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Eight minutes into the third quarter of their 102-85 Saturday night win over the Charlotte Hornets at AT&T Center, Spurs starters LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, and Tony Parker had made only 4-of-20 shots and scored a combined 12 points.
Ordinarily, such alarming inaccuracy by three of the team’s top four scorers should have put the Spurs in a double-digit hole against a team that entered the game in fifth place in the Eastern Conference, but solid defensive execution had enabled the Spurs to keep things close. They trailed only by two, 60-58, and one had the sense they would eventually find a hot shooter.
Then, with three minutes and 21 seconds remaining in the third period, Gregg Popovich subbed backup power forward Davis Bertans into the game and the search for the hot hand ended. By quarter’s end, Bertans had scored 10 points and fueled a 15-4 run that turned a close game into another easy victory that put the Spurs at 30-7 for the season.
By game’s end, the 26-year-old rookie from Valmiera, Latvia, had authored the most efficient offensive game of the season by any Spur. He scored a team-high 21 points while taking only six shots. It was his rookie season high, and it had another sellout crowd buzzing.
To fully understand the singularity of Bertans’ offensive efficiency, consider the fact he became just the second player in franchise history to score 20 or more points on fewer than seven shots. The other was Hall of Fame center Artis Gilmore, who scored 21 points on 5-for-6 shooting in a loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on Jan. 11, 1985. Gilmore played 42 minutes and took 15 free throws to get his 21 points.
Bertans played only 18 minutes and 21 seconds in Saturday’s win, which made the Spurs just the second team to reach 30 wins this season and got them within one game of the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference standings.
Four of Bertans five makes against the Hornets were from beyond the 3-point arc. He was fouled in the act of making one of them and converted a four-point play. He got to the foul line for eight free throws and made seven.
Bertans hadn’t played more than eight minutes in the previous nine games, but veteran power forward David Lee missed his first game of the season due to a left knee contusion. That gave Bertans an early entry against the Hornets, and he delighted the crowd with a power dunk in his very first stint on the court in the first quarter
But, it was his second-half outburst – 19 points in just under 14 minutes – that turned the game.
“He was ready to go tonight and now, with David out, he knew he was probably going to get some time and he capitalized and made them pay,” said Gasol, who ceded a chunk of his own playing time so Popovich could keep his hot shooter in the game.
With the Hornets packing the paint to slow down LaMarcus Aldridge, nearly unstoppable in his previous five games, the 3-point line was available, and Bertans is a confident long-range shooter.
“When you can shoot that well, and they’re going to pack it in, he had great looks and he’s been playing well lately,” said Aldridge, who had to work hard to find nine shots of his own, two of which were rebound putbacks.
Popovich insisted on giving his team’s strong second-half defense – the Hornets scored only 35 points in the half – equal credit for the Spurs’ third straight blowout victory, but was happy to single out Bertans’ readiness and his confidence.
“He’s a good shooter,” Popovich said. “We went to our semi-small lineup, even though Davis is probably considered a big. We changed that up a little bit.”
Bertans’ response to getting the early call from Popovich was utterly Spur-like.
“It’s basketball,” he said. “I have played for many years already, so it’s just a regular basketball game.”
Indeed, Bertans has been playing professionally since he was 17, with stops in Latvia, Slovenia, Serbia, and Spain before the Spurs acquired him in the 2011 draft night trade that sent guard George Hill to the Indiana Pacers but also brought the draft rights to Kawhi Leonard.
He recalled staying up until 7 a.m. Latvian time before finally learning that he had been acquired by the Spurs.
“It’s a holiday for us usually, the night of June 23-24,” he recalled. “I stayed awake until like 7 a.m., until I heard my name called. I was definitely happy it was the Spurs. It didn’t matter how many years it was going to take for me to come here. I knew they counted on me coming here and I was going to wait for my time.”
The holiday, he said, had something to do with celebrating certain Latvian names, and the celebration includes “a lot of beer and cheese.”
There was a fair amount of beer consumed at the AT&T Center in celebration of Bertans’ efficient shooting performance on Saturday, too.