San Antonio’s winning streak is now eight games after a 108-103 victory over Portland on Saturday night. With the win in the rare home-and-home back-to-back, the Spurs are now 41-29 and in sixth place in the Western Conference.
A nip and tuck affair the entire night, the Spurs and Trail Blazers stood tied midway through the fourth quarter. That’s when two unlikely heroes emerged for the Spurs: Bryn Forbes and Davis Bertans. First, Bertans hit a three-pointer to break the tie. Forbes then completed an old-fashioned three-point play after a difficult layup in transition. Following three made free throws by Bertans after he was fouled on a three-pointer, Forbes connected on a new age three-pointer to put the Spurs up by six points with three minutes remaining … and the good guys would never be threatened again.
Very good win. The Blazers were also playing the second night of a back-to-back and lost CJ McCollum to a knee injury in the third quarter but it was a really nice win for the Spurs regardless. San Antonio overcame an iffy offensive showing by playing solid defense. While that’s been a successful formula for the Spurs the last two-plus decades, we haven’t been able to say that much this season. That alone is promising.
Early on, LaMarcus Aldridge was carrying his current team against his former team. In the game’s first six minutes, he was 4-for-5 from the field and scored nine of the team’s first 11 points. Then he vanished offensively, hitting only one of his final eight attempts from the court. To give credit where credit is due, Jusuf Nurkic physically dominated Aldridge — and that’s not something that’s happened much this season. Nurkic kept Aldridge from getting easy shots in the paint, kept him off the offensive boards and bullied him on the glass on the other end. While Nurkic is a solid player, Aldridge deserves blame for not summoning enough grit to successfully compete. In addition to his struggles in the paint, he was also iffy out on the perimeter on the defensive end. Aldridge’s saving grace tonight was his stellar interior defense down the stretch; he kept the Spurs sturdy in the lane despite being surrounded with a small lineup.
Summary: Aldridge started strong offensively and ended well defensively but the rest was forgettable.
This was an uneven — and difficult to grade — performance for DeMar DeRozan. On one hand, he played too much in isolation offensively, wasn’t recognizing mismatches well and wasn’t doing much playmaking for his teammates. He also hit less than half his shots from the field for the first time since the All-Star break. On the other hand, DeRozan played some of his best defense of the season, rebounded the ball really well, kept his mistakes to a minimum and his tenacity on offense led to a game-high ten free throw attempts. Considering the two biggest factors of this Spurs win were defense and free throw attempts, it’s difficult to be too disappointed in DeRozan’s play. That said, he undeniably reverted to bad habits by breaking the offense too often and did so at the expense of creating open looks for the shooters.
Summary: DeRozan played hard and helped in ways that led to San Antonio’s victory.
Derrick White has played better but he was definitely competing very hard on Saturday night. Defensively, his work against Damian Lillard was impressive. White made mistakes — he was too antsy at times and was caught out of position at other times — and found himself in foul trouble but making Lillard take 29 shots to get his 34 points was a win for the Spurs. Offensively, White could have been more demonstrative with the ball and deferred less; he was passing up shots and hesitated to attack off the dribble more than usual. However, he was efficient when he did call his own number and authored a handful of slick passes.
Summary: White never found a rhythm on either end yet still contributed positively.
For three quarters, Bryn Forbes wasn’t impacting the game much at all. He had a few heady passes and was playing passable defense … but that was about the extent of it. Then in the fourth period, Forbes scored nine key points with the game in the balance. His confidence was palpable during money time, which is notable considering he’s a player who sometimes has confidence issues. On top of his well-timed buckets, I also thought Forbes played good defense in the fourth. He was making quick, correct decision in the help-defense schemes, which is another area where he can struggle.
Summary: Forbes was clutch when it counted.
For the second consecutive game, Jakob Poeltl tied his career-high with five blocks. As those blocks indicate, Poeltl was outstanding in terms of defending the rim and altering shots. (Side note: Blocks is an area where Poeltl’s numbers have regressed compared to last season in Toronto. Considering that Pop stresses not fouling, Poeltl probably overcorrected in a successful effort to substantially cut his foul rate. So while his ten blocks in the last two games are exciting, the fact that he did so while only committing three fouls is equally as important.) The Spurs were best on the defensive boards when the big Austrian was in the game — and that wasn’t an accident. Poeltl was boxing out, hustling and playing physically. On offense, he was strong on the offensive glass and flashed soft hands and a deft touch. The Blazers forced him to expand his offensive repertoire a bit and Poeltl looked smooth while unveiling more-complicated-than-usual shot attempts.
Summary: Poeltl was a beast on defense and expanded upon his usual role on offense.
Marco Belinelli is another player who gave very good effort. On defense, his slow-footedness hurt the Spurs at times but he tried to make up for it by scratching and clawing. Offensively, he kept his shot attempts in the realm of the sane and his off-ball movement was a weapon in and of itself. At his best, Belinelli might legitimately have the best instincts in the NBA when it comes to moving without the ball.
Summary: Belinelli played hard and played well.
On offense, I didn’t love all of Patty Mills’ shots and his decision-making was frustrating at times but he did enough right on that end to overshadow his deficiencies. His playmaking was at a higher than normal level, he hit a few key shots and he pushed the pace really well. While it’s easy to overlook, Mills’ pushing of the pace opened up opportunities for the marksmen off the bench. Defensively, he was active and played Lillard well enough to keep the Blazers All-Star from going nuclear.
Summary: Mills was an important part of the puzzle.
Rudy Gay came off the bench and did what he does: create good shots out of thin air when the Spurs were desperate. He hit two more three-pointers to improve upon his remarkable shooting season (career-high 51.3% from the field, career-high 42% from three-point territory). Defensively, Gay wasn’t too impressive outside of the paint but he was throwing his body around under the rim. As a result, he was the team’s most effective defensive rebounder and altered a handful of shots in the lane.
Summary: Gay did good work on both ends.
Davis Bertans was scoreless heading into the fourth quarter. Thankfully, he saved his best for last. It was great to see him be unafraid to fire with the game up for grabs even though he hadn’t been involved in the game’s first three quarters. Defensively, I thought Bertans was really, really good. He moved his feet amazingly well out on the perimeter against smaller players, he challenged shots smartly and pulled down contested defensive rebounds. Bertans has the tools to be a difference-maker and a difficult-to-account-for X-factor — and he was indeed that tonight.
Summary: Bertans’ numbers don’t jump off the statsheet but he was vital.
Very well coached game by Pop. His playcalling in the fourth quarter was impressive and led directly to a number of wide open looks. It’s about that time of year that Pop opens up the playbook all the way and it surely made a difference tonight. Specifically, calling plays for Bertans and Forbes in the fourth quarter even though they had been silent up until then was classic Pop. Overall, I thought the rotation made sense, his smaller lineups in the fourth quarter paid dividends and he got his team to play hard.
Summary: Vintage Pop.
Looking ahead: Great effort. Well done.
Next up, the Spurs put their winning steak on the line when they host the Warriors on Monday. Needless to say, it’ll be a challenge. If nothing else, it’ll be a good litmus test. Let’s hope they play as hard on Monday as they did tonight.