The Spurs then padded the ledger by besting the LA Clippers 125-87 on Thursday for their fourth consecutive win in arguably the most significant test of their current six-game homestand. More importantly, San Antonio showed signs it might be finally turning the corner in familiarizing all the new faces with the “Spurs Way.”
“I thought that we played a really good defensive game, and that fuels your offense in most situations,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “I like to think we’re getting better, more consistent defensively, and I think that showed tonight.”
One of the main ingredients of the “Spurs Way,” which has helped the team maintain continuity for more than two decades, was San Antonio’s uncanny ability to spawn offense by consistently playing lockdown defense.
That seemed all but lost when San Antonio traded two All-NBA defenders in Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, only to lose another in Dejounte Murray when he suffered a season-ending knee injury in the preseason. Meanwhile, guard Manu Ginobili opted to retire, and Kyle Anderson bolted to Memphis as a free agent.
So San Antonio tipped off the season with several new players, 10 if you count the two two-way players. All the newness manifested itself on the floor most nights in the form of a lack of familiarity among the players, along with issues of communication and trust, resulting in missed assignments and blown rotations on defense.
“Defense is a matter of repetition and forming habits, changing some habits, and we hope that we’ll continue to improve,” Popovich said. “Some nights, we do it very well. Other nights, we don’t.
“It’s not just the system, it’s them reacting to each other, trusting each other, communicating with each other, that kind of thing. So you just keep working at it. In years where we were first, second, or third in defensive efficiency, I bitched and moaned just as much then as I am now. So it’s not much different. [We] probably had to go back to more basics is the way I would put it because we [could] start a little bit further along the line with the corporate knowledge [in the past because the team had so many long-tenured veterans]. So if that dissipates a bit, then you go back a little bit more to the beginning if that makes any sense.”
San Antonio’s 38-point victory margin Thursday night equaled its largest win over the Clippers since defeating the San Diego Clippers in 1978 by a score of 163-125. The win also matched San Antonio’s longest winning streak since capturing four in a row from Oct. 27 to Nov. 3.
Before embarking on the current four-game streak starting Dec. 7, the Spurs had dropped three of their previous five matchups by margins of 39, 31 and 34 points.
They’ve since limited opponents to fewer than 30 points in 12 of their last 14 quarters, highlighted by San Antonio surrendering a total of 30 points in the second half against the Clippers, including just 10 in the fourth quarter.
“It was a good defensive night,” said LaMarcus Aldridge, who scored a game-high 27 points on 12-of-14 shooting. “I thought we followed the schemes well.”
When the Spurs returned home winless from a two-game road trip on Dec. 5, they immediately set about the task of simplifying Popovich’s sophisticated defensive system. With San Antonio set to play at home for its next six outings, the Spurs could finally actually spend quality time at the practice facility stripping down the defense to its basic elements.
That has allowed the Spurs to play faster and more freely on defense, as they’re not as concerned as they were earlier in the season about making mistakes.
“We knew, we knew we had some things to work on,” said Rudy Gay, who finished with 21 points on 8-of-10 shooting. “That became evident after that road trip. We came back, and we just handled business, beat a couple of teams that we lost to (the Lakers and Jazz).”
San Antonio started off the winning streak with victories over the Lakers and Jazz, before downing the Suns and the Clippers. After the 133-120 win over the Lakers, Patty Mills said the Spurs were finally having fun again.
“Yeah, definitely,” he said. “I think we’re trying to listen and do what we’re told, and there’s a sense of pressure when something goes wrong because you didn’t execute or whatever. Fun starts to be taken away from you when you’re nervous about doing something. We kind of just went to playing fun basketball. Huge example of how we should be playing for the rest of the season.”
The Spurs have held opponents to fewer than 100 points in three consecutive games for the first time all season, which is difficult considering 17 NBA teams currently average 110 points per game or more.
The Spurs entered the matchup Thursday ranked No. 26 in defensive rating.
“We knew coming into this with the adversity we were facing before this home stretch, we had to come in and take advantage of this opportunity,” said DeMar DeRozan, who scored 14 points to go with seven assists. “We had a lot of mistakes early on [in the season]. So we’re just getting to this point of trying to put everything together and keep it rolling. [We’re] trying to go out there and win every quarter by trying to limit them to 25 or less points. We just have to take pride in holding teams under a certain amount of points.”
If the Spurs find a way to consistently do that, they could also find themselves in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race, and on the way to making their 22nd consecutive postseason appearance. San Antonio is one game out of eighth in the West and four out of first in a tight race where every team except Phoenix remains in serious contention.
The Spurs host Chicago on Saturday and close out the six-game home stand Monday against Philadelphia before heading to Orlando to face the Magic.
The Spurs play a total of 10 home games in December.
“I think it’s just the beginning of what we can be,” Gay said after the Spurs downed Utah on Dec. 9. “People forget we’re still learning, we’re trusting each other. That’s just something that we have to do night in and night out. I don’t think this is our best. It just shows what we can be night in and night out. Progress, that’s the word I was looking for.”