San Antonio Spurs 109, Denver Nuggets 103: Coach Pop thought the defense was terrible, so he went zone for the win


AT&T CENTER — When you hate something enough, change it up. That was what Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich thought on Wednesday night at the AT&T Center. Coach Pop couldn’t stand the defense being played by his Spurs, so in the third quarter he switched it up and put San Antonio in a zone.

The result was a fourth quarter that saw the Spurs outscore the Nuggets 29-14 en route to a 109-103 win.

“Our defense was awful on an individual basis and we weren’t getting anywhere,” Coach Pop said after the game. “So I was tired of begging, then we went to zone.”

Nuggets guards Chauncey Billups and Ty Lawson seemingly got to the basket at will against the Spurs in the first half. Billups had 20 points and Lawson 22, both big contributors to the Nuggets 46 points in the paint for the game.

In the second half, the Spurs switched up their defenses on the Nuggets, appearing to go zone after made baskets and man-to-man following misses. This cut off driving lanes for the Nuggets guards, but still allowed several open 3-pointers. Luckily enough, Denver shot just 8-25 (32%) from behind the arc.

“I’ve had a lot of battles against [the Spurs] and have never really known them to play zone,” Nuggets guard Chauncey Billups said. “Pop is a great coach and he knew that man-to-man wasn’t working tonight.

“We were just kind of having our way.”

If the Nuggets would have won, those words would sting a lot more than they actually do.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the performances of Tiago Splitter and Gary Neal. Neal continued his excellent offensive play in the absence of George Hill, who sat out his third straight game with a sprained toe, by scoring 22 points on 7-12 from the field (5-7 from 3). Neal hit several big shots in the second half for San Antonio. Perhaps his biggest shots came with less than two minutes left in the game and the Spurs clinging to a one-point lead.

Neal hit a 3-pointer to give the Spurs a 105-101 lead and, two possessions later, he pulled-up from about 10 feet away from the basket for a jumper in transition, giving the Spurs a 107-101 lead. From there, it was just a matter of running time off the clock and hitting free throws. And playing solid defense, of course, that should go without saying.

“My confidence level is pretty high,” Neal said after the game. “Tomorrow morning when we watch film, I’m pretty sure Coach Pop will burst that bubble.”

Regarding Splitter, the “rookie” big man scored 12 points on 6-7 from the field and came one rebound shy of his first double-double in silver and black, pulling down nine on the night. Splitter also looked much more comfortable on the offensive end than I commented on earlier this week.

“I think everything needs time,” Splitter said postgame. “I’m getting used to the system and my teammates are getting used to me.”

It used to be, when the Big 3 finished a game shooting in the neighborhood of 14-35, like they did against the Nuggets, San Antonio was doomed. Times are a-changing, though. And this Spurs team has some fire power. It’ll be interesting to see what these Spurs look like when they’re at full strength and firing on all cylinders.

  • NYC


  • NYC

    Did anyone else find it surreal when we started the 4th with four pale, white guys on the floor? And we were totally beating the other team. Probably cause they only had one white guy.

    Quinn = win!

  • Matt in OC

    Sorry, I didn’t see the game because I was at work, but when you said that Neal gave the spurs a 105-101 lead with a 3 and then a 106-101 lead with a 10 foot jumper, I don’t understand.

    Was it a typo, or did he get fouled and go 1-2?

  • jason

    Typo… He had five points in that span, I donÞ know the overall score then

    What was most noticeable about this win to me was how long tim duncan sat on the bench to start the fourth quarter. A close second would be that for the run in which we took control of the game the spurs were playing 3 rookies: quin, splitter, and neal. And our rookie with possibly the most potential – james anderson – is injured. The spurs have a bright future inteed

  • Flavor

    Matt in OC: typo… He made the two shots.

  • junierizzle

    Finally some FIRE POWER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Last season they were put out by the SUNS because there was virtually no help for the Big 3. It was frustratin watching Manu set up the team with wide open shots only to be clanked.

    Well so far the shots are falling this season!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • td4life

    for the record, Quinn is not a rookie, and in fact has started several dozen games.

    Real Deal Neal though, 44 points in two games, I think game highs in scoring both nights… awesomeness.

