AT&T CENTER – In four of their last five quarters, the San Antonio Spurs have held their opponent to 25 or fewer points. The Spurs started the improvement on defense by holding the Los Angeles Lakers to 21 points in the fourth quarter of the Spurs’ 133-120 victory Friday evening.
Then, Sunday when the Spurs were hosting the Utah Jazz, they held the Jazz to 18 points in both the first and second quarters to begin the game. The Spurs had a slip-up in the third, allowing Utah to score 36 points, but then the Spurs ended the game well by limiting Utah to 25 points in the final quarter.
With their latest improvements on the area of the floor that has their most weaknesses, the Spurs have won consecutive games for the first time in over a month.
“Communication, a little bit more understanding, guys getting used to playing with each other and understanding what the process is for the way we want to play,” said Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich of the Spurs’ defense, which held the Jazz to 97 points. “And I think it’s sinking in, so we’ll see if it continues. It’s about consistency and we haven’t had that. We’ve been pretty spotty, but we’ve had two good games in a row where we played defense and obviously that helps your offense, so I think they did a good job in that regard.”
Like Popovich mentioned, the defense this season has been spotty and never something consistent. Early on in their first 10 games, the Spurs had four games where they held the opponent below 20 points in at least one individual quarter. From games 11-20, that only happened twice, and now, it’s happened three times in their last two games.
Last season, despite only having Kawhi Leonard available for nine games, the Spurs kept a Top-5 defense on the floor each night anchored by second team All-NBA defender Dejounte Murray, LaMarcus Aldridge in the interior, and perimeter defenders Danny Green and Kyle Anderson. Plus, with multiple players who had been in the Spurs’ system, the Spurs could rely on their corporate knowledge too.
This season, Popovich is currently playing a 10-man rotation where 40% of those players are new to the team. That was something Rudy Gay mentioned after the game against Utah.
“People forget, but we’re still learning,” said Gay of the defense. “We’re trusting each other.”
This is something that Popovich and the players have continued to acknowledge – that it’s going to take time to build the defense from scratch unlike past seasons. Early in the season, Popovich even said the team might not get to the level defensively that the Spurs are used to being at.
“Defense is a matter of repetition, forming habits, changing some habits, and we hope that we’ll continue to improve,” said Popovich before the Spurs’ Friday win against the Lakers. “Some nights we do it very well and other nights we don’t.”
Asked if having new players on the team is part of the Spurs’ slow start defensively, here’s was Popovich’s response: “That’s part of it. It’s not just a system, it’s them reacting to each other and trusting each other, communicating with each other. You just keep working at it.”
Last season, the Spurs held 51% of their opponents below 100 points in a game. This season, that percentage has dropped to 22% of the Spurs’ opponents being held under 100 points in a game.
When you look at those opponents, it’s not just some of the lower scoring teams, but it has some of the top-10 scoring teams too.
From highest to lowest scoring, these are the teams the Spurs have held to 100 or less points in a game this season: New Orleans (2nd), Golden State (3rd), Houston (21st), Miami (22nd), Utah (24th), Indiana (25th), Phoenix (30th).
When the Spurs hold the opponent to 100 or fewer points in a game this season, they’re 6-1. The lone loss was the 95-88 game the Spurs lost in Miami against the Heat.
In holding the Jazz to 97 points Sunday, the communication on defense was there, and that was evidenced by the Jazz getting two shot clock violations on offense. On some possessions, the Spurs just weren’t letting Utah carve up their defense with dribble penetration like many offenses have done to San Antonio this season.
“It was a team effort,” said Bryn Forbes after the game. “I think we had guys in the right places, so it was much harder to penetrate. I thought the game went pretty well, we executed pretty well.”
Overall, the Spurs improved from being ranked 29th to 27th in defensive efficiency, where the Spurs are holding their opponents to 114.3 points per 100 possessions according to CleaningTheGlass.com.
As mentioned on Spurscast episode 520, the Spurs play much better defense at home in the AT&T Center where they’re 9-4 compared to their defense on the road. This is where December could become key for San Antonio to try to get back into the playoff race. Of their 11 December games left, seven of those games will be at home in the AT&T Center.
Going forward, it’ll be interesting to see where the Spurs go defensively from here. The first question is can they continue to make improvements on defense while at home, and if they can do so, will they be able to take that defense with them on the road, where they’re currently 4-10.
Those will be the two questions to watch as the month moves along.