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There are new faces, and the Spurs miss the old ones. An injury epidemic that hit the guard corps earlier this month in games that didn’t even count sapped a rebuilt roster of its depth and athleticism.
The Spurs have early-season excuses at the ready, if they are inclined to use them. They are not.
“New team, injuries, you can name all the excuses you want,” guard Patty Mills said. We just have to make sure that we don’t use those excuses as to why we are not playing the way we want to play.”
Saturday night at the AT&T Center, playing again against a LeBron James-led Lakers team in the middle of its own rebuilding project, the Spurs were good enough.
DeMar DeRozan posted his second monster game against the Lakers in less than a week, and the Spurs rode his 30 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists to a come-from-behind 110-106 victory.
The Spurs trailed out of the gate, and by as many as 14 points in the first half, and did not take their first lead until early in the fourth quarter.
Just as they did in a wild 143-142 overtime win at Staples Center, the Spurs pulled past the Lakers at the finish line.
DeRozan, for the second time in three home victories this season, provided the game’s most important points, hitting a jumper over Josh Hart to give the Spurs a four-point cushion with 16.2 seconds remaining.
“It’s going to be a process,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who logged his 1,200th career victory. “But they’re on the right track, learning to play with each other.”
Bryn Forbes added 16 points, and Rudy Gay chipped in another 16 off the bench as the Spurs (3-2) won their sixth straight against a James-led club.
The last time the four-time MVP defeated the Spurs was Jan. 30, 2016 as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
James had 35 points and 11 rebounds in Saturday’s rematch, but unlike in the shootout in Los Angeles, did not get as much help from the remainder of the roster.
The Spurs defense, much maligned early in the season, stepped up in the second half. The Lakers managed 46 points after half and 18 in the fourth quarter.
“That sort of thing is what we are used to,” Popovich said. “That’s really the first time this year that we’ve done that. If that will become a habit, we will have a good opportunity to win a lot of games.”
Coming into Saturday, the Spurs promised to do their best to cleanup the defensive miscues that had plagued that them to start the campaign.
Early on, it appears as if they would break that vow.
The Lakers (2-4) started out hot, hitting 70 percent of their shots in the first quarter and opening up a 14-point lead in the first half, lending the game an instant “here we go again vibe.” It felt not unlike how Indiana started in a 116-96 win at the AT&T Center on Wednesday.
“It’s just a matter of awareness,” said veteran center Pau Gasol, who finished with 11 points and 12 rebounds and sealed the game with a pair of foul shots with 2.4 seconds left. “How we can improve, understanding who you are playing, who you are guarding and then communicating. We have to communicate more on the floor to help each other out. Help one another recognize the coverages and what is going on out there, and that will help out a lot.”
After digging an early hole, the Spurs spent much of the rest of the game battling back, alternating big stretches from DeRozan, Gay and Forbes.
Forbes was first up.
The Lakers came into the night with Rajon Rondo coming off the suspended list and with something of a quarterback controversy at point. Lonzo Ball, who had played well during Rondo’s three-game absence, remained the starter Saturday.
Forbes, by contrast, was the Spurs’ third choice as the starter at point guard after the team suffered a rash of injuries at the position during the preseason.
The third-year guard was in the middle of the Spurs’ first big rally, scoring nine of the team’s first 13 points of the third quarter to help forge a tie at 71-71 after a DeRozan jumper.
“A lot of people were sparks,” Popovich said.
Popovich tweaked the starting lineup. As expected, defensive specialist Dante Cunningham started and drew James duty. In a surprise move, Popovich also started Davis Bertans at power forward, moving Gay to the bench.
The second of those lineup shifts lasted two quarters. When the second half began, Gay was back in the Spurs’ starting unit.
He rewarded Popovich with one of his best all-around games of the season. In addition to his shot-making, Gay contributed 10 rebounds and a pair of blocks.
“Rudy is a scorer, he can score,” Popovich said. “He came in did a good job.”
The Spurs grabbed their first lead of the night 1:55 into the final frame, when DeRozan put back his own miss for a 93-91 edge.
When Gay knocked home a jumper with 1:35 to go, it put the Spurs up by eight, their largest lead.
The Lakers, and James, wouldn’t go quietly. The game wasn’t over until Gasol rebounded Hart’s missed foul shot, drew a foul of his own in the scrum, and hit the game’s final two free throws.
“We definitely still got to have that urgency on what we need to do on that defensive end,” Mills said. “The things that we can improve massively are the discipline things, the effort plays and the communication. That shouldn’t take long at all, to be honest.”
Another victory over James in the book, the Spurs left the AT&T Center over .500 again and with excuses only an afterthought.