    I’m really hoping the guys don’t slip up in these next two, and can grab a 27 – 3 start. Regardless of what happens in the West though, I think Boston finishes with the league’s best record. Amazing run without Rondo.

  • spursPH

    Maybe he was saying that quinn was a rookie as a spur.

  • Hicksman

    Was great too see Splitter getting some quality minutes beside Timmey and with the first unit. This will be crucial in his development with that unit when the time comes to go big. Really looking forward to seeing the return of Mr Anderson who was shooting jumpers in the warm-up?? Anyone got any progress update?

  • duaneofly

    I’m loving Neal, he’s been one hell of a pick up for us. Also great seeing Tiago get some extended burn. Hopefully he’ll continue to get minutes and play well.

  • Nima K.

    I got a close look at the game from a front row seat. The only player pop seemed happy and satisfied with was Quinn. He was running around everywhere. I even saw Pop angrily yell a couple of times at Parker. Neal though was awesome. He led the team to victory IMO. He and Quinn had the right attitude. Overall, it seemed the Nuggets were putting more effort into the game than we did. Our guys looked relatively relaxed and casual. I dont know if that’s a good thing or not. Splitter played well, but he wasnt focused enough. You could tell he’s still trying to fit in. And what’s with Anderson and Hill wearing suits and neckties? They looked pretty sharp.

  • Mr Robinson

    Being a Spurs fan in PA for the past 20 years is tough and I just wanted to say thanks for this website because it is hard to get anything about the Spurs on ESPN. This is probably the deepest team I have ever seen and every time I go to ESPN it is all about the Fakers, Heat, Celtics, or Mavs. When the Spurs get a win streak going there is hardly any mention of it. If any of the other teams win 2 in a row it is big news according to ESPN. I would say that the Celtics are the only other team right now that may be better but only time will tell. I am so sick of everyone saying that we have not beaten the best teams. They have not beaten us either because we haven’t played (other than the low class Mavs) which are always close games and can go either way.
    The defense we are playing scares me but I am starting to believe with the depth of scorers on this team that our defense may not have to be as good as it has been in the past to win it all. If you don’t believe that the Spurs are for real you will when they do it one more time in the Duncan era as long as Duncan, Parker, Jefferson and Bat Manu are healthy.
    Even if we only beat the Lakers in the playoffs I would be satisfied with watching Kobe cry on the bench again like he did when we ended their rain of terror after winning three in a row. The mental image of that always makes me smile. It is easy to get a man angry but a lot harder to make a man cry and I think this team is capable of making many opponents cry like babies. Bring on the championship and bring on the tears.

  • ITGuy

    Great win.

    Go Spurs Go!!

  • mjs2377

    I love the fact that we are playing great. during the denver game last night I had that feeling that nobody can beat us. The same feeling I had in 99 when we ripped everybody a new one in the playoffs. But I have to keep telling myself that we have not played the elite yet. We have only played dallas once and we lost. Boston,LA,Dallas,Heat we have not played yet. That being said. If we beat LA and Dallas next week. WOW!!! By the way love the sight.

  • Andrew A. McNeill

    @ Matt in OC, jason and Flavor

    Typo on my part, sorry about that. Varner corrected it for me.


    James Anderson has the walking boot off of his foot, so that’s good. But Coach Pop said yesterday that Anderson is still only working out on the gravity machine, where there’s no impact on his foot. Still a week or two away from actually running and what not.

  • DC Spurs

    NBA TV finally gave some love to the Spurs. I think it was Kenny Smith that was surprised no one else was really talking about the Spurs and giving them more attention. He said if the Lakers or the Heat had the Spurs’ incredible record, there would be talk of 70 wins. I don’t mind that the Spurs are flying under the radar…in fact I think it’s been more fun and exciting! Go Spurs Go!

  • SG

    I love it…

  • SG

    Neal is so impressive…if he can play like this in the playoffs against top teams…wow!

    I really like our backcourt now. Best in the league by far.

    Parker – Hill
    Manu – Neal

    Every game is ~ 45-50 pts from these four guys.

    If RJ keeps it up and JA gets back, our SF position is one of the best too ~ 20 pts.

