One of the marquee games of the NBA calendar takes place on Thursday, as the Toronto Raptors face off against the Spurs in Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green’s returns to San Antonio, where the pair won a title and Leonard took home Finals MVP honors in 2014. This will also be the first time DeMar DeRozan plays against the Raptors since the trade, but that will be more important when the Spurs play in Toronto on Feb. 22.
A few weeks ago, that would have been the end of the intrigue. The Spurs had fallen to the bottom of the pack of the 14 Western Conference playoff hopefuls, and over 20 years of Gregg Popovich magic appeared to have run its course.
How quickly the tables have turned.
Since Dec. 1, San Antonio has the second best point differential (points scored per 100 possessions minus points allowed) in the league at plus-10, per Cleaning the Glass, which would equate to a 64-win team. They’re doing it in a very un-Spurs way, by being an average defense but playing the best offense in the league. Popovich’s team is scoring 118 points per 100 possessions, essentially the equivalent of getting to play the New York Knicks every night.
During this stretch, San Antonio has the best effective field goal percentage of all 30 teams. That seems perfectly in line with a dominant offense, but how the Spurs are doing it is remarkable. Popovich made waves earlier this season when he again expressed his disdain for the three-point shot; his team has followed through by shooting the second-fewest percentage of three pointers in the league — only 25.9 percent of San Antonio’s shots are from deep. The Spurs have also taken the fewest percentage of their shots at the rim (24.2 percent) which leaves almost half of their shots coming in the midrange, which easily leads the NBA in the past month.
Any defense playing San Antonio would be thrilled to force that type of shot distribution. The average team takes about a third of its shot in each zone, and the Spurs are skewing away from that in the least analytics-friendly way possible. But at the end of the day, they’re simply making shots wherever they take them. Since Dec. 1, San Antonio is leading the league in field goal percentage at every spot on the floor: at the rim, floater range, long mid-range, corner threes, and non-corner threes. It has to be so frustrating to play against the Spurs — the defense concedes the worst possible shots, and San Antonio is canning all of them, anyway.
The Spurs have had this shot distribution all season, but have seen a strong uptick in their shooting percentages at the rim and in long midrange to lead to their offensive explosion. The shot chart is almost incomprehensible.
San Antonio also is taking care of the ball at the best rate in the NBA, and the only thing they don’t do particularly well on offense is rebound, which feels unnecessary when the team doesn’t miss any shots. It’s a rather complete offensive machine, one that features contributions from every player on the roster.
Of the Spurs’ nine-man rotation, every single one of them has a positive net rating in the last month, according to NBA.com. The lowest is DeRozan, who still sports a plus-5.5 net rating. That means that no matter what lineup San Antonio puts on the floor, the team can expect that unit to build a lead. For example, a bench grouping that includes both Jakob Poeltl and Davis Bertans, a two-big lineup that should theoretically have a lot of difficulty scoring, is instead a dynamo. Bertans has an effective field goal percentage of 75.6 percent since Dec. 1, Poeltl is at 62.5 percent, and Marco Belinelli — who is at his best when playing for Popovich or one of his disciples — is at 61.9 percent, zipping around the screens and being a general pest who can’t miss.
It doesn’t really matter that the Spurs have surrendered much of their defensive identity with Leonard and Green gone and Dejounte Murray sidelined with a torn ACL. Derrick White provides enough resistance at the point of the attack, and San Antonio has enough interior length, if not athleticism, trusting that its time-honored tradition of defending without fouling will continue. Mostly, the team is allowing its fantastic offense to demoralize opponents, and it’s working well enough. A low turnover rate means fewer transition opportunities, and it’s hard to score against a set defense.
Even with all these offensive fireworks, the Spurs sit in eighth place in the Western Conference, barely a playoff team yet equally close to hosting a first-round series. They may not belong in the class of contenders that the Raptors currently reside in, but they’ve managed to figure out the sum of their pieces to provide a formidable challenge on any given night. It’s unreasonable to expect this level of shooting to hold, but stranger things have happened in San Antonio, like the team going against Leonard after expecting him to be the face of the franchise.
Toronto and the rest of the league should take note. After all these years, it is still too early to count out the Spurs.