Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 9:55 AM

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Spurs get time to put Plan B in place

It’s overly dramatic to say the Spurs saved their season by closing out November with a home upset of the NBA championship co-favorite Clippers.

Kawhi Leonard returning to San Antonio for the second time, back as a champion for the first, had the natives riled up. That only goes so far at the AT&T Center so far this season, where the home team had won just four of their first 10 before upsetting L.A. The Spurs served up some Friday night hope, then went out and lost 132-98 on Sunday night without LaMarcus Aldridge, who was the driving force in beating the Clips.

Right thigh soreness sidelined Aldridge, who is expected back for Tuesday’s home date against the Rockets, yet another team that gets to come into San Antonio favored to win, the fourth time it’s happened in their first 12 home dates. The Spurs opened the week with a 564-136 home record (80.5 percent) since their arena opened in 2002.

After losing two of every three games for the first quarter of the season, the Spurs appear headed for their first losing season in since 1997, the 20-win disaster that yielded Tim Duncan.

Full disclosure, I picked the Spurs to win the Southwest Division over in-state rivals Houston and Dallas. I believed in their depth and ability to zig when most are zagging, utilizing vets Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay to excel in the mid-range game to create opportunities for young guards Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Bryn Forbes. I loved what Patty Mills could bring to the table in his bench role, picking up where he left off at this past summer’s FIBA World Cup.

I believed Gregg Popovich and his team of assistants, Duncan included, could reach a talented group. The Spurs way has typically delivered the type of performances that helped drop the Clips, but at 3-5 away from home entering the season, maybe L.A. is just a bad road team.

Off to the worst start in 23 years, maybe the Spurs are just a bad team, period. They had dropped 12 of 14 before Kawhi came through. Maybe they just had a good night. We’ll know for sure in a few more weeks, but the schedule gods are about to grant a reprieve in what last real opportunity to get things together before potentially pulling everything apart.

After hosting the Rockets, the Spurs get a two-day break before hosting the Kings on Friday. They’ll then get another five days in between home games before facing the Cavs on Dec. 12. Must-win games in the NBA in early December don’t come around very often, but San Antonio is under pressure to show some progress.

According to the San Antonio Express-News, nobody knew why the team’s energy level suffered so much without Aldridge that the Spurs never even held a lead. Popovich called the Detroit loss disappointing and is undoubtedly looking forward to this increased practice time and get back in the lab to try and make one final push.

Lightening the minutes restriction on Murray and playing young athletes like Lonnie Walker more might be an answer. Increasing center Jakob Poeltl’s minutes to increase his impact a s rim protector could be another way to go. Derrick White joined the starting lineup and has professed to be more aggressive in letting the 3-pointers fly.

There’s roughly 70 percent of the season still left, but San Antonio may find itself in a position where selling off assets like Aldridge and DeRozan may make sense if they can get draft picks and younger players return. The Spurs have lost Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker in addition to Leonard, but haven’t undergone a true reboot. That may be inevitable, but I think you’ll see these next 10 days play a critical role in the direction of a franchise that has been linked with NBA dominance for two full decades.

Aldridge’s ability to defend or play at a faster pace may hinder his trade value, but both he and DeRozan have contracts that end in 2021 and therefore wouldn’t be drains on current teams. Could the Spurs move one of them to desperate Portland? Upstart Miami? A Denver team that feels its one piece away from winning a championship?

Spurs CEO R.C. Buford, Popovich and new GM Brian Wright will have no choice but to make the best deal if this situation appears irreparable. On paper, there’s no way the Spurs should be so bad defensively. Teams are shooting 39 percent from 3-point range against them. Only the Warriors are worse. The Knicks and Wizards defend the 3-ball better, if only slightly.

The 97 points they held L.A. to was a season-low. Scoring is up in the NBA, but holding an opponent under the century mark only once in the entire season and following it up with giving up over 120 for the sixth time means something is broken.

We’re about to find out if it can be fixed.

What's going on with?

The Nuggets

Nikola Jokic is shooting just 23 percent from 3-point range, which you probably wouldn’t know if you’ve been following the Nuggets solely via highlights. He’s won them games late thanks to clutch shots, which led to Denver winning 10 of 12 November games despite seeing its six-game win streak end at Sacramento on Monday. The loss was suffered in overtime, a 100-97 result in which Jokic shot just 3-for-11 and missed five straight fourth-quarter shots. Paul Millsap also never re-entered the game after the third quarter in a game in which Denver blew a 57-40 halftime lead.

Jokic scored in single-digits five times in November, averaging 7.7 points over his last three games. He missed his final eight 3-pointers of the month.

The Nuggets have all the makings of a great team. They defend, are loaded with depth and play a physical style that wears down opponents and takes them out of their rhythm by slowing pace. The ‘under’ is 12-5 in Denver games entering Tuesday’s date with the Lakers, the team’s final home game until Dec. 12 since they’ll hit the road for a four-game swing against Atlantic Division teams New York, Boston, Brooklyn and Philadelphia.

Denver will play 16 games this month and will play four back-to-backs after being saddled with only one since the beginning of the season. At 9-to-1 to win the West and 18-to-1 to win a title, there may be value in the Nuggets since shooting slumps are something that come and go in this game. Defense, and giving yourself a chance to win the way Denver has despite its uneven offense, is often the trademark of special teams.

It would be lovely to see Jokic rediscover his form on this upcoming trip. After dealing with Anthony Davis, JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard, he’ll see a number of unique bigs in the Knicks’ Julius Randle, shot-blocking pogo stick Mitchell Robinson, undersized Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter in Boston, Brooklyn’s 7-footer combo of DeAndre Jordan and Jarrett Allen and Philly’s Joel Embiid to close things out. He’ll have to bring his best.

