The Spurs are rolling. San Antonio pushed its winning streak to six games with a 112-105 road victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Tuesday night. The team is now 39-29 this season and holds slim leads over the Los Angeles Clippers (one-half game) and Utah Jazz (one game) for sixth place in the Western Conference.
The Spurs rode big performances from DeMar DeRozan, Derrick White and LaMarcus Aldridge and shut down Luka Doncic to pull out Tuesday’s close contest. Let’s dig a little deeper on this game’s storylines with three observations, two questions and one prediction.
The Spurs’ old-school offensive approach is working
In the Spurs’ six-game winning streak, they’ve made just 9.2 threes per game at a 37.9 percent clip. Their opponents, meanwhile, are draining 13.3 trifectas per contest at a 35.6 percent.
The Spurs are doing a fantastic job offsetting that disadvantage, however, with fantastic midrange shooting. They’ve knocked down 13.8 such shots per game in the streak at a 51.7 percent clip, compared to 6.4 at 43.6 percent for their opponents.
San Antonio’s earlier stretch of great play this season in December and early January had more to do with its own hot three-point shooting and the opponent going cold from the outside. The team also had Aldridge dominating the paint on both ends.
This time, though, DeRozan, Aldridge and Derrick White are cashing in big time from the midrange areas. Their opponents haven’t made quite enough threes to make up for it.
The Spurs’ defensive game plan on Luka Doncic worked perfectly
Admittedly, Doncic was questionable for this game due to a knee strain. He probably shouldn’t have been playing given that the Mavericks are basically eliminated from the playoffs.
However, the Spurs should still be satisfied with how they defended the Rookie of the Year favorite. He’s going to be a Southwest Division fixture for many years to come, after all.
Doncic finished the game shooting 5-of-18 from the field and committing nine turnovers. He also shot a miserable 1-of-9 from the free-throw line. San Antonio had White covering him one-on-one much of the game, and he did an excellent job. However, the non-primary defenders team did a great job chipping in, as well.
The Spurs were very unpredictable with Doncic. Sometimes, they were aggressive in jumping passing lanes, stunting or sending a late double. Other times, Doncic’s defenders would be more reactive and wait for him to make the first move.
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Jalen Brunson highlighted persistent perimeter defense problems
Doncic may have failed to reach his normal level of play, but Brunson (34 points and four assists with a true-shooting percentage of 89.1) almost stole this game for the Mavs.
Brunson has definitely gone under the radar as one of the league’s impact rookies this year, but this was unacceptable from the Spurs. The former Villanova star beat Patty Mills, Bryn Forbes and even White off the dribble several times. San Antonio also lost him on the perimeter for a few of his jumpers. Frustratingly, the team didn’t show much effort to stop Brunson once he got in a rhythm.
The Spurs’ perimeter defense talent ranks just 28th in the NBA, per BBall Index’s team talent grades. In this game, they contained the Mavericks’ best player, but not their hot hand.
Can the Spurs keep their shooting specialists more involved?
The Spurs are on an eight-game streak of Aldridge and DeRozan both hitting at least half of their field-goal attempts. White is playing well on offense and Rudy Gay is usually good for 12 to 18 points per night. That quartet forms the Spurs’ top four offensive options when they’re all healthy.
However, the problem with relying too heavily on that group for scoring is that they’ve combined for only about one-sixth of the team’s made three-pointers this season. There’s a missing element of offensive explosiveness when all the usage is coming from guys who aren’t high-volume outside shooters.
In this game, snipers Bryn Forbes, Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli combined for only 13 points on 5-of-18 shooting from the field and 2-of-11 shooting from three despite playing a sizable 73 minutes between them.
Those guys just have to produce more. Their combined average league-wide perimeter defensive percentile is 38.6, and their interior defensive percentile averages out to 20.1. None of them is a great facilitator. If they’re not knocking down threes out there, they’re not helping the team.
Gregg Popovich has the unenviable task of trying to optimize the team’s offense so that everyone gets the ideal amount of usage.
Is Jakob Poeltl a future full-time starter in the modern NBA?
Poeltl has now gotten a starting nod in his last five games in the lineup, all Spurs wins. His minutes have also jumped from 14.9 to 26.8 per contest.
His counting stats in his last five games (6.8 points, 7.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.4 blocks, 1 steal) don’t really stand out. However, he’s totaled a 70.6 true-shooting percentage and mere 0.4 turnovers per game, which means he hardly needs any possessions to get his numbers. The shots can go to more skilled offensive players when he’s on the floor.
He certainly makes an impact with his size and instincts as a rim protector. His interior defense percentile is 87.9, per BBall Index’s player talent grades.
Poeltl’s best skill is probably his screening, though. His picks created 16 points for the Spurs on Tuesday. He ranks eighth among players with 500 minutes played in points created by screens per 36 minutes (14.6).
The biggest issues with Poeltl are that he’s just mediocre defending the perimeter (44.2 percentile) and he offers absolutely no perimeter shooting (0.2 percentile). His defensive rebounding (62.4 percentile league-wide, 39.9 percentile compared to bigs with at least 500 minutes) is below-average.
Poeltl is still just 23 years old. His future potential as a full-time starter will depend on his development in weak areas and whether the players around him can magnify his strengths and minimize his weaknesses.
The Spurs will finish with 48 wins
To reach this, San Antonio needs to finish 9-5 over its final 14 games. That should be doable considering that the team has the sixth-easiest remaining strength of schedule and only six more games on the road.
The Spurs have been unpredictable. However, with their big-minute starters playing really well right now and some momentum from their winning streak, they should be primed for a strong finish.
48 wins would be one more than last season. even in a deeper Western Conference and after an offseason that many criticized heavily. Give Gregg Popovich and a mostly new roster credit for gelling for much of the season to get to where they are.
Note: All statistics are from NBA.com or Tankathon, unless otherwise noted. Video clips are from NBA.com.
Photo: Glenn James // Getty Images