SAN ANTONIO -- Similar scenarios resulted in the same dominating finishes for the San Antonio Spurs over their past two outings.
San Antonio trailed by two points Saturday against the Oklahoma City Thunder headed into the fourth quarter before surging ahead by 10 points, with Kawhi Leonard scoring nine of his team-high 26 points in the final frame as the Spurs outscored the Thunder 27-17.
Then, when San Antonio downed the Los Angeles Clippers 108-87 on Tuesday to capture its 33rd consecutive victory this season at the AT&T Center, the Spurs held a one-point advantage entering the fourth quarter before David West and Patty Mills combined for 15 points to lead an onslaught in which they outscored the visitors 37-17 in the final 12 minutes. That allowed them to post their 20th win by 20 points or more, which ranks as the most in the NBA.
So as the Spurs trend toward postseason form, guard Manu Ginobili still believes there are “so many things” the team needs to improve, which makes film sessions with coach Gregg Popovich interesting to say the least.
“Once you listen to Pop dissecting the video, you think, ‘Wow, we could be really good. I mean, we are making all these mistakes, and we’re the best defensive team in the league,’” Ginobili joked. “I think [in] the playoffs, that determination ... sometimes in the 70th game or the 58th, you’re a little relaxed and you have sort of a cushion. So hopefully, when we need those wins, everybody’s gonna be very focused and we can improve a little more. I think overall on this stretch, we’ve been very good.”
San Antonio remains undefeated in its latest stretch, having played three games in six days at home against the Chicago Bulls, Thunder and Clippers. The club closes out the homestand with outings Thursday and Saturday against the Portland Trail Blazers and the Golden State Warriors.
“It’s very important,” Ginobili said. “You always want to test yourself against the best. This week, we’ve had the Thunder, the Clippers, the Blazers, the Warriors too. So it’s a very important week, and we want to do good. You can lose a game. That’s not the point. We want to get better. We want to match up against everybody and see how we react. The first 50 games of the season, we hadn’t been successful against the best teams. So we need these types of wins, and they’re happening.”
Throughout this three-game stint, we’ve watched San Antonio’s bench dominate the Clippers’ reserves, with Ginobili (13 points), West (8), and Mills (15) leading the way as the Spurs backups produced nearly half the club’s points to outscore the Los Angeles bench 51-20.
Over the past two games, we’ve seen West set the tone early in the fourth quarter, scoring six of the team’s first nine points in the final frame against the Clippers while also snagging three rebounds. All eight of West’s points came in the fourth quarter.
“I think it’s just a matter of doing a good job of wearing them down the first three quarters and then him capitalizing in the fourth quarter,” Mills said of West. “He does a great job of being physical down there, not only with the bigs, but as a screener as well, and getting us guards off. So he makes the most of that opportunity come the fourth, when we can sense teams are starting to get a little tired, yeah. He’s definitely done a great job for us.”
Then there’s the matter of Leonard, simultaneously the team’s most potent offensive weapon and stingiest defender.
In the first half, Clippers point guard Chris Paul ripped the Spurs for 18 points and seven assists. But the Spurs decided to deploy Leonard on Paul in the second half, and the point guard’s production diminished significantly, as he connected on only 1 of 5 attempts for four points and an assist.
Leonard’s play ranks as one of the major reasons the Spurs have trailed a total of just 9 minutes, 37 seconds in 396 minutes played in the fourth quarter this season at the AT&T Center.
“It was great,” Popovich said of Leonard’s performance. “Obviously [Leonard’s] length and his ability to guard a number of people, but I think it was a good change up for [Paul] to see something different.”
Added Ginobili: “Now we are used to it. So we are spoiled. Our best offensive player is our best defensive player, too. He’s young. He’s hungry. He’s talented, physically very gifted, and he can do it all. It’s no secret that’s one of the main reasons we have 85 percent wins. He’s been amazing.”
Others seem to have followed suit. Entering the matchup against the Clippers, new addition LaMarcus Aldridge put together seven consecutive outings in which he produced 20 points or more, averaging 25.3 points over that span to go with 10.3 rebounds and 1.43 blocks while hitting 57.5 percent from the field. Aldridge contributed 17 points and six rebounds against the Clippers.
It’s clear the adjustment “process” Aldridge described earlier in the season has finally come to a close, aided by a stretch in late January and early February in which Tim Duncan was forced to miss eight games due to knee soreness. Duncan’s absence accelerated Aldridge’s acclimation.
“It’s a subjective thing, but I think it’s logical to think that may have been a little bit of a catalyst where he realized he had to do some things, and there wasn’t anybody else to defer to as far as bigs are concerned,” Popovich said. “That probably had a little bit to do with it. But it’s also been a process where he’s become more comfortable in the offense; catching it in different places than he was used to. And it was a process for me, too; to give him the ball more in places that he was used to. So a little bit of both. Then, as time went on, his confidence level went up. When he would miss shots, he would realize that we don’t care. We care if you don’t shoot it when you’re open. If you miss them, we don’t care. We can’t control that.”
What the Spurs can control is how they close out the regular season in preparation for the playoffs. San Antonio considers its current five-game homestand an important measuring stick for its postseason prospects, and the Spurs appear to be earning high marks with matchups looming against Portland and Golden State, which blasted them 120-90 on the road on Jan. 25.
“Yeah, it’s the big picture and everyone is on the same page with that goal, understanding we’ve got a much bigger picture that we’re looking at, and these are just little examples throughout the way that are good for our development,” Mills said. “This stretch of games is good for us this time of year.”