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The future of the Spurs defense was on display against the Mavericks

And it’s brighter than you might think

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

In the absence of LaMarcus Aldridge, the Spurs chose to go small against the Mavericks in Wednesday night’s loss. Instead of bumping Rudy Gay or Jakob Poeltl into the starting lineup, Lonnie Walker IV got the nod for the 4th start of his career. Though the initial returns weren’t great, with the Mavericks jumping out to a 16-point lead in the 1st quarter and taking a 10 point advantage into halftime, the Spurs’ guard-heavy rotation eventually battled back into the game.

Far from the type of run you might expect from lineups featuring Marco Belinelli or DeMar DeRozan at power forward, the Spurs actually regained the lead on the strength of 8 straight minutes without giving up a field goal. From Maxi Kleber’s dunk with 1:52 to go in the 3rd to Dorian Finney-Smith’s three 6:28 into the 4th, the Mavericks went 0 for 10 from the field with 5 turnovers.

Lonnie was the only Spur on the floor for the entirety of that run, and there’s a good chance it wouldn’t have happened if anybody else had been in his place. In the first multi-block game of his career, Lonnie stopped two potential buckets in that stretch with a pair of visually arresting plays.

The first came as the Mavericks looked to end the 3rd quarter with yet another last second bucket after scoring in the closing moments of both the 1st and 2nd periods.

Lonnie immediately locks onto Seth Curry the moment Derrick White’s difficult floater falls through the net. Lonnie tracks Curry the full length of the court, staying on the front of his hip the entire way. Unable to get separation, Curry elects for a last second, one-handed, underhand runner that Lonnie has to go all the way up to get. And go all the way up he does, catching up to the ball with his left hand somewhere around the 11th floor before swatting it into the stands.

The play left Sean Elliott laughing on the telecast, though the Spurs’ bench reaction was more relieved than excited. That wouldn’t be the case on his next block.

The play begins as most Spurs’ transition efforts seem to these days, with the good guys outnumbered and out of position. With Marco alone on the strong side to defend two Mavericks, the play is seemingly over before it even begins. Curry drops the ball off to an unguarded Tim Hardaway Jr. in the right corner, who immediately sizes up the wide open runway between him and the rim and decides to take it to the rack.

At that point, Bryn Forbes should already be sprinting over to cut off penetration while Rudy Gay fills his spot on Kleber in the corner, but Bryn doesn’t even move. Instead, Lonnie leaves Luka Doncic at the top of the key, and with three strides of his purple and gold sneakers, meets Hardaway at the mountain top.

Lonnie wasn’t the only one making plays on defense, though. After the Mavericks used a 12-0 run of their own to reassert control over the game, Derrick White, incensed over a a weak foul call on what he deemed to be a flop (among other things we won’t transcribe here), blocked a Doncic layup attempt from behind, then forced consecutive turnovers by drawing offensive fouls on the Serbian sensation.

Derrick makes a lot of contact with Kristaps Porzingis as the pair fight for rebounding position, but that was still a flop and a weak call to boot. Still, it’s surprising he didn’t draw a technical foul in that situation, especially given that DeMar DeRozan and Trey Lyles had already drawn technicals in this game for arguing with the refs. Letting players like Derrick, who are typically very level-headed, let off a little steam when they disagree isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though.

But Derrick was still fired up when play resumed and he took all that frustration out on the best player on the floor. Doncic, still bothered by an ankle injury from December and nursing an apparent left wrist injury he sustained in this game, was harboring a few frustrations of his own and clearly wasn’t in any mood to deal with Derrick’s Patrick Beverley impersonation. Though those few plays weren’t quite enough to change the end result, Derrick almost single-handedly made it a game again after the outcome had been all but decided.

It’s not especially insightful to say but important to remember that, along with Dejounte Murray, the Spurs have three young perimeter players capable of inflicting their will on an offense at times. As each continues to grow and learn, they’ll make fewer mistakes and exert that influence more often. It’s hard for a single guard or wing to have anywhere near as much defensive value as a big, both by virtue of where they tend to be on the floor and their ability to affect shots. But if the team’s 1, 2 and 3 are all defensive stoppers, one-man turnover generating machines, and mistake-erasing wunderkinds, that’s a different equation entirely.

There’s a version of the Spurs’ future where there’s no weak defender to hunt and no small-on-small screening action that matters. It’s not here yet, and to be fair, it may never come. But, for a team still in search of a defensive backbone, there’s hope that this type of play-making could form the basis of an imposing front line for years to come.