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What we learned from the Spurs win over the Bucks

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San Antonio humiliates Milwaukee in rare home victory.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs pulled off an unexpected upset inside the AT&T Center on Monday night, blowing out the surging Milwaukee Bucks while ending their five-game skid. San Antonio hung a franchise record 87 first-half points on Giannis Antetokounmpo and crew on their way to recording a season-high 146 points by the end of the evening.

The starting lineup came out guns blazing, setting the tone early and combining for a mindboggling 92 points. But it was the second unit, who outscored the opposing bench 54-30, that gave the Silver and Black the push they needed to overcome a legitimate Eastern Conference title contender with plenty of motivation to fight for a dub.

With only four games remaining for San Antonio and the second-toughest strength of schedule, the Spurs have put themselves in a prime position to lock in the tenth and final spot in the play-in tournament out West while simultaneously inching closer to .500. A pair of brutal SEGABABA’s await the good guys, so buckle in because things could get interesting.

Observations

  • Patty Mills finally broke out of his career-worst shooting slump, and boy was it a terrible one. The 12th-year guard shot 33.1% from the field since March 25th, ranking in the 94th percentile and 457th among all players during that timeframe. It was also the fourth-worst mark among anyone who had taken at least 100 shots over that stretch. Thankfully, the veteran sixth man shook off the rust, exploding for 20 points in 23 minutes off the bench against the Bucks. Patty drained six three-pointers by the end of the third quarter, which was as many as he made in his past seven appearances and 136 minutes on the court. Although this could be an outlier performance with another cold spell to follow, Mills looked more energized on Monday night than he had in weeks. Head coach Gregg Popovich has held fast in his faith in his longtime backup floor general, and though that trust was beginning to look like a lost cause for a sputtering San Antonio squad, it paid off when it mattered most for the 72-year-old playcaller. And with the Spurs in the process of a last-minute playoff push, hopefully, the timely return of FIBA Patty isn’t just a flash in the pan.
  • Patty’s resurgence seemingly lit a fire under the rest of San Antonio’s second unit, as they matched his intensity and efficiency, massively outplaying Milwaukee’s bench. And it may be difficult to remember now, but the Spurs owned the best second-string point differential when February began. That number has since fallen to 15th, though the combination of Jakob Poeltl moving into the starting five, the declining play of Rudy Gay and Patty Mills, and a constantly shuffling rotation because of injuries and illness are mostly to blame. With that said, if Drew Eubanks and Devin Vassell maintain their defensive play as Rudy and Patty rediscover their form, the Silver and Black might have enough firepower to send the Memphis Grizzlies or Golden State Warriors packing in the first round of the play-in tournament.
  • San Antonio’s magic number was three entering Monday night. But after a Spurs victory and a Pelicans loss, they only need one more win or another New Orleans defeat to punch their ticket into the play-in tournament. And even with four more contests against an unforgiving slate of back-to-back back-to-backs against first-class opponents, the odds are still in their favor. Zion Williamson is out for the rest of the season, and the Pels don’t have a timetable for Brandon Ingram’s return either. At this point, the Silver and Black should already be preparing for a play-in series with Memphis or Golden State. The prospects of facing a white-hot Steph Curry or Ja Morant and the upstart Grizzlies may bring some concern for Spurs fans, but if their triumph over the Bucks proved anything, it’s that this team can conquer any adversary when they’re dialed in and sharing the ball. They have also been on the wrong end of an embarrassing collapse two weeks, though the feeling of blowing a 32-point lead to the Celtics should be recent enough to keep them focused as they prepare for the postseason.
  • The starting lineup has been a revolving door due to the health and safety protocols associated with COVID-19 and a litany of injuries. Excluding Patty Mills, Gorgui Dieng, Keita Bates-Diop, and Cam Reynolds, everyone on San Antonio’s roster has started at least one game for the Spurs. Even Devin Vassell got a shot as a starter following a season-ending ankle sprain to Derrick White, though coach Pop swiftly replaced him with Lonnie Walker IV five games and five losses into his stint with the starting five. The Silver and Black have gone 2-1 since that swap, and everyone is meshing better than you might expect. DeMar DeRozan dropped 23 points on the Bucks, closely followed by 21-6-9 from Dejounte Murray, 20 points from Keldon Johnson, a near triple-double from Jakob Poeltl, and 19 points from Lonnie. Although every starter has played well as of late, Walker has caught my attention. He never seemed all that comfortable alongside the starting unit earlier in the season. But it appears Lonnie is beginning to figure out how to stay engaged without the basketball in his hands. The third-year two-guard is averaging almost 18 points per game on 54/39/100 shooting splits over his last three starts. And if the Spurs make the playoffs and Lonnie maintains that level of production, a national audience could have him pegged as San Antonio’s next breakout candidate.