They were looking for a spark and they found one. Here’s how the San Antonio Spurs can build off of their thrilling 2OT win over the Houston Rockets.
For all of the doom and gloom surrounding the San Antonio Spurs this year, all is not lost. Despite one of the worst starts to a season in franchise history, making the playoffs for a record-breaking 23rd consecutive year is still very much a possibility.
Let’s not forget, the Spurs were in a similar position last year. They were 11-13 through December 4th and the “is the Spurs dynasty finally over?” takes were flying around like crazy. Then Derrick White was inserted into the starting lineup on December 9th and the Spurs went 9-3 over the rest of the month to reinsert themselves into the playoff picture.
To be clear, I’m not saying that last night’s nail-biting double-overtime win over the Houston Rockets will have the same effect that the lineup change with White did last year. But at the same time, there’s a lot that went right throughout the game that San Antonio can focus on going forward to spur a mid-season turn around.
Lonnie Walker‘s electrifying breakout game will dominate most of the headlines but he wasn’t the only one who played well. As Lonnie himself attested after the game, it was a full team win that wouldn’t have been possible without consistent energy from the moment the ball went up.
There was a lot to love about the San Antonio Spurs performance last night but these three things stood out in particular. Focusing on them going forward could help the Spurs get this season back on track.
Next: The all-around game of Jakob Poeltl
Jakob Poeltl did it all
Lonnie’s breakout game took much of the attention but Jakob Poeltl‘s stellar all-around performance did not go unnoticed. Poeltl finished with one of the best games of his young career, posting a well-rounded stat line of 6 points, 15 rebounds, 5 assists, 5 blocks, and a steal. He also tied DeMar DeRozan for a game-high in minutes with 41.
Poeltl has always been a good rim protector but has never been an amazing shot blocker. He often altered opposing player’s shots with a good position and straight up and down defense rather than sending back shots.
That’s changed over the last few games. Over the past eight games, he has blocked 20 opponent shots, with 14 of those coming in the last four. He’s the first Spurs since Tim Duncan to record those kinds of numbers.
One of the weaknesses of this team is their lack of true big man depth. Outside of LaMarcus Aldridge and Poeltl, there isn’t anyone who can hold down the paint. Drew Eubanks has strong points to his game but he’s still not capable of keeping larger centers from dominating the boards when he’s in the game. Last night, Clint Capela bullied him in his limited minutes.
That makes it nearly essential for the Spurs to have one of either Aldridge or Poeltl on the floor at all times. If Poeltl can maintain his recent level of play there is no reason why he should not be seeing around 25 minutes of court time on a nightly basis. He’s doing all the little things you can ask of a big man and his blocks fire the team up.
San Antonio has a big decision coming up. Do they offer Poeltl a contract extension or not? If his play can help turn this season around he could be in for a major payday.
Next: Strong shooting from deep
Accurate shooting from behind the arc
Last season the San Antonio Spurs were able to overcome their lack of three-point shooting with deadly accuracy. They shot the shots in the league from behind the arc but connected on an incredible 39 percent of them as a team.
This season San Antonio is unsurprisingly near the bottom of the league in shots from behind the arc. Well, they are the bottom of the league. The Spurs are dead last in both three-pointers attempted and made. The difference between the two seasons has been San Antonio’s inability to replicate their accuracy from last year. They’re 17th in the league in three-point percentage, connecting on 35 percent of their attempts.
Last night the Spurs were able to overcome an onslaught of Houston Rockets three-pointers by simply being more accurate than they were. Houston put up 51 attempts but only connected on 15 of them. Conversely, the Spurs hit on 13 of their 30 attempts. Now it’s unreasonable to think the Spurs are going to hit on 43 percent of their shots on a nightly basis but they can focus on replicating how they got those accurate shots off.
It was a vintage Spurs performance yesterday. The ball was whipping around like crazy. Everyone was passing up good shots for better ones and the result was plenty of good looks. The proof is in the numbers. San Antonio outdid Houston in assists 35 to 22. When you’re moving the ball that well it’s hard not to win.
Bryn Forbes has received plenty of criticism for his lackluster play over the first quarter of the season but he stepped up last night and played up to his potential. He hit on five of six of his shots from behind the arc on his way to a season-high 25 points. Those are the kinds of games that the Spurs need more of from one of their best shooters.
Bryn wasn’t the only Spur who lit it up from deep. Which brings us to our final point of focus going forward.
Next: Continue to ramp up Lonnie Walker's playing time
Lonnie Walker has officially arrived
We’re going to look back on last night’s game over the next few years and point to it as the moment that Lonnie Walker officially made his mark on the San Antonio Spurs. He was incredible on both ends of the floor.
Lonnie started off unevenly, fumbling the ball in key moments and playing a bit out of control. He clearly has the athleticism to dominate games but controlling his pace and making the most of his opportunities is something that he will have to continue to work on.
That being said, when it mattered most, Lonnie was the man for the moment. He singlehandedly outscored the Houston Rockets in the fourth quarter, hit the game-tying three, and then iced the game at the free-throw line to give the Spurs their best win of the season.
— NBA (@NBA) December 4, 2019
Going forward, there is no conceivable reason that Lonnie should not see meaningful playing time in every single game. Spurs fans would be happy to see more “DNP-Coaches Decision” next to Marco Belinelli‘s name if it means more 35 minute nights for Walker. This isn’t a call for Walker to take a spot in the starting lineup quite yet. Although that moment might not be too far off.
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The Spurs schedule is pretty friendly over the next few weeks. They play the Sacramento Kings on Friday at home but then get almost a week off. Their next game after that doesn’t come until Thursday the 12th against the Cleveland Cavaliers. This means plenty of practice time and plenty of opportunities for Walker to get even more comfortable than he already is.
Through the rest of December, the Spurs have a relatively easy schedule. They play the Rockets and Clippers again but other than that there aren’t any of the league’s top teams in their way. They also play the majority of their games at home. This is the perfect time to ramp up Lonnie’s minutes.
Walker has proven once and for all that he can be a star in the NBA. His two-way excellence last night is something that he’s more than capable of doing on a regular basis. It wouldn’t be at all surprising to see him take a permanent role in the Spurs starting lineup by January if he can maintain this level of play.
One game will not make or break the San Antonio Spurs season. While the win last night was nice, it’s just one of many that the Spurs need to pull off in order to get themselves back into the playoff hunt. But how they won the game should be analyzed and replicated. It’s just one game but it could serve as the catalyst for the turnaround we’ve all been hoping for.