De­fense steps up again for S.A.

San Antonio Express-News (Sunday) - - Sports - By Jeff McDon­ald STAFF WRITER

Go ahead and call Spurs for­ward Dante Cun­ning­ham any name in the book. He doesn’t mind.

With one ex­cep­tion. “What­ever nick­name you want to give me,” Cun­ning­ham said, “be­sides soft.”

No­body who has been watch­ing the Spurs lately would dare.

Af­ter a Charmin-like start to the sea­son on the de­fen­sive end, the Spurs have taken on Cun­ning­ham’s rugged per­son­al­ity of late.

On Satur­day, they opened a back-to-back at the AT&T Cen­ter with their finest de­fen­sive per­for­mance of the sea­son, wax­ing a hereto­fore high-scor­ing New Or­leans club 109-95.

“Ev­ery game, ev­ery quar­ter, ev­ery half we are def­i­nitely get­ting bet­ter,” Cun­ning­ham said. “Our com­mu­ni­ca­tion is get­ting bet­ter, our knowl­edge of each other is get­ting bet­ter.”

DeMar DeRozan scored 26

points and LaMar­cus Aldridge worked his way to a 22-point, 12re­bound dou­ble-dou­ble as the Spurs won their fourth game in a row head­ing into to­day’s home con­test against Or­lando.

It was the Spurs’ newly resur­gent de­fense, how­ever, that car­ried them Satur­day.

One game af­ter hold­ing a shorthanded and strug­gling Phoenix team to 90 points in a 30-point win in the desert, the Spurs lim­ited New Or­leans to 26 points be­low its sea­son av­er­age.

“We com­peted,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, whose team im­proved to 6-2. “We’re still try­ing to learn each other. We’ve got a few guys try­ing to fig­ure out the sys­tem. When you com­pete, it cov­ers up a lot of things.”

Cun­ning­ham added 15 points, his most in a Spurs uni­form, but that wasn’t where he made his most no­table con­tri­bu­tions.

A 10-year NBA vet­eran on a min­i­mum con­tract, Cun­ning­ham has found a home as a start­ing for­ward in the Spurs’ small-ball unit be­cause of his will­ing­ness to get his hands filthy.

“It’s right up my al­ley,” said the 31-year-old Cun­ning­ham, who had to­taled 20 points in his pre­vi­ous seven games. “Go out, guard the best guy on the court, do the dirty work.”

Case in point came mid­way through the first quar­ter, when Cun­ning­ham hit the AT&T Cen­ter deck to track down a loose-ball steal and ig­nite a fast break.

Mo­ments later, Cun­ning­ham buried his sec­ond of three 3point­ers, which the Spurs con­sider to be gravy.

New Or­leans coach Alvin Gen­try knows this ver­sion of Cun­ning­ham well. He played 3½ sea­sons with the Pel­i­cans from 2014 to 2018.

“He’s got a tough­ness about him I’m sure Pop ap­pre­ci­ates,” Gen­try said.

Popovich does.

The Spurs didn’t ex­pect Cun­ning­ham to be a starter when they picked him up off the freeagent pile in July. He hasn’t started more than half his team’s games since 2015-16 in New Or­leans.

Cun­ning­ham first en­tered the Spurs’ start­ing five Oct. 22 in Los An­ge­les, for the sole pur­pose of de­fend­ing Lak­ers star LeBron James.

He has now started the past four games, and not be­cause of his abil­ity to put the ball in the bas­ket.

In­stead, Cun­ning­ham has helped pro­vide a de­fen­sive iden­tity for a team des­per­ately seek­ing one since a sea­son-end­ing knee in­jury to All-NBA de­fender De­jounte Mur­ray in the pre­sea­son.

He added a pair of blocks to his box score Satur­day.

“He’s not ex­actly a sur­prise, but we didn’t ex­pect him to play this many min­utes,” Popovich said. “He’s taken ad­van­tage of the op­por­tu­nity. He sets the tone de­fen­sively.”

With Cun­ning­ham as the pace­set­ter, the Spurs’ de­fense has con­tin­ued to rise af­ter a hor­ren­dous start to the sea­son.

When the Spurs walked into the AT&T Cen­ter on Mon­day to face Dal­las, they ranked 30th among 30 NBA teams in de­fen­sive ef­fi­ciency.

Now they have gone 15 con­sec­u­tive quar­ters with­out al­low­ing 30 points.

Satur­day’s per­for­mance against the Pel­i­cans was eas­ily their most im­pres­sive of the sea- son.

New Or­leans came in aver­ag­ing 121.9 points, sec­ond in the NBA be­hind Golden State. The Pel­i­cans hadn’t scored fewer than 111 points.

And they had the ser­vices of su­per­nat­u­ral cen­ter An­thony Davis, who had missed three of the pre­vi­ous four games with an el­bow sprain.

Davis man­aged 17 points on 5of-13 shoot­ing against the Spurs. The Pel­i­cans (4-5) got the bulk of their scor­ing from Jrue Hol­i­day (29 points) and Nikola Mirotic (22 points, 16 re­bounds)

The Spurs held New Or­leans to 17 points in the first quar­ter and 39 in the first half — both sea­son op­po­nent lows — to help send the Pel­i­cans to their fifth con­sec­u­tive de­feat.

“That grit and that nasty we’re show­ing de­fen­sively is good,” guard Patty Mills said.

Mills had his best game of the sea­son, post­ing highs in points (17), as­sists (seven) and re­bounds (seven).

When he swished a top-of-thearc 3-pointer with 34.3 sec­onds left in the third quar­ter, it gave the Spurs a 21-point lead — their largest of the night.

Marco Be­linelli con­trib­uted 14 points off the bench for the Spurs, who outscored the Pel­i­cans’ sec­ond unit 33-13.

As it has for the du­ra­tion of the Spurs’ win­ning streak, de­fense led the way.

“When we de­fend, it makes the game 10 times eas­ier,” Spurs point guard Bryn Forbes said. “It’s hard when they score, you score, they score, you score — you are just go­ing back and forth.”

On Satur­day, Cun­ning­ham was at the fore­front of the de­fen­sive ef­fort.

His scrappy play did not go un­no­ticed by his new Spurs team­mates.

“We feed off that,” Mills said. “He’s a hard-nosed, blue-col­lar player who puts his body on the line.”

Those are names it is fine to call Cun­ning­ham. An­other one, af­ter work­ing a sea­son-high 37 min­utes on Satur­day: Tired.

“I’m go­ing to go home, get a great meal, get a whole lot of water in me, and be ready for to­mor­row,” Cun­ning­ham said.

Billy Calzada / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

LaMar­cus Aldridge works against the Pel­i­cans’ An­thony Davis. Aldridge fin­ished with 22 points and 12 boards.

Billy Calzada / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

DeMar DeRozan drives to the bas­ket against New Or­leans’ Jrue Hol­i­day on his way to a team-high 26 points.

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