Spurs fans got a televised peek at the post-Big Three era during a 110-90 Friday night win over the Trail Blazers at Portland’s Moda Center.
When Gregg Popovich sent Tony Parker back to San Antonio after Thursday’s loss to the Los Angeles Clippers so he could join Manu Ginobili and rest his legs for a Christmas Day game at AT&T Center, he was left with a roster missing the three players who all but defined the previous 15 Spurs seasons: Parker, Ginobili, and retired superstar Tim Duncan.
With new center Pau Gasol also sent home for rest, Popovich didn’t even have the player he had plugged in to retired big man Duncan’s starting spot.
It didn’t matter. The makeshift Spurs played a lot like the silver and black rosters that included the most successful trio in NBA history and ran their road record to 16-2, the best in the NBA. They are 26-4 overall, matching the 2010-11 Spurs for best record in franchise history after 30 games, and retain the second-best record in both the NBA and the Western Conference, trailing only the Golden State Warriors.
Popovich plugged two newcomers into the starting spots Duncan and Parker had occupied since 2001. DeWayne Dedmon, signed as a free agent in July, started for Gasol in Duncan’s former spot; 20-year-old rookie Dejounte Murray started at point guard in Parker’s stead.
Murray is seen as Parker’s eventual replacement, and he acquitted himself well in a matchup against Damian Lillard, one of the NBA’s best young point guards. In 20 minutes of playing time, the 6-foot-5 rookie from the University of Washington made 4-of-8 shots, scored a season high nine points, grabbed three rebounds and played solid defense against Lillard. The Portland point guard entered the game with a scoring average of 27.4 points per game, but Murray played a big part in limiting him to 16 points, on sub-par 7-for-19 shooting.
“(Dejounte) kept control of his emotions, obviously,” Popovich said in a postgame interviewed televised by FoxSports Southwest. “He wasn’t intimidated by anything and played a real solid game.”
Nobody expects Murray to supplant Parker as starting point guard until the veteran from France, who earned a starting role as a 19-year-old rookie, closes in on retirement. Games like Friday’s will help prepare Murray for the eventuality.
Meanwhile, the players who figure to define the Spurs’ near-term future were at their best against the Blazers, especially Kawhi Leonard. The All-NBA small forward made 9-of-15 shots, 5-of-7 3-pointers, all 10 of his free throws, and scored 33 points. It was his eighth game of at least 30 points this season.
Power forward LaMarcus Aldridge turned in perhaps his most complete game of the season. The former Trail Blazer scored 18 points. He also grabbed 14 rebounds, handed out six assists, and had three steals – all season highs.
“He’s in his second year and still playing with a lot of different players,” Popovich said. “He’s getting used to that and he wants to move (the ball) and be unselfish, but we have to remind him once in a while that he’s a heck of a scorer, and we don’t want him to forget about that. I thought he was much more aggressive tonight.”
Backup point guard Patty Mills, the team’s No. 4 scorer this season, matched Leonard’s 5-for-7 3-point shooting and matched his own season high of 23 points.
The victory was especially gratifying for the Spurs after a Thursday night loss to the Clippers in Los Angeles that turned Popovich grumpy as he lamented his team’s lack of focus for the full 48 minutes of that game.
Popovich’s mood was much brighter during a televised postgame interview on Friday.
“I thought we were excellent,” he said. “It was one of our better defensive performances and I thought we played with great intensity for 48 minutes.”
Mills also cited the choppy outing against the Clippers as the impetus for the team’s focus on Friday.
“It’s never easy back-to-back, especially with all the travel,” Mills said. “But we never like to make excuses. It was another opportunity for us to come out and get better, and I thought we did that.
“We were aggressive tonight. We didn’t like the effort we put up in L.A., so we came up here with a defensive mindset to lock those guys down. They’re a great team, shoot the ball really well, get to the rim and get to the foul line, and I thought defensively is where we won the game.”