Right when the season appeared to be spiraling out of control for the San Antonio Spurs, Kawhi Leonard came back to town and suddenly things feel better. With a 107-97 victory over Leonard and his Los Angeles Clippers, the Spurs improved to 7-13 on the season — and 2-0 in San Antonio against Leonard.
In the first period, the Clippers meandered their way to a 28-20 lead before the Spurs closed the quarter well. That momentum carried over to the second period, as San Antonio began with an 11-0 blitz to take a 38-30 lead. The Clippers quickly recovered and then the game remained close for the rest of the half.
The third quarter was tight until the Spurs shut out the Clippers for four straight minutes to take their first double-digit lead of the game. Heading into the fourth, the Spurs were up 82-71.
Instead of collapsing down the stretch, the Spurs were able to extend their lead thanks to a three-point barrage. To end the barrage, DeMar DeRozan (yes, DeMar DeRozan) and Bryn Forbes hit back-to-back threes to put the Spurs up by 17 points, 103-86, with five minutes remaining. L.A. never seriously challenged again.
This was obviously a great (and unexpected) win for the Spurs. They actually outplayed the Clippers for a large majority of the game and they did more than simply cling to a narrow victory, as they went out and delivered the knockout blow. I don’t know where this performance came from (maybe the fans deserve some credit, as they religiously booed Leonard whenever he touched the ball) but let us hope there are more games like this in store.
Spurs vs. Clippers – Final Grades
This was a peculiar game for LaMarcus Aldridge — but it was also a step in the right direction. Despite only shooting 5-for-13 from the floor, Aldridge didn’t allow his wayward accuracy to derail his performance. Offensively, he played more physically, which resulted in a season-high eight free throw attempts. His physicality also caused the Clippers to send help, which opened up passing lanes for Aldridge — and he delivered well-placed and timely passes. As a result, he finished with a season-high seven assists. Defensively, he was stout on the boards and blocked four shots. I didn’t think his defense was amazing — he missed a couple rotations and he was sometimes slow to challenge shots in the lane — but Aldridge played hard and competed. Overall, while Aldridge has played prettier games, this was the type of rugged game the Spurs needed from him, especially with his shot not falling.
Like Aldridge, this wasn’t a typical game from DeMar DeRozan. He scored only 15 points on 16 shots, didn’t get to the free throw line and had a team-high four turnovers. But it wasn’t all bad on the offensive end. Despite his pedestrian numbers, DeRozan did well to not force the issue too much. In the fourth quarter, particularly, he was completely under control. In fact, his only field goal attempt was the three-pointer he swished — his first made three since December of 2018. The Spurs have struggled closing out games, with DeRozan leading the struggles by trying to put the team on his back. Tonight, he stayed within the offense, which paid off. Where DeRozan was actually most impressive, though, was on defense. He took on the challenge of defending Kawhi Leonard quite a bit and did well. He used quick hands and fast reaction speed to deflect balls and swipe steals. If DeRozan plays smart on offense and gives good effort on defense, the Spurs are a much better team.
Derrick White redeemed himself after going 1-for-6 on three-pointers against a Minnesota Timberwolves team that wasn’t even defending him. Versus the Clippers, White set a career-high with five three-pointers made on only seven attempts. He’s now shooting a very respectable 41.9% from three-point range this season. Beyond his marksmanship from deep, White made a couple slick passes. Defensively, he took on a lot of challenges — mostly against Paul George but he also defended Leonard — and White did well. It’s obvious that he’s not moving super well right now as he’s dealing with a sore foot but he strongly held his ground, didn’t commit bad fouls and challenged a whole lot of shots.
Starting for the first time this season, Rudy Gay didn’t do much right. He had a few good possessions on defense but otherwise it was mostly a struggle. Gay has now missed his last nine three-pointers and he’s shooting just 28.8% from distance this season. He had a couple blatant mistakes on both ends and just seemed a step slow. The good news is he was playing hard, so that helped mask some of his ineffectiveness.
In the first three quarters, Bryn Forbes wasn’t doing a lot right. He couldn’t get much going offensively and his defense was so bad that Pop had to pull him from the game. But give Forbes credit, he bounced back with a very strong fourth quarter. He scored ten of San Antonio’s 25 points and his pair of threes were momentous. Forbes still has a ways to go to prove he’s a capable starter but he stepped up in the fourth when the Spurs needed him.
In all phases of the game, Patty Mills was ultra aggressive — and his aggression ended up being a game-changer for San Antonio. Defensively, he was in the middle of the action, whether it was trying to draw charges or hustling for loose balls. Offensively, Mills was pushing the tempo and letting it fly whenever he had an inch of airspace. While he had a few questionable decisions here and there, Mills’ energy was an unquestionably important part to this surprising win.
Dejounte Murray is still trying to learn how to play from off the bench but he had some moments tonight. His defense was disruptive, he made better decisions passing-wise and he limited his mistakes on both ends of the court. His shot-selection (and shotmaking, for that matter) is still a work in progress but Murray is giving good effort in terms of trying to work through his struggles without hanging his head.
This very well could have been Trey Lyles’ best game of his short Spurs career. Offensively, he wasn’t hesitating at all — whether that meant shooting a three-pointer, pushing the ball up the court after a rebound or making a difficult pass to a teammate. Throughout all his activity, Lyles looked coordinated, talented and aware of his surroundings. That’s good stuff from a young big. Defensively, he was active on the boards, played tougher than usual in the paint and made heady rotations. All told, Lyles looked like a really solid basketball player out there.
Jakob Poeltl only played 16 minutes but he was such a ball of energy that you could make the case that he was San Antonio’s best player tonight. Defensively, he was all over the place. His rotations were much faster than usual, which led to his four blocks. He has nine blocks in his last two games — or as many blocks as he had in his previous 15 contests. Not only was he defending the rim really well, Poeltl was much better on the defensive glass. Offensively, he was unafraid to push the boundaries of his game. When Poeltl plays with this level of confidence and passion, he’s an elite backup center in the NBA.
Marco Belinelli didn’t shoot well but I thought he did decently well overall. On defense, he was usually in the right place and even pulled down a couple contested boards. Offensively, he took the right shots and provided enough movement to help scramble the Clippers’ defense. Honestly, I can’t fault Belinelli too much for how he played tonight. Better shooting would have made his stats look prettier but he was helping the cause in other ways.
Amazingly, this was the first time all season that the Spurs held the opponent to under 100 points. (I didn’t think that I’d ever write that sentence about a Pop coached team … but here we are.) I didn’t agree with many of Pop’s decisions tonight in real time — but most of his decisions worked out. For example, I didn’t like Belinelli over Lonnie Walker IV but Belinelli did well enough. I also thought Pop went back to DeRozan and Forbes too early in the fourth but that ended up working out, too. I don’t know if Gay is a long-term fit as a starter but it seemed to work well enough tonight. That Poeltl and Lyles combination off the bench was effective and the bench unit as a whole looked extra electric (for as good as Gay can be, he’s also a bit of ball-stopper, so his fit with the bench isn’t always seamless). Let’s hope Pop can bottle what was working tonight and carry it forward to the upcoming games.
Next Up for the Spurs
On Sunday, the Spurs embark on a one-game road trip to take on the Detroit Pistons. If the Spurs can win that road game, they may actually be able to put together some sort of momentum. That’d be big as San Antonio heads into the crucial month of December.