While all coaches would love to start the season with two wins, the next best choice would be a loss followed by a win. And if the win can be by one or two points, or in overtime, all the better. Players are much more receptive to fixing mistakes if those mistakes led to a loss, and the Spurs loss to the Mavericks on opening night had many such coaching opportunities. Following that loss with a win allowed the players to see the reward that comes from reducing or eliminating those mistakes.
And because their win against the Rockets was close, the coaches were able to convey the very important message that every play counts. Any two points scored, or prevented, in the first quarter counted for just as many points as Victor Wembenyama’s basket at the end of the fourth quarter that sent the game into overtime.
Looking back at the Mavs game, I am sure the coaching staff focused on the Spurs’ turnovers, the Mavs offensive rebounding and fouls. The Spurs had 19 turnovers to the Mavs’ 12, meaning that the Mavs had 7 more opportunities to score. The Mavs had 13 offensive rebounds to the Spurs 9, giving the Mavs 4 more opportunities to score. Lo and behold, the Mavs took 10 more shots from the field and shot one more free throw, exactly the 11 extra opportunities to score created by the disparity in turnover and offensive rebounds. As a result, the Mavs won and the Spurs lost even though the Spurs shot a higher percentage from the field.
Three particular turnovers were special teaching moments. On three different occasions, the Spurs player with the ball held the ball away from his body, allowing the Mavs player to poke the ball away. The most memorable was when Grant Williams knocked the ball out of Wemby’s hands off his knee and out of bounds — Mavs ball. I am sure that the coaches showed those three plays to the team. Against the Rockets, no such plays occurred. Similarly, the Rockets only had 11 offensive rebounds in a game that went five extra minutes, while the Spurs had one more than the Rockets.
The Spurs also cut down on fouls against the Rockets. The Spurs fouled the Mavs 23 times but committed only 17 against the Rockets. Most importantly, Wemby only committed two fouls in the Spurs win, which allowed him to get into a good rhythm, completely different than his choppy performance against the Mavs in which his fouls controlled his playing time, not the game plan. This also meant that he was free to play defense without fear of fouling out. He did this by eliminating the silly fouls he committed against the Mavs — a sloppy moving screen, a soft reach in, etc.
(A side note: anyone else notice that opposing players rarely try to beat Wemby one on one. Have they already learned that it won’t end well?)
One thing this young team already does well is shot selection. With only a few exceptions, the Spurs are taking good, makable shots. As a result, they shot 51% against the Mavs and 49% against the Rockets — especially because they will be able to mix in some dunks, which are always a good shot. If they continue to take good shots, those percentages will stay high.
One more coaching comment. While players always worry about whether they will start or not, coaches consistently respond that it is more important to be in the game at the end than at the start. If you want to know who the coaches trust most, look at who starts in overtime. Friday night, Tre Jones was in the starting line-up for overtime after not starting the game. And the Spurs were glad he was. Even though he scored only 6 points, Jones had 8 assists and zero turnovers. He was also +14 in his 33 minutes, higher than Wemby, Devin Vassel and Keldon Johnson, the Spurs’ three leading scorers.
I will be there for the Sunday night game against the Clippers. I look forward to seeing the players — and the coaches — live and in person. Go Spurs Go.