When the San Antonio Spurs garnered five NBA championships beginning in 1998-1999 under Head Coach Gregg Popovich, its calling card was defense.
The Spurs, who were playing without small forward Kawhi Leonard, a two-time All-Star and NBA Finals Most Valuable Player in 2014, lead the league in fewest points allowed at 99, and after last Sunday’s 110-94 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena, it was the 34th time an opponent was held under 100.
San Antonio, which snapped a four-game losing streak, forged a 25-20 cushion entering the second quarter, but the Cavaliers moved in front 53-50 at halftime.
In the second half, the Spurs outscored the Cavaliers 60-41 and seized control.
“We just needed to keep shooting,” said power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who finished with a team-best 27 points along with six rebounds and three assists of the second half blitz. “We’re missing Kawhi, but the other players stepped up and did a good job.”
The others included shooting guard Danny Green, who made five of nine three-pointers and had 22 points, point guard Dejounte Murray (13 points with nine caroms and five assists), point guard Patty Mills (11 points with five assists) and point guard Bryn Forbes (12 points).
Popovich doesn’t think Leonard, the NBA’s two-time Defensive Player of the Year will be back this season after sustaining a right quadriceps injury.
The Spurs (36-25) marched ahead 59-55 with 8:02 left in the third quarter when center Pau Gasol (11 points with seven boards) delivered a slam dunk.
With 5:12 left in the period, small forward LeBron James, who had 13 rebounds with nine assists, cut the advantage to 65-61 on a layup.
San Antonio slithered ahead 76-74 entering the fourth quarter despite James, who had a game-high 33 points including 17 at the half, scoring 10 points.
Murray’s hoop with 10:19 left in the fourth quarter gave the Spurs (38 of 86 for 44.2 percent) an 83-74 edge.
A jam by James with 8:05 on the clock allowed Cleveland (35-24) to get within 89-79, but when Mills knocked in a three-pointer and 4:25 left, it became 99-88.
Cleveland (38 of 91 for 41.8 percent) drew within 11-9 and 7:11 showing in the first frame on a dunk from power forward Tristan Thompson (six points and 13 caroms) on an assist from James.
San Antonio lurched ahead 19-15 with 2:51 remaining after Aldridge sank a pair of free throws and when Forbes hammered in a trey at the buzzer, the Spurs, who converted nine of 19 from three-point range, bolted in front 25-20.
A trey by Forbes from the right corner and 7:21 showing in the second quarter made it 31-30 in favor of the Spurs.
Shooting guard J.R. Smith’s only points came on a 20-footer as the Cavaliers, who made eight of 34 three-pointers, led 41-37 with 3:54 left.
Rick Assad has written about sports for the Pasadena Star-News and Los Angeles Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.