Expect to see the Nuggets favored at the Knicks and Nets and a small underdog at the Celtics and Sixers, though the Boston game could be weighed down further on the second night of their first back-to-back since Halloween night.

Getting Jamal Murray, Gary Harris or Will Barton to consistently score emerge as a go-to scorer the team can count on will go a long way, but this should be a telling stretch for Denver.

Carmelo Anthony

The NBA gave the future Hall of Famer for a Player of the Week nod after helping the Blazers to a 3-0 week with excellent performances in a home-and-home sweep of the Bulls and a victory over OKC.

He averaged over 22 points and seven boards while shooting over 50 percent from the field, and notched his first double-double. Sure, there were more deserving candidates. Doncic dominated the Lakers at home on Sunday and averaged over 30 points, nearly nine boards and nine assists. James Harden scored 60 points in three quarters to average 47 for a two-game week, leading the Rockets to wins in both.

Melo was the catalyst for the only team that went 3-0. He's a feel-good story right now. Lighten up and let him enjoy what could be his final Player of the Week award of a storied career. Harden and Doncic will win plenty more.

As for Portland, it gets to host the Kings, Lakers, Thunder and Knicks in a four-game homestand opening Wednesday, so Anthony will continue to be in the spotlight and the sense of urgency to pick up wins following such a slow start remains a motivating factor. For Anthony, it will give him an opportunity to face a pair of teams that gave up on him in addition to good friend LeBron James. He already lit up OKC once. Hopefully he stays in a good rhythm.

Injuries to Monitor

Marcus Smart overcame an ankle injury last week but was hammered in his oblique and had to leave Boston's 113-104 win over the Knicks on Monday, so there's a chance he's not out there Wednesday when the Celtics welcome in the Heat. He and Jimmy Butler are two of the East's top defenders, so if both are out there, the 'under' would look awfully appealing as these heavyweights meet for the first time. Gordon Hayward feels he's ahead of schedule in his return from a broken hand and traveled with the team last week but probably will remain sidelined until closer to mid-month... Heat guard Goran Dragic has suffered a groin injury and will miss at least Tuesday's game against Toronto. He really had it rolling off the Miami bench... The Warriors got Kevon Looney back Monday night, so their interior defense should improve with Draymond Green also back. D'Angelo Russell's return from a thumb injury is imminent as well since he's been taking part in warmups. Check before blindly fading the Warriors this week and finding yourself in a world of trouble... It's the time of year where everyone gets the sniffles, so be advised that Houston center Clint Capela should return but forward Danuel House is finding it harder to return from his bug... Memphis has been without ill center Jonas Valanciunas and is likely to give Ja Morant the entire week off after he experienced back spasms following a collision with a cameraman on the floor... Pelicans center Derrick Favors' mother passed away, so he's on bereavement leave. Prayers and well wishes go out his way... Forward Kenrich Williams, the team's top glue guy, is out with an ankle sprain. Zion Williamson's debut with New Orleans is growing closer, but won't be this week...Magic center Nikola Vucevic is still out with an ankle injury... Jazz guard Mike Conley felt hamstring tightness in Monday's loss in Philly, so an ugly road trip ended with a major thud. We'll see how cautious Utah will be with him, but it does have Dante Exum healthy enough to soften the blow some... Kings forward Marvin Bagley, Jr., injured at the start of the season, won't make his return this week with the team embarked on a four-game road trip and he'll be re-evaluted for a possible return mid-month. Point guard De'Aaron Fox remains a few weeks away... Knicks forward Marcus Morris, who has emerged as their top player this season, is dealing with cervical spasms, while point guard Frank Ntilikina has had a back issue. Both sat out New York's 44-point loss at the Bucks on Monday, so check their availability for this week's home games against the Nuggets and Pacers, both of which may be favored by nearly double-digits... Aron Baynes traveled with the Suns on their East swing but sat out Monday's win at Charlotte with a calf injury. Phoenix is a far superior team when he's in the mix.

Games to Watch

Tuesday - Lakers at Nuggets

Can Jokic get his act together or will L.A.'s length keep him from finding a rhythm? With oddsmakers installing Denver as a two-point favorite, it still hasn't been an underdog this season. That should come later this week on the East coast.

Wednesday - Heat at Celtics

Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown vs. Jimmy Butler and Justise Winslow is quality stuff, like the Hart Foundation battling Demolition. Not having Smart and Dragic out there would be a drag, but this matchup will still be compelling.

Thursday - Rockets at Raptors

Harden should continue his scoring onslaught, but Houston is just 1-3 against its last four foes with winning records and are just 1-2 as an underdog, which it should be here by at least a bucket.

Friday - Clippers at Bucks

Neither Kawhi Leonard or Paul George played when "Greek Freak" came through Staples on Nov. 6. so this should be quite the party.

Saturday - Grizzlies at Jazz

These teams have played a pair of competitive games thus far with Conley visiting Memphis twice. The Griz return with Morant unlikely to play and Conley questionable, but we've gotten late game-winners in both matchups to date and the card on Saturday is light enough for this to be your winner.

Sunday - Raptors at 76ers

Marc Gasol held Joel Embiid scoreless as Toronto took down the 76ers at the Air Canada Centre on Nov. 5. You know Philly's All-Star will do anything for revenge, but he's struggled against crafty vets like Gasol who know all the tricks. He's not a former Defensive Player of the Year for nothing.

Free Winner

Friday - Kings at Spurs

If San Antonio loses this game, it means they go into that aforementioned five-day mini training camp reboot off a loss. I think all the Spurs will want to spare themselves the wrath of an angry Pop, so I'll be laying the points here.

Follow Tony Mejia on Twitter at @TonyMejiaNBA

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