The most difficult four-game stretch of the Spurs season began Saturday night at The AT&T Center against the Oklahoma City Thunder, a team with two dynamic All-Stars and a history of frustrating the Spurs over the past four seasons.
By the time the fourth quarter began the Spurs again were more than a tad irritated, but not because of anything the Thunder had done. This time, the vexation was self-inflicted: 2-for-18 shooting from 3-point range. Danny Green, one of the NBA’s best long-range shooters for the past five seasons, had taken eight 3-pointers and missed them all.
So if you are wondering how Green could find the fortitude to fire away from beyond the 3-point line with the score tied at 79 and a little more than seven minutes remaining in Saturday’s game, mark it up to Gregg Popovich’s philosophy of clutch shooting: Screw it.
Green’s ninth long-range attempt was a wide-open look from the left corner after Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook went for a steal of LaMarcus Aldridge’s pass. Without a moment’s hesitation Green launched the shot and finally got to see it settle in the bottom of the net, giving the Spurs their first lead of the second half and the spark that propelled them to a 93-85 win.
It was San Antonio’s 56th win of the season and Win No. 32, without a loss, on their home court. It came one year, to the day (plus an extra day for leap year), from the last time the Spurs dropped a regular season game at The AT&T Center, a 128-125 overtime loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Popovich tells all his players the same thing about battling their way through shooting slumps, and Green has had a few this season, including of late. He had made only 15-of-49 3-point attempts in the previous seven games, his season percentage dipping to 33.8 percent.
The Spurs coach stands firmly in Green’s corner, always there with an arm around his shoulder, always with the same message: Keep shooting, no matter how many you have missed.
“He’s a pro,” Popovich said after Green’s shot turned Saturday’s game, “and we made it clear to him there’s only two outcomes: It goes in or it doesn’t. But he still gets his paycheck, his family still loves him, so screw it. Let ‘em fly. And he did.”
There is no overstating how thoroughly Green appreciates his coach’s “Screw it” dictum.
“That’s one thing Pop and I agree on,” he said. “It helps a lot knowing he’s behind me and encouraging me that the next shot is going to go in. When you’ve got him telling me, ‘Don’t think about it just shoot,’ it’s easier to just play basketball.”
Green believed his defensive work against Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant, a former MVP and four-time league scoring champ, was more vital to the win than his 3-point shot. He did the bulk of the defensive work on Durant – reigning Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard got a fair share of Durant duty, as well – and helped limit him to 11-for-25 shooting.
“Our defense is what changed the game,” Green said. “We gave ourselves a chance. We didn’t shoot well at all, me in particular. But at that end of the floor, we got some stops and it kept us in the game until the fourth quarter when we actually got some shots to fall for us.”
Leonard, whose 26 points led the Spurs, also struggled from the 3-point line but followed Green’s big fourth-quarter triple with one of his own, his only make in six attempts.
As happy as the Spurs were to keep their home court record perfect for the season they understand their stretch of games against some of the Western Conference’s best teams is merely a good test to see where they stand before the playoffs begin.
“Sure, I think it’s important to be playing teams that you’re probably going to be playing in the playoffs at some point,” said Popovich. “But it’s about how you play, it’s not about the win or the loss, really. If we win, we won’t be that excited, and if we lose, we won’t be that depressed. It’s the same for every team, you’re going to go back to the film and see what you want to get better at, and look at players — who you really trust, who is going to be on the floor at the end of games come playoff time.
“Win or lose, it’s a matter of improving. That’s the deal.”
*Top Image: The San Antonio Spurs 2015-2016 Roster and Coaching Staff. Photo by Scott Ball.