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What we learned from the Spurs win over the Hornets

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Pop turned to defense to get the Spurs going, and it worked.

Charlotte Hornets v San Antonio Spurs Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

If there is one thing that has been more than confirmed about this Spurs team, it’s that they are consistently inconsistent. It’s not even a matter of which version will show up for any particular game, but more like what any given line-up will do at any given moment.

One of the Spurs biggest bugaboos this season has been one bad quarter or so has often spelled doom. They may out-perform the opponent the rest of the way, but sometimes that one poor stretch has been so bad that it’s too much to overcome. As if they were stuck in the never ending loop of Groundhog Day, it appeared that the same old story was going to repeat itself yet again last night with another lowly East team in town for the Spurs’ final home game before a Rodeo Road Trip schedule to end all other RRTs kicks in.

After a decent enough first quarter against the Charlotte Hornets, which the Spurs won 30-28, they turned in one of their worst quarters of the season in the second, getting outscored 35-20 while making Cody Zeller look like a world beater and triple-double machine. All it would take was one simple bounce pass into the post from him, the Hornets had wide open look after wide open look.

After spending more time than usual in the locker room during halftime, presumably getting chewed out by Gregg Popovich, the Spurs returned and promptly gave up a 7-1 run to get down by 19. Then, something clicked. Pop immediately pulled Bryn Forbes and LaMarcus Aldridge, the latter who was clearly rusty after missing the last two games with a sprained thumb, in favor of Derrick White and Jakob Poeltl. Offensive spacing be damned; if Pop was going to get one thing going right with this team, it was going to be defense.

From then on, those two combined with mostly Dejounte Murray, DeMar DeRozan, and Trey Lyles (along with some Patty Mills and Lonnie Walker IV sprinkled in) would outscore the Hornets 28-4 the rest of the quarter not because they were offensively on fire, but because the defense would force 10 — repeat: TEN — turnovers in that time span. They got in passing lanes and out in transition for easy buckets. Zeller was no longer finding his teammates on simple backdoor cuts, and the Hornets weren’t left wide open on the perimeter.

Overall the Spurs outscored the Hornets 64-27 throughout the second half and finally inserted their will against an inferior team: something they have oddly struggled with not just throughout the season, but especially over the last month, as a pregame graphic showed the Spurs were 5-2 against +.500 teams in January, but just 2-4 against sub-.500 teams.

Whether this was just a one-off, or Pop has somehow found a magical secret line-up that no one would ever think to scout for remains to be seen, but all that matters here is the Spurs finally won a game they should, kept their foot on the gas when they got the lead, and looked confident in doing so. If they can carry that confidence into the Rodeo Road Trip and continue their recent dominance of playoff-level teams, they’ll be better for it on the other side.

If not, we may be looking at a repeat of last season’s 1-7 outing. The difference? They don’t have a current winning record and “comfortable” place in the standings to absorb the impact. It’s officially now or never for these Spurs, so it’s time to turn these glimpses of a good team into an actual consistent one.

Takeaways

  • Is it controversial at this point to say Poeltl is better than Tiago Splitter? It’s not hard to say his ceiling is higher, but has he already reached or surpassed peak/healthy Tiago? He’s quicker, has a similarly good touch around the rim on offense, and while Splitter was also very good at protecting the rim, Poeltl actually gets to the ball and blocks shots more often rather than just deter them. As an added bonus, he can Euro-step now! Regardless, he’s due a decent raise this summer, and hopefully as a restricted free agent someone doesn’t come in and offer him more than the Spurs can match.
  • We’re finally getting some extended playing time between White and Murray, and predictably the defensive potential is through the roof. Many were also quick to point out that last night’s comeback did not include any meaningful minutes from Bryn Forbes. I know many would like to believe Pop has finally realized the Spurs have better players who should be on the court ahead of him, especially if his shot isn’t falling. Odds are Forbes will still start tomorrow against the Clippers, but maybe his leash is being shortened to the point that when he’s not doing anything, Pop won’t hesitate to immediately replace him with White or Walker, who if nothing else will defend better. I love Forbes and his underdog story, but if the Spurs want to make the playoffs, it’s time to get more serious about the defense, and last night just reaffirmed that he isn’t part of that equation.
  • Mills was relatively quiet throughout the first three quarters, but his mini-explosion to start the fourth quarter is what really put this game away, keeping the Spurs’ energy up and assuring there would be no letdown after they had gained the lead. He came in and promptly scored all 11 of his points from the game in the first 3+ minutes of the fourth, including this exchange with Marco Belinelli that brought back glimpses of “The Beautiful Game” Spurs of 2014.
  • DeRozan should be an All-Star. That is all.