By Mike Monroe
SALT LAKE CITY — The Spurs bring the NBA’s best overall record, 18-4, into tonight’s game against the Jazz at EnergySolutions Arena here because through the first quarter of the 2012-13 season, they have been the league’s best team in the fourth quarter.
After outscoring the Rockets 29-27 to send Monday’s game in Houston to overtime that resulted in a 134-126 victory, the Spurs’ scoring average in fourth quarters ticked up to a league-high 27.9 points. They also have the league’s best fourth-quarter shooting percentages — 49.9 percent for all shots and 44.6 percent on 3-point attempts.
The Spurs have limited opponents to 24.0 fourth-quarter points on 42.0 percent overall shooting and 29.6 percent 3-point shooting.
It is a combination that has produced a 9-2 record in games in which they have entered the fourth quarter either tied or trailing. Such domination of crunch time has been vital to their early success.
It is the defensive aspect of that equation that is most gratifying to Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, whose demand for “stops on demand” has been a career obsession.
“Stops in the fourth quarters are pretty amazing in the sense it keeps you in the game even if the ball isn’t going in the hole,” Popovich said. “With some of the teams in the league now that are so skilled, young, athletic and talented, you’ve got to be able to make a stop once in a while, so we’ve really tried to emphasize that fourth quarter, especially the last five minutes.
“We try to make stop after stop, two or three in a row. It helps a lot if you can do it.”
The fourth quarter of the overtime victory in Houston proved Popovich’s point.
After the Rockets took a 107-98 lead with 8:32 remaining in regulation, the Spurs held the Rockets to 13 points on 6-of-16 shooting (37.5 percent) the rest of the period.
They also forced two turnovers, including a 24-second violation with the score tied at 120 and Houston’s Jeremy Lin, who was having a career scoring night, isolated on the perimeter and dribbling away the final seconds before making a move to create a shot for himself or a teammate.
Spurs guard Danny Green defended Lin aggressively, knocking the ball away twice, the shot clock expiring as the two scrambled to grab the ball after Green’s second deflection.
Popovich’s challenge to his players on the first day of training camp was to return to a spot among the league’s best defensive units.
Understanding that pace of play is a determinant of points allowed, Popovich always has relied on field-goal percentage defense as the best measure of his team’s defensive proficiency, and he challenged the Spurs to be a top-five team in that category.
After Monday’s play, they ranked fifth, allowing opponents to make just 43.2 percent of their shots. Only Oklahoma City, second in field-goal percentage defense at 42.6 percent, has a greater differential in points scored and allowed (plus-9.53 per game), than do the Spurs, who have a differential of plus-8.64 points per game.
“The guys have been real focused in that regard; because we were mediocre last year defensively and coming into camp, it was a big emphasis,” Popovich said. “So I have to say that they’ve bought in and understood that if we want to be a factor at the end of the year, we have to be a better defensive team, and so far, we have focused on that.
“They’ve got to trust teach other; they’ve got to communicate. Everybody’s got to know what their responsibility is and be consistent about it night after night.” Spurs Nation