on a cut to the basket, resulting in two easy layups. Forbes scored 15 points on 5 of 10 shooting, but defensive lapses like that is not a good look with Lonnie Walker IV breathing down his neck for additional playing time.
Midway through the third quarter the Celtics had cut the Spurs’ 20 point lead down to just seven, and I was thinking to myself, “here we go again.” But for the second straight game, the Spurs weathered the second half storm of their opponent and pulled away for good. This time the weathering came in the form of a series of technical fouls called against the Celtics. The usually mild-mannered Kemba Walker ran into a screen from LaMarcus Aldridge - a perfectly legal screen I might add - and flopped to the ground as though he was just hit by a freight train. The referee didn’t give in to the theatrics, and instead properly called a defensive foul on Walker. Walker got into the face of the official and was quickly awarded two technical fouls and an ejection for his efforts. It is awards season, so maybe he’ll get a few votes from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and it’ll all be worth it. Brad Stevens also received a technical during this exchange. The crowd was predictably rowdy for the next few minutes, but the Spurs silenced them by going on an 11-0 run and building a comfortable lead heading into the fourth quarter.
Defense was optional to start of the fourth quarter. Hayward started to catch fire from deep, but Walker IV continued to bail out the Spurs’ lackluster offensive execution with jumpers. Watching him calmly knock down shots in the fourth quarter of a road game makes me feel all kinds of ways. The rest of the game was mostly a formality. The Spurs have now won two straight games, with both wins coming against the top two teams in the Eastern Conference. The Spurs are absolutely trending in the right direction, but after a trip to Memphis to play the Grizzlies, the Spurs finish out their four game road trip against the Toronto Raptors and the Miami Heat, two of the other top teams in the Eastern Conference.
Notes from the game
- Tacko Fall came into the game having played a total of 12 minutes over the span of three games. He played 10 minutes against the Spurs, looking very tall but unimpressive. During one sequence he looked completely lost of defense, allowing Rudy Gay a wide open jumper. He received a crowd reception that rivaled that of Boban Marjanovic though, so there’s that.
- I’m not a fan of the Celtics’ crowd. I’m sure they have plenty of great fans, but oftentimes they come off as privileged. I remember listening to the crowd boo their own players last season when the Spurs came into Boston and beat the Celtics handily. I couldn’t fathom the Spurs’ crowd booing their own players. The crowd once again booed their players in the first half of this game, then when Walker got ejected from the game, a fan threw a beverage right in front of the Spurs’ bench. I’m not going to berate an entire fanbase because of one person’s terrible judgement, but if I were a player, I wouldn’t want to play in front of such a volatile crowd.
- Aldridge’s hot streak from behind the arc ended tonight. He connected on only one of five attempts, but it was still great to see him take five shots from three. He has air-balled a corner three in two straight games, so he needs to work a bit more on his touch. Right now he seems far more comfortable taking three point shots from the top of the key. Keep letting it fly big fella.
- The Spurs as a whole were cold from distance, connecting on only nine of their 29 attempts for 31 percent. They also failed to reach 30 attempts for the first time in a handful of games, but it’s good that they are able to find other ways of scoring the ball when one particular method isn’t working.
- Speaking of which, the Spurs went 39 of 58 from inside the arc, good for 67 percent. This iteration of the Spurs really can score from all three areas of the court. If they can find the right balance, their already-top-ten offense will only improve as the season progresses.
- DeRozan continued what might be the best stretch of basketball of his career. He went 10-17 from the field and a perfect 10-10 from the line for 30 points. He scored 13 of his 30 points in the third quarter, helping to keep the Spurs afloat during all the chaos. I much prefer the ball sharing of the first half to the DeRozan isolations of the third quarter, but I think he picked the right time to take on the grunt of the work on offense. The Spurs were struggling with hitting shots and turning the ball over, so he stepped up and led the team the way a leader of a team should.
- The young guns of Derrick White, Dejounte Murray, Jakob Poeltl, Trey Lyles, and Walker IV all had a very good game, and none of them played more than 19 minutes. Aldridge and DeRozan are still the Spurs’ best two players, but the Spurs’s future is in good hands. White scored an efficient 15 points while playing solid defense. Murray had some good moments as well. If Murray can learn to be more efficient at the rim his game is really going to take off. Poeltl was his typical great self in a way that doesn’t show up on the boxscore. Lyles scored nine points on a perfect 4-4 shooting. He’s done a great job this season of playing within the flow of the offense and not forcing anything. That was a huge question mark coming into this season, as shot selection had always been a concern early in his career. Walker IV was excellent, scoring 19 points on 7-11 shooting in only 19 minutes. Did Forbes get more minutes than Walker IV in this game? Yes. Am I happy about it? No.