DALLAS -- Patty Mills glanced down and let out a sigh, knowing this sequence likely meant the end.
“It was like in a matter of 30 seconds,” Mills said. “I knew if we lost the game, it was because of that.”
So instead of sulking, Mills tightened up and combined with Kawhi Leonard to pour in 24 of San Antonio’s 33 points in the fourth quarter as the Spurs defeated the Dallas Mavericks 94-87 on Wednesday to avoid dropping back-to-back games to teams with records below .500 for the first time since February 2010.
Early in the fourth quarter, such an undertaking seemed daunting.
With 10 minutes, 20 seconds remaining, Seth Curry drained a 3-pointer to give the Mavericks a 71-65 lead. Then Curry drove into the teeth of the defense for an 11-footer as Mills and Leonard erred in communicating the correct responsibilities on the play. As the duo discussed the defensive miscommunication on the ensuing inbounds play, Wesley Matthews swiped Leonard’s errant pass only to be fouled by Mills, and sent to the line where he’d put the Mavericks ahead 74-67.
“I know I was involved in two or three plays there where defensively we screwed up,” Mills said. “We let a 3-[pointer] in, a layup, and then a foul. So that was seven points there that I wasn’t happy at all with. The mindset [was] aggressive, and not giving in. I thought that was the moral of that victory; not giving I no matter what. So it was a big grind game.”
The Spurs left center Pau Gasol in San Antonio along with reserve guard Manu Ginobili, as coach Gregg Popovich said the duo was “banged up” and needed rest. In addition, starting point guard Tony Parker suited up, but didn’t play a single minute as Popovich opted to rest him, too.
Popovich described Dedmon as “the star of the show for all four quarters with basic, solid, discipline basketball he played on the board and blocking shots that allowed us to stay in it.” Dedmon finished with six points and three blocks, while Mills scored 15 of his game-high 23 points in the fourth quarter.
“He is playing great,” shooting guard Danny Green said. “He has always played great for us, though. Hopefully he continues to play that well throughout the whole year because we are going to need that from him.”
Leonard, meanwhile, knocked down just 5 of 16 shots for 21 points, inflicting the majority of his damage in the second half.
At the end of the first half, San Antonio’s top scorers Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge had combined to connect on 2 of 11 for five points, which is why the Spurs’ bench rose up at just the right time. San Antonio’s reserves contributed 44 of the team’s 94 points, with each of them playing approximately 15 minutes or more, led by Mills with 29 minutes of action.
The Spurs have now captured 12 consecutive road victories dating to last season, which ties the longest overall road streak in franchise history, and their revamped bench played a major role. At times during the 2015-16 season, San Antonio’s bench carried the team, only to fall flat in the team’s series loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference semifinals.
“The bench wasn’t as productive in the playoffs,” reserve forward Kyle Anderson said. “I wouldn’t say we weren’t productive. We just didn’t have that spark that we normally did. I thought the second unit was great all [last] season, but not in the playoffs. I guess we sort of leveled off last season. So that’s been a focus for this year’s bench: to stay on it the whole season. That’s what we take pride in: bringing that juice off the bench. Every game, no matter who it is, we look at it as something we want to make sure we handle and stay on top of every game. That’s why we always say, ‘Make sure you bring that juice off the bench,’ because we always want to be a spark off the bench.”
The group certainly did as much against the Mavericks. The second unit turned over the ball only one more time (six) than the starters, dished two more assists (nine), nabbed three steals and blocked three shots; all numbers comparable to contributions from the first group.
“We have a great first unit. But everybody is going to have off nights, and it’s our job that when that happens to come in and pick them up, and to use one of our biggest advantages, which is our depth,” said David Lee, who contributed seven points and five rebounds. “I think that when you look at the other top teams in the West and in the NBA, I think one of the ways we can be successful is with our depth, and with coach using as many guys as he does really doing it with intensity. It really comes with us coming in and playing with the proper energy. If we do that, it’s not always going to show up in the stat book because sometimes our minutes [are limited] depending on how the first unit does. Our goal, myself, Patty, Manu, Dewayne, guys like that, Jonathon Simmons, we’re coming in talking about how we’ve got to come in with energy and juice. That’s what we did tonight.”
It needs to continue. But Mills viewed the team’s rough start against the Mavericks as a learning experience that might prove beneficial later in the season. Dallas chopped down a 12-point San Antonio lead in the first half and transformed it into a six-point advantage.
But the Spurs mowed down an eight-point deficit with 7 minutes to play and turned it into a seven-point victory.
“You obviously never want to be in that position, but this is the NBA, and we’re on the road,” Mills said. “I think going through that just as a group, at the end of the day we learn from it. Last year at this time, however many games we won, we never had close games, especially in the fourth quarter. So when we did get that tough game, we didn’t know what to do. I think this stuff is definitely going to help on how to execute down the stretch, how to get stops and so on. When guys are out, [you have to] be able to step in and that not change anything whether it’s the first unit or the second unit. We’re not there yet, but we’ve seen glimpses of it. That’s the positive that you’ve got to take out of it. We’ve just got to be more consistent with it. It will come. We know we can do it. Now it’s just about trying to maintain that.”