LOS ANGELES — Gregg Popovich set the tone for his Spurs at the start of the team's five-game road trip, nearly as terse after beating the Clippers 116-113 as he was before.
San Antonio used a 28-3 run in the middle of the game to take a huge lead, but the Kawhi-led Clips stormed back in the second half. When asked what he saw on that run and what he told his team as Los Angeles chipped away, Pop simply said, "Keep playing."
Patty Mills scored a team-high 27 points for San Antonio off the bench, knocking down a career-high 8 threes with a couple of tremendous sequences. Mills said the success came from energy and focus on defense, fueling team play. He also said that Popovich's energy was palpable, and impactful.
"He sets the bar for us, intensity wise, which he shouldn't need to do, but I think he loves doing it," Mills said. "For us to see how ferocious he is, especially for the young boys to see that, it's contagious that way, and we've got a bunch of young guys that can really feed off that."
One of those young boys is Dejounte Murray, who bounced back from a really rough game in the loss against Utah. Murray put up 21 points, 5 assists and 5 rebounds with 2 steals, and he also credited Pop with lighting a fire under the whole team.
"He was really loud at shootaround, he went off on us, starting with me, he was on me, he was saying, 'I'm on your ass.' I love that, me as an individual I love that. I don't want nothing soft around me," Murray said. "I think that woke us up, like, 'yeah let's go play, let's go out and compete,' and it all translated to the game. We competed, and stayed focused, and won the game.
San Antonio flat out dominated to start the game, driven by stellar play from Keldon Johnson.
He started the game matched up with Kawhi Leonard, and the first pass to Leonard became a turnover. Johnson went at Leonard in pick and roll, getting past him and going up through Serge Ibaka, finishing on the second effort. He found Dejounte Murray in the corner for three, and overall looked spectacular.
An assist to Aldridge in the mid-range forced an LA timeout down 9-0 in the early going. The Clippers hit a three, then made the mistake of leaving Johnson open for an answer.
He scored or assisted on four of San Antonio's first five baskets. Leonard helped the Clippers fight back with a few jumpers in close, but Aldridge hit his third catch-and-shoot jumper of the game, looking crisp from mid-range.
Murray finished a tough layup through Kawhi, but the Nic Batum, Serge Ibaka and Lou Williams cut the San Antonio lead to 20-18. Lonnie Walker IV made a three, and after a few quick Clippers buckets Patty Mills hit one from the corner.
Rookie Devin Vassell got a chance to guard the wily vet Lou Williams who caught the kid with his hand in the cookie jar for three free throws, a learning experience for him. Kawhi ripped one of his signature steal and slam plays.
Patty Mills was feeling himself, hitting another two triples and a free throw before the end of the quarter. With 5.4 on the clock and Walker inbounding, he found Patty with an inch of space for his tenth straight point.
San Antonio held a 36-27 lead after the first.
Patty shared the wealth from range, hitting Vassell for a triple. Rudy Gay hit a jumper to make it a 15-0 San Antonio run.
Vassell showed that he immediately learned from Lou Will's tricks. In a similar situation, he got his hands back fast enough and baited Williams into an airball while trying to draw the same foul.
Vassell and Dejounte each forced a turnover, then Murray hit a jumper and an and 1 to push the Spurs lead to 52-30. A Lonnie layup made it a 24-point game, on a 28-3 run.
Dejounte Murray bounced back from his awful game against Utah with 15 first-half points, behind only the red-hot Mills with 17.
The defense was suffocating, the offense an unending barrage, and San Antonio took a 63-44 lead into the break. The Spurs hit 11-21 from deep, while LA managed just 3-17 and shot under 39% from the floor.
Kawhi Leonard started the second half on a mission, leading a 21-10 run to open the period. He hit a layup, a three, a mid-range shot, then assisted on three triples for his teammates.
Keldon Johnson did absolutely boom on him, though.
LaMarcus Aldridge hit a nice three off the bounce, and then drilled one off an extra pass from Keldon.
Leonard's dominance helped the Clippers rattle off a 40-22 quarter, which was changed to 39 and then changed back to 40 again, cutting their deficit to 85-84. He was brilliant, but played the first 11 minutes of the half and looked gassed afterward.
