The Spurs are Back in Business

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The most painful offseason in Spurs history mercifully came to an end in San Antonio on Wednesday night. It was so good to finally get back to basketball, and the basketball was pretty damn good.

Barely beating a Timberwolves team in complete disarray doesn’t erase the thoroughly demoralizing summer San Antonio had, but it was an encouraging and much-needed return to meaningful hoops.

The Spurs players and coaches no longer care that they were forced to trade away their MVP candidate and franchise cornerstone. They don’t want to talk about the hall of fame guards who walked off into the sunset (or Charlotte), or the young guards who were poised to take on more responsibility before the injury bug took a big ol’ chomp out of the rotation. They couldn’t care less that every sports talk show in the country is asking one question and only one question about them: “Will this be the year Popovich and the Spurs miss the playoffs?”

I will kindly show anyone asking that question to the nearest calendar, which shows that it is mid-October. Mid-October is for figuring out group Halloween costumes and starting the NBA season with the players you have. Even after the high profile departures and deflating injuries, the players the Spurs have are still really, really good.

Sure Kawhi left, but he was replaced by a four-time All-Star who actually suited up for more than nine games last year. DeMar DeRozan took control of his San Antonio debut, dropping a game-high 28 points and attacking disgruntled defensive ace Jimmy Butler for the game-winning bucket.

DeRozan settled into the game by getting to the rim in transition and running slow, bumpy pick and rolls with LaMarcus Aldridge. He drew double teams and dropped simple dimes to wide-open teammates at the rim and beyond the arc, including a few tasty uncontested looks that Aldridge just couldn’t hit.

In the third quarter, DeRozan started clicking on another level with his new teammates. A pick from Aldridge allowed him to dart past both defenders forcing Karl Anthony Towns to step up, and DeRozan calmly bounced it to his former Raptors teammate Jakob Poeltl for an easy deuce. He used another Aldridge screen to mosey through all five defenders for a crafty layup, and yet another methodical pick and roll with LaMarcus freed him for an elbow jumper.

Aldridge had a tremendous game on both ends of the floor, putting up 21 points, 19 boards, and 3 blocks while limiting KAT to just 8 points. He didn’t just lock up KAT, he commanded the entire defense and made some truly special effort plays protecting the rim.

Eight of Aldridge’s rebounds were offensive, leading to second-chance buckets and free throws. He needed every bit of grit to get the job done on a night when he couldn’t hit the water if he fell out of a boat, shooting just 2/15 from outside the restricted area. If he even hit 40% from that range, he would’ve been near a 30/20 game and it would’ve been a blowout.

Rudy Gay, finally healthy and starting for San Antonio, picked up the efficiency slack with 18 points on 8/12 shooting in just 23 minutes. He remains a deadly isolation scorer, and his teammates were able to find him for open shots when the defense shifted elsewhere.

Bryn Forbes found himself in the starting lineup after a cascade of injuries. He’s generally regarded as a bucket getter but a defensive liability at 6’3” and scrawny, but he put on some muscle over the summer. He said himself that he was tired of getting pushed around out there, and on Wednesday night he did some pushing of his own. He was rarely out of position, played solid help defense, and almost always got his hands up to contest.

Jeff Teague put up 27, but only 11 came against Forbes, and nearly half were at the free throw line which reflects how physically he played on that end of the floor. The rest came against Patty Mills, who makes Forbes look like a power forward. Forbes played 30 minutes and kicked in 11 points, but his biggest play came in the final moments when he locked down Derrick Rose with the game on the line.

Pau Gasol and Marco Belinelli proved to be an exciting combination off the bench, using smart team play to dissect the Minnesota defense. Belinelli obviously knocked down big shots for the Beautiful Game Spurs, but on Wednesday night he reminded us just how beautiful his game is. He cuts decisively without the ball, making him a perfect match with arguably the best passing 7-footer the game has ever seen.

Gasol has one intricate set up that he loves, and he executed it perfectly with Marco a few times in this game. He positions himself for a dribble handoff, keeps the ball, screens his guard’s defender to free him up for a basket cut, and delivers the pass over the top, usually for a layup. On this particular play, the pass was a bit off the Marco (sorry), but Belinelli recovered and whipped it to Patty in the corner. The action he and Pau started got the defense so out of position that it was easy to swing the ball around the perimeter for a DeRozan corner three.

Two of Gasol’s game-high six assists went to Aldridge, and that high-low connection will be a common occurrence throughout the season. We’ll also see consistent threes from Belinelli and for that matter Davis Bertans, who drilled 3/4 from long range.

Even though their best player is openly rebelling against them, the Timberwolves are a talented team and they kept the game close. At least Jimmy Butler is playing for the team that he is under contract with, which is more than can be said for some.

On a completely unrelated note, Kawhi Leonard’s departure left a void for the Spurs to fill in every game, but especially in the fourth quarter. He was the guy who took the game into his hands down the stretch, he was the one who Pop told the other guys to get out of the way for when the shot clock was turned off.

Just a few years ago when San Antonio was on top of the basketball world, they were famous for not caring which of their talented players took the last shot so long as it was the best shot. As their Defensive Player of the Year grew into one of the league’s best scorers, that all changed. The ball didn’t move as freely, it stuck to the superstars as the role players watched, often while standing still. Once discounted as a system player, Leonard got so good that he broke the system.

That chapter of Spurs basketball came to a disappointing end, but they have turned the page. LaMarcus is unquestionably the defensive anchor and emotional leader of this team. Rudy is stepping up as the starting small forward and filling the gap as a scorer and wing defender. The bench veterans are stirring the ball movement that once made this team so beautiful, and when the game is on the line, they still have a southern Californian with a mamba mentality who isn’t afraid of crunch time.

The past year has not been business as usual for San Antonio, but it is now solidly in the past. After what felt like an endless summer, and not in a good way, Pop finally has his guys back on the court doing their jobs and winning basketball games. If Wednesday night is any indication, the Spurs are officially back in business.

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