One of the biggest concerns that Gregg Popovich had throughout the early part of the season was his struggling defense.
At one point, Popovich ripped his current players for the worst defensive effort during his coaching tenure.
And that might have been the case when the Spurs were singed for 58.2 percent in an earlier loss to Miami, 50.6 percent and 55.7 percent in losses to Houston and 50.6 percent to lowly New Orleans. That game might have been the low point as they allowed the Hornets to top 100 points for the first time all season in a narrow two-point victory.
Since that game, the Spurs have played noticeably better. Only one team has topped 100 points during the last six games. The Spurs have limited opponents to an average of 86 points and 43.2 field goal shooting after permitting an average of 96.4 points and 46.3 percent in the first 18 games of the season.
And the Spurs’ defense in their most recent game against New Orleans was much improved as they held the Hornets to 44.6 shooting in an impressive 93-81 victory Thursday night at the ATT Center.
San Antonio was particularly strong in the fourth quarter, limiting the Hornets to 13 points and 28.6 percent. Both totals ranked among their best this season in fourth-quarter defense.
“I think we had a great run as our defense stepped up a little bit,” Spurs forward Tiago Splitter said.
It’s ben a nice run. But the Spurs will be tested against an Oklahoma City team that ranks among the top three teams offensively in scoring and field-goal percentage.
It will be a truer test for San Antonio’s defense than any previous game in the recent surge.
Among the highlights of the victory over the Hornets include the following.
Game analysis: The Spurs finally broke away in the fourth quarter after a gritty start against an undermanned New Orleans team missing its top two scoring threats in Jarrett Jack and Eric Gordon.
Where the game was won: The Spurs blew the game open with a 14-2 run late in the third quarter and early in the fourth quarter. It started on Gary Neal’s 3-pointer to close the third quarter and also included four points and three assists from Tony Parker — one a behind-the-back pass to Matt Bonner for a clutch 3-pointer to cap the run.
Closing it out: The Spurs defense punctuated the victory by limiting New Orleans without a point for more than five minutes at the end of the game. After Trevor Ariza’s 3-pointer pulled the Hornets within 84-77 with 6:01 left, they missed their next eight shots with two turnovers before Carl Landry hit a jumper to pull them to 93-79 with 43.4 seconds left.
Player of the game I: We again saw Tim Duncan inside more, resulting in more shots around the basket en route to game-high totals of 19 points and nine rebounds. Unlike his season-best 28-point effort against the Hornets on Jan. 23, Duncan was a beast in the paint.
Player of the game II: Parker notched 18 points, grabbed five rebounds and dished off seven assists. He scored only two points in the first half, but finished with a flourish with eight points and four assists in the fourth quarter.
Player of the game III: Landry kept New Orleans close for most of the game with 17 points on 8 of 12 shooting, although he was limited to only two points in the fourth quarter.
Most unsung: Splitter’s work with Parker was critical in the fourth quarter. It helped him score seven of his 16 points in the quarter to help put the game away as they abused New Orleans’ defense with a steady dose of pick-and-roll plays.
Did you notice I: The Spurs had surprising difficulty running their offense, picking up two 24-second violations and nearly picking up another one. They had difficulty at times getting a shot up quickly in the possession and at times resulted for poor choices at the end of the possession.
Did you notice II: Like in the past several games, the Spurs’ lineup in crunch time late in the fourth quarter has Duncan and Splitter playing together. They were together for a closing 8-0 spurt that put the game away.
Stat of the game: After missing 14 of their first 15 3-pointers, the Spurs finished by hitting three of their last four 3-point shots.
Stat of the game II: The Spurs limited New Orleans to 13 points in the fourth quarter. It was the lowest total this season for the Spurs except for 12 points allowed at Minnesota on Jan. 2.
Stat of the game III: New Orleans was limited to 28.6 percent in the fourth quarter, enduring scoring droughts of 3:19 and 5:18 during the quarter.
Stat of the game IV: New Orleans starting forwards Ariza and Jason Smith clanked through a combined 4 for 21 shooting night and were limited to 11 points.
Stat of the game V: Since going 0 for 2 Jan. 5 against Dallas, Splitter has hit 69.7 percent from the field over his last 17 games. He was 7 for 9 against New Orleans Thursday night.
Weird stat of the game: Before the fourth quarter, the largest lead for either team was four points.
Not a good sign: DeJuan Blair missed several easy jumpers as he went 1 for 6 from the field and scored only three points. He’s averaging 3.6 points and shooting 33.3 percent in his last five games.
Best plus/minus scores: Splitter was plus-13, and Duncan, Neal and Danny Green all were plus-11.
Worst plus/minus scores: James Anderson and Kawhi Leonard were the only Spurs were minus-4 — the only Spurs with negative scores.
Quote of the game: ”He was wicked spry,” Bonner , on the recent athleticism exhibited by 35-year-old Tim Duncan.
How the schedule stacks up: The Spurs will meet Oklahoma City, the NBA team with the best record, Saturday night at the ATT Center. They then embark for the Rodeo Road Trip with starting games Monday night in Memphis and Wednesday in Philadelphia. New Orleans travels Saturday to Detroit before home games Monday against Sacramento, Wedneday against Chicago and Feb. 10 against Portland.
Injuries: Manu Ginobili missed his 19th game (Spurs record 12-7) after undergoing surgery for a fractured fifth left metacarpal. T.J. Ford missed his 14th game (Spurs record 9-5) with a torn left hamstring. New Orleans played without leading scorers Gordon (right knee contusion) and Jack (sore knee).