Phoenix Suns (4-5) vs. Spurs (5-4)
When, where: 6 p.m., Sunday, AT&T Center
Season series: First meeting
Last meeting: Suns 108, Spurs 105, Jan. 14, 2017, Phoenix
Spurs’ last game: Beat Hornets 108-101, Friday, AT&T Center
Suns’ last game: Lost to Knicks 120-107, Friday, New York
Notable: Manu Ginobili has more wins (728) in his first 1,000 games than any other player in NBA history. Tony Parker (718), Scottie Pippin (715) and Tim Duncan (707) follow.
SAN ANTONIO – Nobody said it would be easy.
The Spurs knew going in that it would be a challenge playing without All-NBA Kawhi Leonard and veteran point guard Tony Parker, both still sidelined as they rehab quad injuries.
After starting the season 4-0, reality set in and with it came a four-game skid. The Silver and Black broke out of their funk with a 108-101 victory against the Charlotte Hornets on Friday night, avoiding their first 4-5 start since the 2009-10 season.
They reach the midway point of their six-game homestand Sunday when they play the Phoenix Suns (4-5). It started with a 112-92 loss to defending league champion Golden State on Thursday night.
The Spurs have struggled to find their offensive rhythm without Leonard, their best playmaker, and Parker’s leadership on the floor.
San Antonio ranks 26th in the league in points per game (98.6), 27th in field-goal percentage (42.9) and 24th in three-point shooting percentage (32.7).
“It hasn’t really gone great so far on the offensive end,” forward/center Pau Gasol said after the win over Charlotte. “Again, we’ve got to rely on our defense to help us win games at this point and then build on our offense and find ways to score with a higher percentage and more efficiently.”
Gasol said that the team’s lack of offensive cohesion has made it more important to play hard-nosed defense.
“It’s got to be a complete game both ends of the floor, especially on the defensive end,” Gasol said. “That’s where you’ve really got to be accurate, sharp, focused, disciplined.”
After the win over the Hornets, the Spurs expressed hope that the victory would be a springboard to better things as they continue working to adapt to a new starting lineup and different combinations on the court as the game goes on.
“It’s important, especially at home now that we’ve got this homestretch, to capitalize and get as many wins as possible,” Gasol said.
Coach Gregg Popovich had a blunt assessment of the Silver and Black when he spoke with reporters before Friday night’s game.
“We’re a mediocre team,” he said. “We’re an average team. That means that everything we do is a little good, a little bad.”
Leonard and Parker have yet to play this season, and backup forward/center Joffrey Lauvergne, who had a strong preseason, has missed the last six games with a sprained ankle. Parker could be back by mid-November, but Popovich hasn't given a timetable for Leonard's return.
Popovich acknowledged that developing younger players quicker to bolster the team’s depth with Leonard and Parker out, has been challenging.
“That’s part of it,” Popovich said. “Having some good players gone always hurts. Young players who have to learn take time, so it’s been a different combination. Lots of things to learn. We’ve started out poorly before.”
The 2009-10 team that started 4-5 went on to finish 50-32, continuing the franchise’s record streak of 50-win seasons.
Starting point guard Patty Mills and the Spurs’ bench led the way in the win over the Hornets.
Mills had made only 1 of 5 shots and scored five points in the first three quarters before he got hot in the final period. He scored 12 consecutive points on four three-pointers in a span of 4 minutes, 11 seconds to give the Spurs the spark they needed to put away Charlotte.
“We didn’t play a great game,” Manu Ginobili said. “We needed Patty to get hot with those threes, and make a few good plays. I think we should have played better still. But at this point, we’ll take the W. We’ll try to keep improving the next game.”
Mills’ first three put the Silver and Black up 97-89 with 4:55 left, and his last one made it 106-98 with 34 seconds remaining. Mills finished with 17 points on 5-of-7 shooting from the field, including 4 of 7 from beyond the arc. He had struggled with his three-point shot in the Spurs’ first eight games, making only 8 of 30 attempts (26.6 percent).
“At this point, without Kawhi and without Tony, we’ll take points from whoever is ready to give them to us,” Ginobili said. “Today it was Patty and Rudy and Bryn. We’re at a point where we need buckets, and Patty, Bryn and Rudy were great today.”
Second-year pro Bryn Forbes came off the bench to lead with Silver and Black with 22 points, hitting 8 of 11 shots. He went 3 of 5 from the three-point line.
Rudy Gay (20), Ginobili (10) and Dejounte Murray (10) also sparked a bench that outscored the Hornets’ reserves by a whopping 64-16 margin. LaMarcus Aldridge, the team’s leading scorer this season, had 14 points and was the only other Spur in double figures.
“Huge, important,” Gasol said of the bench’s contribution. “We’re going to need our bench players to come in and contribute. Bryn was great, Rudy was great. We’re going to need those guys to produce, and get us that boost of energy, points, defense, whatever it might be on a particular night.”
Up next for the Spurs after Sunday's game: vs. Los Angeles Clippers, Tuesday, 7:30 p.m.
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