The Spurs had to endure another game without Kawhi Leonard, who’s still nursing a case of gastroenteritis; but it was the Portland Trail Blazers who left the AT&T Center with a stomachache after a 110-94 loss to San Antonio Friday night.
The Blazers jumped out to a 13-point lead with seven minutes remaining in the second quarter, even with Damian Lillard out of the lineup due to the sprained ankle he suffered against the Spurs in Portland on Dec. 23. But from there, San Antonio ran roughshod over the shorthanded visitors, outscoring the Blazers 83-54 over the final 31 minutes of the game.
The biggest difference came on the defensive end, where the Spurs buckled down after allowing 32 first quarter points.
“We stopped letting them walk around and run their offense,” Jonathon Simmons said after the game in which he dropped a team-high 19 points. “We got into guys and got a little more aggressive on the defensive end, which opened it up for us on the offensive end.”
Playing without Leonard is a chore, considering he’s one of the NBA’s elite players on both ends of the floor. But the Spurs are well versed in picking up the slack when it needs lifting, Simmons said.
“It’s just a mindset of, ‘Hey, other guys have to pick it up and do what it takes to win ball games.’”
To the average NBA viewer, the offensive end – points, rebounds, assists, etc. – is where the absence of a superstar is most noticeable, but Leonard is a rare breed. His impact defensively is matched by few, if any, players around the league. Two consecutive Defensive Player of the Year trophies should supply sufficient evidence of that.
Making up for the void on that side of the ball takes some work, in particular from Leonard’s perimeter running mate, though Danny Green said the change probably isn’t as large as one might think.
“Not much different…(I) probably guard their main guys a little more. Me and (Leonard) usually alternate on those guys most of the game anyway,” he said. “All of us as a group have to pick it up to kind of fill those shoes of what he’s capable of doing. He takes up a lot of space on the court, gets a lot of 50-50 balls and deflections and loose balls.
“We’ve got to, as a group, find a way to take up that space,” he continued. “Kyle (Anderson) does a good job. He’s very long, active with his hands. (Simmons) comes in and does a good job. You can’t just do it with one person.”
The team won’t be without Leonard much longer – obviously a good thing. But the Spurs continue to chug along through the league’s winter dog days, even without one of their star players. It’s difficult to stay consistent in the NBA, but even without someone like Tim Duncan ruling the locker room, San Antonio continues to do what it’s always done in that regard – Even to the surprise of some.
“Yeah, I’d say (it’s surprising), given we haven’t been consistently playing our best basketball. But we’re fighting,” Green said. “We fought for a couple of wins we probably shouldn’t have. We haven’t been playing great basketball consistently, so I am a little surprised.”
San Antonio’s attack was balanced Friday night without its top option, as five players (Simmons, Green, Manu Ginobili, Pau Gasol, and Tony Parker) scored in double figures. That was vital to the team’s success, because LaMarcus Aldridge was double-teamed as the primary focus of the Spurs’ offense all night. With so much attention being paid to the big man, the passing lanes were open and the outside looks were clean, but he only had eight points on 2-of-3 shooting in nearly 30 minutes of action.
The Spurs took advantage, hitting 11-of-22 from deep and 50% from the floor on the night.
“They double-teamed him all the time, so you can pretty much take a player out of the game if you do that. Especially the big guys – it’s easy to do that with the big guys,” Gregg Popovich said. “So they decided to do that, and he did a good job getting rid of the ball when he figured it out.
“He got a lot of guys open 3s, so he did what he is supposed to do.”
That’s what the Spurs have always done – what they’re supposed to.