    That leaves the mystery of 4 + 5….we have so much untapped potential in Splitter.

  • George

    We all have that feeling now that when the spurs are down in the game, we always see that clutch manu step back, or bonner with the rainbows, or timmy’s bank or two dribble right hook, or jeff’s alley oop dunks…i didnt have that feeling like we had last year of uncertainty in the game…if i feel the confidence im sure the spurs due in a game when their down that they can still take a game no matter what the score is

  • DieHardSpur

    Wow. No love for the Red Rocket. He hit a big three to start the 4th, and another later… regardless what you guys say, Matty is earning his 3.7 million so far this year. His defense is better, his hustle is better, his clutch is better, and his rebounding is better. He deserves the 20 minutes POP is giving him.

    This team is scary deep. If Tiago can come off the bench and produce like this consistently, we will have the deepest team in the league for sure.

    Here’s to a good ol’ Texas ass whuppin to go down in Orlando tonight.

    Merry Christmas all!

  • ribanez1

    Splitter’s play last night is a sign of better things to come for the Spurs if the give him more playing time. The Spurs with Parker, Manu, Neal, Hill and Anderson returning will be tough out against anybody in a 7 game series

  • badger

    At the beginning of the season, or perhaps a little before, I had posted that I was hoping that Neal could be like Ben Gordon was when he was a Chicago Bull. That is the kind of shot in the arm the Spurs lacked last year.

    By the time the playoffs begin, NBA fans will know damn well who Gary Neal is. I am really happy the guy never gave up and now his NBA dreams are finally coming true. Happy Holidays Gary Neal!!!

  • td4life


    I’ll admit it. When the Spurs were struggling to get the lead back, my brain, of it’s own accord, kept telling me, “Matt Bonner to the rescue, guaranteed: wait and see.” I have no control over these things, but I didn’t fight it one bit. I also had total belief that Tiago would continue to make things happen once he and Tony were in there together, and I was happy to see the other guys playing off him once Tony left the game. But Neal, who I had lots of confidence in, but at the same time didn’t know if he would cool off after the previous game, made me clap and woot the loudest.

  • irongiantkc

    Is it just me or does it seem like Pop is taking advantage of the turmoil on the other teams to get in extra time for the reserves and for Tiago? It’s like he’s treating these games like scrimmages. The amazing thing is the Spurs are so talented that they’re winning anyway.

    A quick word about defense. It is good that Pop stresses it so much, but our defense doesn’t really scare me. With a greater focus on the fast break and three point shooting (creating long rebounds and fast break opportunities for opponents), possession times will go down and the number of possessions will go up. For both teams. It’s just inevitable that the scores of opponents would rise when they have more possessions to work with. I think Pop is having to look really hard for stuff to gripe about right now. What’s he gonna complain about…team chemistry?

  • Kintaro

    – At one point, either Billups or Smith tried to draw a shooting foul on Bonner from the 3PT line. They had already done it I believe once to both Parker and Neal. Bonner was playing really aggressive on the top of the key, using his hands to crowd the offensive player’s space. Suddenly, the player went into his shooting motion, but Bonner displayed lightning quick reflexes and pulled both his hands back. The 3PT missed badly and the Spurs secured the rebound. So far, it’s my favorite defensive sequence from Bonner.

    – Favorite Tiago sequence would be a tie, between all of them. But I especially liked how he kept his balance when the Birdman tried to pull the chair out from under him in the post. Most “rookies” would have fell on their ass but Tiago turned it into a righty lay in.

    – I know Smith made that cool 360 layup once, but after he tried that same move like two or three times afterwards, it felt great to be a Spurs fan and not a Nuggets fan. The mindsets of these two organizations couldn’t be more different.

  • Andrew A. McNeill

    @ Kintaro

    That play was Bonner matched up on JR Smith. Smith jacked up the bad 3, trying to get the foul, but Bonner didn’t bite. On the other end, Smith was matched-up on Bonner on the perimeter. Bonner drove on Smith and drew a foul. Just a surreal sequence of events.

  • jwalt

    I wonder what the opposing team’s FG pct. is when Blair plays as opposed to when he doesn’t. It seems to me that when he is in the other team juar goes to town. But I know it might be just my perception. But Blair just seems to cost the team too many times on the defensive end.

