The Red-Hot Spurs Have Turned a Corner

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When the 2018-19 Spurs season is in the books, San Antonio’s 5-1 December homestand will be remembered as the turning point where an unlikely group of players figured out how to play exceptionally well together. They kept building on the road, winning by 39 in Orlando. The Spurs are the hottest team in basketball, flat out dominating over their last seven games. This is a completely different team than the one that started the year

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The much maligned lineup of Derrick White, Bryn Forbes, DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, and LaMarcus Aldridge has played a team-high 73 minutes in this stretch, posting a net rating of +11.2. White in particular has looked much improved defensively, filling in for Dante Cunningham in the starting lineup. Marco Belinelli is a part of the four best lineups that have played over five minutes, and Jakob Poeltl and Davis Bertans have been the team’s top rated individual defenders.

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The Spurs are shooting at the highest clip in the league of late, 54 percent from the floor and 46 percent from deep. They’re also passing the ball beautifully, averaging 26 assists and 11 turnovers per game as they pass from good shots to great ones.

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The team is officially clicking, and every individual Spur is playing at a high level during this streak. DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are each averaging over 20 points per game, and DeRozan adds seven assists while Aldridge is 60 percent from the floor. Rudy Gay is adding 16 a game on 63 percent shooting, and Bryn Forbes and Marco Belinelli are each kicking in 11. New dad Davis Bertans is averaging ten a game and shooting 63 percent from three.

Still, the most striking part is that San Antonio has the best defense in the league over the past seven games. It’s hard to believe that just two weeks ago, the Spurs looked as bad as they ever looked in the past two decades. The defense was the worst in the league, worse than it had ever been with Gregg Popovich at the helm. They got blown out by 30 points three times in four games. That had only happened five times in Pop’s first 1,758 games.

If you had to pinpoint the exact moment that the Spurs turned a corner and started sprinting in the right direction, look no further than the fourth quarter against the Lakers. San Antonio had lost two in a row, and LeBron dominated them the game before with 20 fourth-quarter points. The Spurs entered the final frame down 99-89, emblematic of a season in which they scored a lot of points, but the defense couldn’t stop anybody.

As the team that before this year had only spent 48 days under .500 in the past two decades careened toward 11-16, hordes of spoiled, torch-wielding fans attempted to breach the castle walls, chanting, “TANK FOR ZION.” They would tell you that Pop had a nice run, but it’s over.

Then, something truly miraculous happened. The Spurs started playing defense. Not just any defense, shutting down LeBron defense. Like many of the world’s great discoveries and inventions, it happened almost by accident. LaMarcus Aldridge had gotten into foul trouble, so Pop put Jakob Poeltl at center to start the fourth. He played so well that he didn’t leave the game until it had all but been decided.

“We did a good job keeping our heads and showing a lot of grit,” Popovich said. “That group was playing well, so we left them out there and they were wonderful.”

Poeltl had a tremendous fourth quarter on both ends, scoring ten points and helping limit LeBron to 1/6 shooting, but he wasn’t the only Spur to crank it up a notch late. DeMar DeRozan scored 11 of his 36 in the final frame, Patty Mills added eight points and four assists, and Davis Bertans scored 13 as the Spurs won the game with a 44-21 fourth quarter. The role players aren’t the ones most people would expect to step up and win a game, but don’t tell LeBron that.

“Why not? Why wouldn’t you think they could beat you?” LeBron shot back at an editorializing journalist. “They’re NBA players, they made big shots. Bertans made big shots, he made four three’s in the fourth quarter.”

San Antonio built on that performance, beating Utah 110-97 to avenge a 139-105 loss earlier in December. This time the Spurs held the Jazz to just 36 points in the first half for their best defensive first half of the year. After the way they closed against the Lakers, the guys in the locker room were feeling pretty good about their defense.

“I think it’s just the beginning of what we can be,” said Rudy Gay, who averaged 17 points on 67 percent shooting over the homestand. “People forget we’re still learning.”

Even Coach Popovich was cautiously optimistic about what he’d been seeing defensively.

“The last couple of games we looked better at the defensive end,” Pop said after the game. “More communication, a little more understanding. Guys get used to playing with each other and understanding what the process is for the way we want to play. I think it’s sinking in, so we’ll see if it continues.”

Narrator: “It did.”

San Antonio routed a lowly Phoenix team 111-86 in a game where DeRozan and Aldridge got to rest in the fourth quarter, Bryn Forbes scored 24 and had his first double double since elementary school, and four other Spurs scored in double digits. DeMar DeRozan was not one of them, but he did drop nine dimes in his 26 minutes. The defense gave up a season-low 86 points.

They nearly matched it in the next game, dismantling the Clippers 125-87 for their most lopsided victory of the season. Aldridge and Gay combined for 48 points on 20/25 shooting, FIVE other Spurs scored in double figures, and the defense gave up just 30 second-half points to Los Angeles and the most efficient player of all time, Boban Marjanovic. San Antonio is clearly beginning to click at a higher level now.

“I thought we played a really good defensive game,” Popovich said. “It really fueled our offense.”

The Spurs scored 14 fast break points, and limited Phoenix to two.

“We’re still going to continue to get better defensively,” DeRozan said after the game.