Los Angeles started the quarter by tying the game for the first time since 0-0, but it was short lived. Vassell drilled another three, and so did Rudy Gay. Vassell hit a transition and 1, then Gay hit a free throw and made an easy layup to push San Antonio's lead to 12.
Leonard game back with the Spurs up 10 and 7:44 remaining. Mills welcomed him to the game, then hit another, THEN A THIRD to give San Antonio a 111-96 lead with 5:14 left, a career high with 8 made threes. It also tied San Antonio's franchise record for made triples at 20.
Los Angeles fought back though with a 17-4 run. San Antonio missed some fantastic opportunities down the stretch, with Rudy Gay missing a dunk and an open three, then failing to secure a defensive rebound with a two-point lead.
Kawhi's Clips had 13.7 seconds to tie or take the lead, but Luke Kennard missed the three off a feed from Leonard and Los Angeles fouled. Mills went to the line with a chance to ice the game, but missed the first.
Kawhi only had 2 points in the fourth quarter, but you knew he was getting the ball with a chance to tie. DeRozan only had 6 points in the game, but he found himself guarding the man he was traded for and forced a miss with a nice contest at the buzzer.
For most having a rough time at work, taking a trip to California for a few days probably sounds lovely.
However, if your job is to win basketball games, and your trip to Los Angeles centers around playing the two teams that call Staples Center home, your trip probably won't be all palm trees and fish tacos. The San Antonio Spurs will try to start their five-game roadie off right when they face the Clippers and Kawhi Leonard on Tuesday night.
Gregg Popovich kept things short and curt in his pregame media availability, even by his standards. He wound up laughing at a joke about his mood, shaking his head and saying, "Four days in your room in LA, my goodness."
San Antonio will be without Derrick White, who in his season debut broke the same toe that he had offseason surgery on.
LaMarcus Aldridge has missed the last three with a sore knee, but he'll be available for this one. San Antonio missed his size and floor spacing against the Lakers and Jazz.
Even though the Spurs have lost four in a row, there wasn't a bad loss until they got smacked up by the Jazz 130-109. Utah made more threes than San Antonio attempted in that one, a poor performance all around. The defense in particular is the biggest area of concern for this team.
Leonard has continued to improve since leaving San Antonio, and he's pretty much a consensus top-5 player in the league. Right now he's averaging 22 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals and a block, though his shooting efficiency has been far below his standard.
Kawhi's season hit a bump in the, well, face, when teammate Serge Ibaka accidentally elbowed him in the jaw, leaving Leonard with stitches and wearing a face mask. He's ok, but he's shot 21-57 from the floor since then, including a 4-21 performance in their last game. Los Angeles nearly blew a 31-point lead in that tilt, but beat the Suns.
The 5-2 Clippers are definitely a dangerous team, but they also got completely clobbered by the Mavericks 124-73 in a game without Leonard. The 50-point halftime deficit was record-setting.
Paul George has started the season strong, averaging 25 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, and 2 steals while shooting a blazing 49% from deep. He's coming off 39 in that win over Phoenix. He was a late scratch in this one with an ankle, a huge break for San Antonio.
The Clippers are shooting 42% from deep as a team, second best in the NBA. The Spurs have given up 42% from deep to their opponents this year, second worst in the league. San Antonio does a good job of limiting the number of three-point attempts, but they'll need to focus on running guys off the line and contesting well. They saw plenty of tape on what not to do after that Jazz blowout.
Once again the biggest matchup in this game tonight for San Antonio is Keldon Johnson, who will likely spend a lot of time guarding Kawhi and PG-13. He's averaged 16 points, 7.5 boards, 2 assists, and 1.5 steals through six starts, while hitting 49% from the floor, 43% from deep and 86% from the line and defending the likes of Zion, Pascal Siakam and LeBron.
Johnson right now looks like a top-five player from the 2019 draft. He fell all the way to 29, where the Spurs selected him with the pick they acquired from Toronto when they traded away Leonard.
Keldon modeled his game after Kawhi and said before the draft that he was his favorite player. If he feels any way about facing off against him in this game, he won't say anything about it afterward. Like he did when asked about those matchups against Zion and LeBron, Johnson gave the smart, media-savvy answer that he doesn't care about the individual matchup and focuses on team goals.