Spurs patching up defense on the fly

By Jeff McDonald

PHILADELPHIA — A 14-point lead had vanished. The Memphis Grizzlies had awoken to take a six-point advantage heading into the fourth quarter. The Spurs were on the verge of a disheartening opening to their 10th annual rodeo road trip.

On the edge of unraveling Monday night in Memphis, Tenn., the Spurs called on an old friend.

Their defense saved them, holding the Grizzlies to just 11 points in the final frame as the Spurs rallied for an 89-84 victory they hope sets a tone for the rest of the nine-game trek.

“That’s what we’re going to have to bank on,” forward Tim Duncan said. “We’re not going to score a bunch of points every night.”

As their epic road jaunt continues tonight in Philadelphia, the Spurs know their defense is still light years from the unit that once strangled opponents en route to four NBA titles.

In truth, it might never get there.

Even so, there’s no disputing the Spurs are playing better defense now than they were on Jan. 10, when they shot 60 percent and lost at Milwaukee, causing coach Gregg Popovich to bemoan “the worst defensive team we’ve ever had.”

“I think we’re starting to understand the system a little better, taking a little more pride in it, becoming a little more consistent in execution,” Popovich said. “We’re making fewer mistakes in certain areas.”

Tonight in Philadelphia, where points are sure to come at a premium, the Spurs’ ability to keep the score low will be paramount. Under coach Doug Collins, the 76ers are allowing an NBA-best 86.64 points per game.

“Since I’ve been in San Antonio, we don’t have a good record in Philly,” said point guard Tony Parker, whose team has lost four straight in the City of Brotherly Love. “They always play well against us. We’re going to have to match their energy.”

Before the season, Popovich announced his intention to return the Spurs to the top echelon of NBA defensive teams. Twenty-one games in, that goal remains elusive.

The Spurs rank 24th in field-goal percentage defense, allowing opponents to shoot 45.3 percent. They are 12th in scoring defense (93.5 points per game).

Over the past eight games, however, the Spurs’ defense has shown palpable signs of life.

They didn’t surrender triple digits in regulation in any of those contests, limiting foes to 42.9 percent shooting and an average of 87 points.

With a handful of young players populating the rotation — including rookie forward Kawhi Leonard, third-year swingman Danny Green, and a pair of second-year players, center Tiago Splitter and guard Gary Neal — improvements have had to come almost exclusively on the fly.

“It’s almost all from playing, because there aren’t any practices,” Popovich said.

“While they’re playing, we’re coaching and teaching and making adjustments, and getting on them, and congratulating them, and getting on them — just so they understand what we’re looking for.”

Monday in Memphis provided the blueprint. Against the Grizzlies, the Spurs’ defense allowed them to hang on despite a nearly six-minute scoring drought in the third quarter.

The Spurs took control by holding Memphis without a point for the first 5:23 of the fourth quarter, then sealed the game when Duncan blocked Rudy Gay and Marc Gasol in the last 34 seconds.

With Memphis down three, Gay had a chance to tie, but his 3-pointer out of a timeout was well defended and hit nothing.

“We know the fourth quarter is where we need to focus on defense, make our stops,” Green said. “If we make our stops, we know we’ll be OK.”

The phrase “stops on demand” used to be a popular T-shirt slogan around the Spurs’ practice facility. Lately, that motto has seemed to go the way of “Where’s the Beef?”

If Popovich gets his wish, stops on demand might be back in style again.


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