    And if that stat is kept (FG% of the other team, on court vs. off), I would bet that Duncan and Hill are the two leaders on the team, and that Blair is last.

    I’m more convinced than ever that Splitter needs to play, and that Blair is the 5th best big on the team.

    Oh, and Manu once again had the highest +/- score last night, and was the only starter who had a positive score. His leading the second unit brilliantly, getting Bonner, Neal, and others open looks.

  • TD = Best EVER

    Great Game all around – NEED to see a little more D from our perimeter guys – Our Smalls had to keep scoring because they were giving up every bit as much on the other end of the floor…………. But a WIN is a WIN and Its good to see Splitter and Bonner both play well….. At this point I EXPECT Neal to do his thing……. A great shooter with confidence

  • jwalt

    best EVER — did you notice my compliment of Timmy in my post?

  • rob

    Back from a trip. Didn’t get to watch the past 3 games.

    But wholly guacamole…Spurs with best record in the league. Got to watch the 4th period of this game.

    The rest of the league has got to take notice of how the Spurs can send out a variable set of on court players at any time during the game to match, defend or score against what they are going against.

    Pop made it sound as though he was frustrated with the man on man D, finally subcombing to zone only as a last ditch effort. But i.m.o., it was a planned execution all along. Intermidiate changes from man to zone throughout a game keeps opponents on guard and does not allow them to operate as effectively throughout an entire game.

    Props to Pop for interjecting the change at the appropriate time knowing it was going to be a tough game all along.

    What to do about the legit backcourt log jam once Anderson is cleared to return and Splitter with a nice game? How to create playing time for all the good players on this team seems to be the toughest thing that has to be decided.

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  • Hobson13

    December 23rd, 2010 at 12:24 pm
    “What to do about the legit backcourt log jam once Anderson is cleared to return and Splitter with a nice game? How to create playing time for all the good players on this team seems to be the toughest thing that has to be decided.”

    Incorporating Anderson shouldn’t be that hard. Pop should just let Udoka ride the pine and allow James to spell RJ for 12-15 minutes/game at the SF position. This will keep RJ fresh and allow Anderson to get some playing time. In all honesty, our team is super deep, but with Hill AND James out, it does make us a bit vulnerable. Hill is perhaps our best perimenter defender and his loss forces Quinn and Neal to play (and defend) for even longer (hence our defensive lapses against the Nuggets).

    Massaging the minutes of the entire team sure is has been an undertaking this year with so many young guys wanting to play minutes and several of the older guys trying NOT to play so many minutes. Anyway, let’s hope we can get a win against the Magic tonight. Go Spurs!!

  • SpursfanSteve


    it seems to me that the majority of shots Blair gives up are midrange jumpers. Those are the shots we want the other team taking. If they make them, thats fine- so long as Blair is contesting and in position for the rebound.

  • Francesco

    And since people are talking about Neal and victories and whatnot, I will say it again:
    Duncan can no longer get the job done from the low post.
    If you watch games you know.
    If you understand basketball you also know what it means in the playoffs.
    In the next 7 games/2 weeks :
    – Magic
    – Lakers
    – Mavs
    – Thunder
    – Knicks
    – Celtics
    4 of which on the road.

    Let’s see how good we REALLY are after that stretch

  • Flavor

    @ Francesco: Offensivley or Deffensivley??? and can you speicify what you mean, by “getting the job done” ?

  • DorieStreet


    Don’t go the next seven- let’s look at the last 4 games of this year first. I previously posted breaking down the schedule through the end of 2010 in segments after the 7-1 start (mostly home games vs. sub .500 teams), next 10 games mostly against playoff/ +.500 teams (6) with 3 BTB & 3 game road trip= result: 8-2. 3 weeks ago- start of 6 game homestand bracketing BTB road +.500 team followed by 3 home games= result: 10-0. If the Spurs close out December going 4 & 0 that will prove a lot: starting 2011 with 50 games left with a 29-3 record. Spurs- lets end 2010 on the upbeat!!!!

  • Flavor

    We need more tall people!!!! (jk)

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