Random Thoughts: Spurs @ Wizards – Game #80

Welcome back. You guys have been missed.

After a long string of disappointing outings that featured lukewarm energy and halfhearted effort, the Spurs once again looked like the team that won nine straight back in the first couple weeks of March. With the postseason around the corner, it was refreshing to see the good guys recapture the formula that had San Antonio surging up the standings prior to an ill-timed swoon.

Truthfully, the 129-112 final score against the Wizards doesn’t tell the story; San Antonio was up 125-102 with 4:42 remaining before they took their foot of the gas. After a competitive first quarter, the Spurs blew the doors off with a mixture of passion, teamwork and joy that had been missing during the eight-game slump since the winning streak ended.

(The Spurs did win in Boston during the swoon but that victory was mostly due to two factors: the Celtics were were struggling at the time and Aldridge was a one-man wrecking crew with his 48 points, 13 rebounds and six assists.)

To add to the night’s good news, the Clippers lost to the Cancun-bound Lakers. Now the road out of the eighth seed is even clearer: the Spurs need to win their last two games (@CLE, DAL) and then they need either the Thunder (@MIN, HOU, @MIL) or Clippers (@GS, UTA) to lose a game. So, basically, if the Spurs take care of business and win out, chances are great that they will avoid having to face the Warriors in the first round.

If San Antonio can play like they did tonight, they’ll be able to get those two victories. Obviously, the Spurs can’t get too confident that they’ve successfully flipped the switch but we saw a lot of really positive signs in Washington DC.

-The one player who continued to play at a high level during the swoon was Bryn Forbes. Over the last eight games, he’s averaging 14.6 points on 60% shooting from the field and 53.7% from three-point range. The Wizards game might have actually been his best all-around outing during this stretch. Not only was he knocking down shots, his decision-making and passing off the dribble was fabulous, his help-defense was lightning quick, his individual defense was as stout as can be, and he limited his mistakes on both ends. Forbes wasn’t perfect (he got overwhelmed by Washington’s athleticism a couple times, most glaringly) but right now he’s a definite asset to the team. When he’s playing confidently, he’s not second-guessing his decisions and he remains mentally engaged, Forbes is better than most of us want to admit.

-It’s clear the Spurs can’t go anywhere if Derrick White is trudging along in mud — like he has found himself too often during the swoon. Tonight, White’s Nikes were operating on dry land. Defensively, I was impressed with the work he did on Bradley Beal. White’s reaction times were super quick, he smartly avoided fouls, he challenged both his dribbles and shots, and generally just made life difficult for the star shooting guard. His rebounding and help-defense work was also admirable. Offensively, White confidently fired midrange jumpers when available, took his time when orchestrating pick-and-roll sets, made accurate passes via his astute court vision, and didn’t hesitate to take charge when it was needed. While it’s certainly a lot to put on his shoulders, these Spurs will go only as far as their second-year guard leads them. When you boil it down, White is unquestionably the team’s most important defender and the offense runs best when the ball is in his hands. 

Jakob Poeltl was better this evening. He was saddled with a couple quick fouls but he didn’t let it ruin his outing. On offense, Poeltl did a better job of setting screens, rolling to the basket and creating an angle for a pass (honestly, it’s a bit surprising that he’s not consistently good at what should be his bread and butter — this season, his number of purposeless rolls to the rim has been way too high). His receiving hands were soft and his finishing touch around the hoop was deft (he’s legitimately going to retire with a field goal percentage north of 65%, his finishing ability is that good). On defense, he was okay. Poeltl rebounded well and provided some rim protection. That said, as has been the case too often lately, his help was a half-step slow and he was caught unaware in transition on multiple occasions. There has been stretches where Poeltl has been a really strong defender but right now he’s not there. Let’s hope he rediscovers that defensive rhythm by the postseason.

-One of the leading reasons why the Spurs looked so improved was the play of Rudy Gay. After struggling mightily the last two times out, he was beastly versus the Wizards. When he came off the bench, Washington had no answers to his combination of size, talent and athleticism. Not only was Gay scoring at will, he authored a couple of the best passes of the game. He’s definitely up near the top of the list in terms of being indispensable to these Spurs. If Gay isn’t playing well, San Antonio can look painfully unequipped in the talent department. 

-It’s been pretty cool to see Davis Bertans‘ confidence steadily rise when it comes to dribbling the basketball. Now he’s gotten to the point that he’ll grab a defensive rebound and take it up the court himself. In halfcourt sets, he looks comfortable putting the ball on the floor and he’s learning how to use this new proficiency to his advantage. While shooting three-pointers will make or break Bertans’ long-term future in this league, being an extra ball-handler allows him to provide some auxiliary playmaking when he’s on the court, which definitely holds some value. You can see his improved dribbling in his statistics if you look close enough: Through 26 games, his season-high in assists was two and he was averaging 1.87 assists per 36 minutes. In the last eight games, Bertans has had at least three assists four times and is averaging 4.17 assists per 36 minutes. 

-I liked the version of Patty Mills we witnessed tonight. He was aggressive with the ball, constantly probed for a crack of daylight and stubbornly upped the tempo (the pace was much faster with Mills on the court [101.1] than when he was off the court [94.8]). His energy level was near its highest setting and his super-teammate ways were contagious as he added a palpable level of fun to the proceedings. Maybe it’s asking too much for Mills to be also overflowing with electricity every game of the season but it makes such a difference in his value that it’s frustrating to see him play with an average human amount of electric current running through his veins. 

Donatas Motiejunas got his first minutes in silver and black and he didn’t fail the eye-test. He moved pretty well for a long-necked seven-footer and looks to be in good shape. His upper half was a bit stiff when making quick movements, though. Is that a result of the back surgery that derailed his NBA career or was it because he hadn’t played in a while? I don’t know — we’ll find out. I did find it interesting that Pop was repeatedly calling post-up plays for Motiejunas when he was on the court because Pop usually doesn’t call specific plays during garbage time. It was obvious the coaching staff wanted to get a read on the big Lithuanian to see what type of help he can provide going forward.

LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan both eased up a bit tonight after the Spurs gained control but they came out of the gates strong. In the first quarter, Aldridge had eight points on 4-for-6 shooting and DeRozan had four points and three assists. The duo definitely helped set the tone but the Spurs didn’t need their horses to take them to the old town road in order to get the W, which was a positive development. The best news regarding these two is they look to be really spry right now. Aldridge, especially, is moving and jumping extremely well — probably better than any point this season. Hopefully that points to Aldridge and DeRozan having strong sprints to the finish line.

LJ Ellis