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What We Learned from the Spurs win over the Celtics

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San Antonio is finally putting away opponents in crunch time

NBA: Boston Celtics at San Antonio Spurs Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

The San Antonio Spurs took down an Eastern Conference Contender on Wednesday night, narrowly defeating the Celtics in a back and forth battle that saw them both blow a 15-point third-quarter lead and overcome a nine-point first-half deficit. Despite erratic play throughout the contest, the Spurs were dialed in down the stretch, knocking down clutch shots, executing on defense, and hitting their game-clenching free throws.

The Silver and Black not only climbed to a season-high two games above .500 for the third time this season, but they re-entered the playoff picture and vaulted into seventh place in the Western Conference with this win. And while it wasn’t a perfect performance from San Antonio by any means, the good guys continued proving they have the talent, depth, and coaching necessary to compete with anyone in the NBA.

Observations

  • Lonnie Walker IV, Keldon Johnson, and Dejounte Murray have registered more than 20% of their time as primary defenders guarding All-Stars this year. And it came as no surprise that head coach Gregg Popovich asked his trifecta of dynamic young defenders to stop Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown for the majority of the night. According to the official NBA matchup data, San Antonio’s trio of Lonnie, Keldon, and Dejounte spent a combined 19 minutes and 44 seconds covering Walker, Tatum, and Brown one on one, holding them to a combined 26 points on 47.4% shooting during that time. The Spurs now rank eighth in the league in Defensive Rating (108.2) after Wednesday night, and while their burgeoning defensive-minded triad isn’t the sole reason they find themselves trending in the right direction, they’re certainly a significant factor.
  • I don’t want to jinx it, but it seems the Spurs are finally playing up to the level of their competition while taking care of business versus lottery-bound and injury-riddled opponents. Excluding an embarrassing loss to the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio has looked solid over their last six outings. They kept it close with the Mavericks, dispatched the shorthanded Rocket, Blazers, and Wizards, and defeated the then-third-place Celtics. Although this team is still fundamentally flawed, the Silver and Black are building momentum just in time for Derrick White to rejoin the mix. I’m unsure how much his return will impact lineups and rotations or improve the team, but I’m itching to see what Pop can do with a completely healthy roster.
  • DeMar DeRozan has unequivocally been San Antonio’s best go-to crunch-time scorer this season. The four-time All-Star ranks seventh in the NBA in clutch points scored (38) and leads the Spurs in clutch field goal makes and attempts by a wide margin. Although he struggled at the line down the stretch a year ago, DeMar is making a remarkable 92.3% of his free throws with his team ahead or behind by five points in the final five minutes of the game. I’m still wary about the Silver and Black committing long-term to a soon-to-be 32-year-old who presumably can’t be the best player on a title team. With that said, DeRozan could be an excellent second-option if PATFO can find a way to snag a big fish in Free Agency. That’s not me suggesting that scenario is likely to happen, though I can’t help but wonder how the narrative of his career would change if organizations stopped asking him to be the engine of their offense for once. Can you imagine the insane efficiency the 12-year pro might be capable of playing Robin to a superstar’s Batman?
  • Boston forced the Spurs into a season-high 20 turnovers, and they converted those giveaways into 16 points. San Antonio still escaped with a victory under their belt, but they won’t always have the luxury of their best shooting night of the season to bail them out of the consequences of that sort of carelessness. That is especially true when it comes to facing title contenders, and their attention to detail is what allowed them to upset the Lakers and Clippers in back-to-back contests earlier this season. Despite coughing up the ball at a rate nearly two-times their season average (10.7 TOPG), the Silver and Black are still on pace to set to record the highest assist-to-turnover ratio in more than three decades. As long as they cut down on silly mistakes, they should remain competitive in most matchups.