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Why these Spurs feel so different from last season

It has only been three games, but something about this team feels different.

Toronto Raptors v San Antonio Spurs Photos by Logan Riely/NBAE via Getty Images

At this point last season — i.e. three games in — the Spurs were 3-0, had high hopes of extending the franchise’s record playoff streak to 23 seasons, and there was little reason to think roughly the same team that made it the year before would fail to do so again. Obviously, that did not happen, and for a multitude of reasons. Even going back to look at those first three games, there were hints that those Spurs weren’t who they appeared to be, and the issues that showed early extended through the season.

They were inconsistent not just game-to-game, but quarter-to-quarter. Even on the rare occasion that they didn’t start slow and had to dig out of big holes, no lead was safe. If they weren’t having to rally from behind, they were staving off complete collapses. Also, the team either played down to or didn’t respect equal/lesser opponents, which resulted in too many losses to make their decent record against superior teams matter. These issues persisted and cost the Spurs plenty of games through the rest of the season before the COVID-19 shutdown, and it was too big of a hole for their excellent effort in the Bubble to overcome.

However, this year’s squad feels different. Again, it’s only been three games. And they sit at 2-1 instead of 3-0, but they have already provided plenty of signs that they will at least be more competitive. First, there’s the obvious continuation of Bubble Ball. The transformation from a stagnant offense centered around isolation sets for DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge to a free-flowing, unpredictable style has opened up the floor for the young players to slash to the rim and either finish (which they’re doing at a higher rate) or kick the ball back out to the open man.

It doesn’t hurt that despite still being in the back third of the league in three-point attempts, they are currently 10th in 3P%, hitting just under 37 percent, and from watching it feels like they can still do better, or at least maintain this level.

Next, there’s the defense. While there’s plenty of room for improvement (they’re far removed from caliber necessary to win championships), an improved effort is evident — something that could not often be said about last year’s squad. Some of that is personnel change. Simply substituting Bryn Forbes and Marco Belinelli’s minutes with some combination of Lonnie Walker IV, Keldon Johnson and rookie Devin Vassell has provided more length and athleticism, not to mention players who have natural gifts and instincts on that end. The Spurs also lead the league in defensive rebounds per game at 40.7, meaning they’re no longer leaking second chance points to the opponent.

Perhaps most importantly, this team appears to have a mental fortitude that was lacking last season. As previously mentioned, last season’s team was inconsistent, didn’t seem to respect its opponents, and was prone to slow starts or being intimidated by momentum-shifting plays. Not this team. While they have not started quickly in any of their games so far, they have responded quickly enough to avoid getting into deep holes that require expending so much energy to recover from, resulting in a team too tired to finish the game.

They have also shown an ability to hold on to leads instead of getting complacent. They showed off both of these abilities in their season opener in Memphis. First, they responded to being down by 10 early in the first quarter with a game shifting second quarter, and then they maintained that lead throughout the second half of the game despite a 44-point outing from Ja Morant. Their home opener followed a similar pattern against the Raptors, and despite looking tired in a loss to the Pelicans on a SEGABABA, they stayed in the game with their defense, fought back from a 15-point second-half deficit when it would have been understandable to just throw in the towel, and were within a buzzer-beating three from overtime. None of these performances were the kind of game they pulled off regularly last season — and that was just the first three games of the year.

And we’re seeing all this without even getting to experience this roster plays with Derrick White, who figures to be one of their most important players on both ends this season. It’s still early, and if last season proved anything it’s that you definitely can’t judge a team by its first three games, but something is different with this team. At the very least, it feels like they are building towards a future instead of just treading water under the pressure of keeping a streak alive.