It was, if not the longest 16 seconds of the Spurs’ season, then perhaps the most taxing on the heart strings. Probably both.
The contents, in case you need to be reminded: three Nuggets field-goal attempts (all misses) and one turnover; two Spurs free-throw attempts (both misses); two timeouts; one replay review, and a net shift of zero points, leading to a third-straight win for a San Antonio team that’s suddenly getting it done with defense again.
“We talk a lot about ‘stops on demand’,” said Derrick White after the 104-103 win, alluding to a team buzzword that Pop had mentioned two games prior. “—and we got two or three big stops there.”
White’s presence (and health) has been a fundamental component to what the Spurs do on that end of the floor, with the 2nd-year guard taking on the opponent’s best perimeter player on a nightly basis, making plays both on ball and off, and balancing it out with heady playmaking. A bit of cherrypicking on Basketball Reference shows this to be the 25th in league history someone’s posted a stat line that includes 9 assists, 0 turnovers, and 3 blocks.
You could make the case San Antonio shouldn’t have needed those final ‘stops on demand’ at all. After building an 18-point lead with 7 minutes to go against 2nd-seeded Denver, they found themselves up just one with the shot clock turned off, succumbing to a shooting “barrage” (as Gregg Popovich put it) from one of the NBA’s most dynamic offenses, scoring only 19 4th quarter points, and unable to extend the lead after a DeMar DeRozan runner rimmed out with 29 seconds to go.
The burden to secure the win fell on a Spurs defense that has been up and down and suddenly kinda-up again. Denver didn’t make it easy, wisely putting the ball into the hands of Jamal Murray, who’d scored 14 of his game-high 25 points in the fourth quarter. Murray’s three-point look with 16.2 to go rimmed out, falling towards Rudy Gay who battled with Paul Millsap for control before knocking it out. An official replay review confirmed the rule on the floor: Nuggets ball, still.
Gay was once again unable to come down with it when the following shot, a Murray floater with 11.2 to go, was also off the mark. This time the ball ricocheted off his leg before again going out across the baseline. The Spurs left less to chance on the next attempt, with Gay and LaMarcus Aldridge stifling Nikola Jokic under the basket to get the steal at the 4-second mark, only for Gay to miss both his free-throw attempts (he was 6-for-7 from the line in clutch situations before then) and give Denver one last chance on a Gary Harris heave.
The Spurs forward was, to be sure, frustrated with a few of the night’s final details, but not so much that his dry sense of humor didn’t come through in his post-game availability:
“We’ve had some letdowns defensively but [winning with defense] felt good,” said Gay. “That’s why I missed those rebounds, man — to give us more practice.”
The victory made it 3 straight games in which the Spurs defense has held an opponent to 105 points or less, a feat they haven’t pulled off since their impressive stretch of play in December.
Gay’s performance (14 points, 9 rebounds, 2 blocks and a steal) complemented a strong all-around effort from the team’s four best players, a group who Gregg Popovich is still trying to balance by starting Jakob Poeltl in place of Gay (“We would prefer to play big probably,” he said before the game. “But matchup-wise that doesn’t always fit, so we’ll have to take a look at it.”) but finishing with Gay on the floor. Also doing their part were Aldridge (22 points and 9 rebounds), with his customary reel of bumps and fades, and DeRozan (24, 7, 6, 3 steals and a block), who continues to play with a bit more verve since coming out of the All-Star break.
The challenge with this team is a broader one, a caveat that colors the home wins and tempers expectations for every other game: can they approximate this level of play — especially on one end of the floor — outside of San Antonio, where they’re 11-22 and have put up the 29th-ranked defensive rating?
“We’re all pros — we know exactly what we need to do,” says Gay confidently. “We came back home, we regrouped, now we need to take that on the road.”
A few more notes and quotes…
Denver came in losers of 12 straight in the Alamo City, going back to March 4th 2012. Monday’s loss made it a cool 13, a trend we may see tested soon if these two teams — currently the 2 and 8 seeds — happen to meet in the first round of the playoffs.
In what has been an aberration of a season on the defensive end, the Spurs are 30th in the league in deflections per game (11.4), 30th in steals (6.1) and 24th in blocks (4.6).
“We’re trying to be more — we call it activity,” said Pop speaking about his team’s defense before the game. “We want more activity from more people… get involved, don’t be a spectator, make it difficult. That has done well for us the last few games. Rather than follow people around, we want them to react to our defense and our activity. If you do that well, you probably will create a few more turnovers.”
Things went in the right direction over the three-game homestand. While the first two metrics don’t look much better (they averaged 12 deflections and 6.3 steals), the increased blocks (6.7), low foul rate (the Nuggets took just 4 free throws) and eye test all affirm a much more locked-in defensive effort.
Aldridge came into Monday night having attempted just 25 shots from beyond the arc this season. He took two and made one, both occurring without hesitation while sharing the floor with Jakob Poeltl. It wouldn’t surprise me if that was a minor point of emphasis when San Antonio plays big.