As crazy as that might sound, he’s probably right. Half of the Spurs weren’t playing on this team last year, and the silver and black clearly miss Dejounte Murray, Danny Green, Manu Ginobili, and Kyle Anderson on the perimeter. Still, this team made of mismatched pieces is learning how to thrive defensively without them. It will only get better with more time, more reps, and stronger chemistry.

“Talking, communication, but for the most part we’re just going out there having fun, playing with a lot of confidence,” said DeRozan, who added 14 points and 7 assists.

“We’re moving the ball, helping each other on defense,” said Gay. “That’s what makes it fun, just playing the right way and being good teammates to each other.”

The Spurs had finally figured it out. They had won four straight at home in increasingly dominant fashion, and had built a 19-point halftime lead against a 7-23 Bulls team. Perhaps they got tired patting each other on the back in the locker room, because they scored just 31 points in the second half and suffered one of their most embarrassing losses of the year, 98-93 at the hands of a lottery-bound team playing without their best guy in Zach LaVine.

“Coach (Jim) Boylen had them ready,” Popovich said after the game, heaping praise on his former assistant. The Bulls did deserve a lot of credit, as Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen combined for 47 and the entire team executed beautifully in the second half. “The character and fortitude they showed being down at half by 19 is a real tribute to what they are trying to build in Chicago.”

Pop was effusive in his praise in the locker room, but his address to the team was probably a bit more mercurial. If we had a recording, we would probably have to bleep out most of it. Sixers Coach Brett Brown is another disciple of Popovich who knows how those meetings go, and he said before the game that there was sort of a rule in San Antonio about not losing back to back games, so he expected the Spurs to be ready. He was correct.

Philadelphia was on the second night of a back to back, but it was still an impressive 123-96 win for San Antonio. Gay, DeRozan, and Aldridge all scored over 20 points, and the Spurs are going to win pretty much every time that happens. They held their fifth-straight opponent to under 100 points, and Aldridge and Poeltl combined to lock up 27-point-per-game center Joel Embiid to zero in the second half.

“Defensively, they put us in tough situations to execute our offense,” Embiid said after the game. “I had a pretty bad shooting night, Jimmy did (too). They made us uncomfortable.”

The Spurs led 93-71 after three quarters, but this time they didn’t take their foot off the gas. They won the final frame 30-25, capping off a 5-1 homestand in which they won by an average of 18 points per game thanks to solid production up and down the roster, and the best defense in the league over the past six games. It all traces back to the communication and chemistry that this team has built rather quickly.

“I think we’re starting to figure out each other more than anything,” Pop said. “Defensively we’ve got a little bit more rhyme and reason to what we’re doing, and it’s shown in this homestand. I’m pleased with the progress. We still have a long way to go.”

Of course, the biggest test would be whether the momentum the team had built in San Antonio would carry over to the road. It seems the Spurs packed their communication and chemistry on their trip to Orlando, as they ripped apart a Magic team that had been resting for four days. They won 129-90, holding their sixth-straight opponent under 100.

They got more stellar individual play from Derrick White, Rudy Gay, really everybody, but it’s about the team defense. They rotated better than they have all season, forcing shot clock violations and even a five-second violation.

San Antonio seems to have a newfound focus on keeping the ball moving, stringing together passes in a way that triggered happy flashbacks to 2014. Very often, it was one of the only two current Spurs who played on that team, Marco Belinelli.

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San Antonio could hardly miss, hitting 65 percent from the floor and 12/19 from deep. A lot of the shots were contested pretty well, but the Spurs are extremely confident right now. They hit 10 treys in the first half alone before DeRozan and Aldridge took over in the second half.

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Aldridge dropped 20, Forbes and

20-point-per-game scorer Nikola Vucevic missed the game, but San Antonio won by 39 and deserves credit for doing what they’re supposed to do. For the pre-homestand Spurs, that was no guarantee. The results are impressive, but the process of getting those results is what makes this run of success sustainable.

The numbers and film tell us that Popovich has turned this ship 180 degrees defensively. Everybody is contributing at a high level, the stats and film show it pretty clearly. The Spurs are shooting the lights out and getting back to the identity that once made them legendary, moving the ball until it creates a great shot. Everybody is locked in, from DeMar DeRozan to Quincy Pondexter.

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One thing that can’t be easily quantified is effort and communication. Matt Bonner suggested during a recent broadcast that the NBA should track talking and sneaker squeaks on defense. If they did, the Spurs would probably lead the league in that as well. They’re also just genuinely having fun out there, and that certainly has an impact.

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The homestand provided a perfect setting for these players to communicate and connect on a higher level than they had before. They’ll need to be focused as the schedule gets harder, facing the Timberwolves who beat them by nearly 40, a Rockets team that has finally started soaring, a very good Nuggets squad twice, the Clippers, Boston, and a Toronto team led by their ex.

In fact, the Spurs aren’t scheduled to play a sub-.500 opponent until late January. It’s a bit daunting, but they’re scalding hot and this is as ready as they have looked for a challenge since Kawhi got Zaza’d.

Coach Popovich would be the first person to tell you that the Spurs have a long way to go. Still, he has to be ecstatic about the new direction they’re heading.

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