After losing five straight to start April, the Spurs have now won seven out of the last 10 and five of their last six games. What’s the biggest reason for the turnaround, and is it sustainable?
Marilyn Dubinski: I feel like there’s a few reasons to point to for the turnaround: the starters are starting and closing games much stronger, a slightly friendlier schedule (although the 9-game homestand before the current run was still friendly enough that they should have done way better than 2-7), and to that point, they’ve been on the road more than at home, where for some unexplainable reason they’ve just played better this season. Whether their current winning rate is sustainable or not with the remaining schedule remains to be seen.
This squad hasn’t won more than three games in a row in over two years, the remaining schedule is still just as brutal as it is exhausting, and Derrick White — who is one of the key factors in the starters’ recent surge — just went down with an ankle sprain that looks like the type that will need several weeks off to completely heal. Even if he returns in a week or two and plays through it, it will likely linger and keep him below 100 percent. All that being said, there are reasons for optimism. Likely for the better, 8 of the remaining 12 games are on the road, and the Spurs showed earlier in the season when White was out that they have the depth to back him up, but the bench will need to return to early season form. Still, there is little reason to believe they won’t make the play-in tournament at this point, and from there, anything can happen.
Mark Barrington: A lot of the credit goes to Derrick White, who was finally rounding into shape after missing a much of the first part of the season and struggling with consistency since his return. Unfortunately, he injured his ankle against the Wizards, so he’s going to be missing more time now. But the Spurs were still able to rally and beat Washington without him for much of the game, so there’s more to the recent resurgence than just White.
Clearly, credit also goes to the improved defense of the Spurs. Earlier in the season, they were giving up wide open shots every time an opponent pushed the ball, even after made baskets. While that still happens more often than it should, you can see that the Spurs are putting a lot more effort into getting back on defense and matching up early on someone, even if they end up with a bad cross-match, like Patty Mills on a big. To be honest, even when that happens, modern NBA teams don’t often take advantage of it. Having an elite rim protector like Jakob Poeltl running the floor and erasing shots in the paint also tends to minimize the impact of the bad mismatches that early offense creates for the opponents.
Lastly, you can’t ignore the leadership and clutch play of DeMar DeRozan, who has been playing the best ball of his career over the last month. He’s been scoring, and he is always available to take (and make) clutch shots at the end of the game, but he’s also been dishing out assists like Halloween candy and is the emotional leader of the squad, the heart of the current team. I doubt guys like Keldon Johnson and Drew Eubanks would have developed as quickly without DeMar’s leadership. I still think the last couple of weeks of the season will be rough with the tough schedule and White’s absence, but the Spurs should be able to hold on to their lead against the Pelicans and make the play-in.
Bruno Passos: It’s hard to find too many common threads in what has helped them turn things around over this 6-game stretch, which makes it even more difficult to gauge whether or not it’s sustainable. The Spurs have won by limiting their opponent to less than 90 points and won by allowing 143. They’ve won through DeMar DeRozan’s late-game heroics and by blowing out a top conference opponent in the Suns while sitting a handful of key players. They’ve won by playing their trademark disciplined game and picked up wins while turning it over 17 and 19 times. They’ve won the last 2 games while making a combined 15 of 48 three-pointers.
If we’re digging for trends to try and project, here is one bad and one good: 1) Derrick White was the team’s most prolific three-point shooter (at least in terms of attempts, at 7.7) and 2nd leading scorer while leading the team in net rating. He got hurt on Monday and is likely to miss extended time; 2) four of the Spurs’ five wins over the last six games came on the road, where they continue to defy conventional logic and play far better than in the AT&T Center (18-10 on the road, 13-19 at home), which is also where they play 8 of their last 12.
Jesus Gomez: The two biggest factors in my eyes have been defensive effort and, surprisingly enough, the play of Drew Eubanks.
The Spurs’ defense in general but especially in the pick and roll was so bad that I had a folder full of clips of breakdowns from only a few games. It honestly seemed like it could actually destroy their playoff (or play-in) hopes, because they were doing so much wrong that it was hard to pinpoint exactly what was going wrong. That has changed in recent games — the shootout with Washington notwithstanding. The Spurs have been communicating better and generally playing with more urgency on their own end, which has made a world of difference.
Drew Eubanks is not the main reason for the offensive turnaround, but he’s helped. Once LaMarcus Aldridge left and Poeltl became the full-time starter, the bench became an absolute disaster on both ends. Gorgui Dieng was supposed to be the solution but it turns out Eubanks had another gear. In the past 10 game the second unit has done much better and it’s been in no small part because they finally have a competent backup center.
Is it all sustainable? Maybe, but it might not matter considering how tough the Spurs remaining schedule is.
J.R. Wilco: Three things: Derrick White, the defense, and the road. (Sounds like the title of short story.) Unfortunately, it’s possible that all three of these may be in short supply for the duration of season. White because of his ankle, the defense because of the lack of White, and the road because of SA’s home-heavy finishing schedule. (Still puzzled by the Spurs’ inability to play well at home.) But this doesn’t mean we have to succumb to pessimism. There were no indications that this recent run was about to happen, and as Bruno mentioned, it’s not like all of their wins have fit a single pattern. Maybe we’ll see some guys continue to step up in unexpected ways. After all, it’s a team of still-developing guys — who better to look to for a pleasant surprise?