The LaMarcus Aldridge era started out with a loss, 112-106. The Spurs, which looked brilliant at times and completely lost at others, couldn't hold off the Thunder in the fourth quarter and dropped a game they should have won due to bad late game execution. Kawhi Leonard notched a career-high in points with 32 and played terrific defense on Kevin Durant but it wasn't enough, as Russell Westbrook countered with 33 points and 10 assists.
As contradictory as it might seem, the first game of the season featured both the things that make this new incarnation of the team special and the built-in weaknesses of their new identity. The one-on-one brilliance of Leonard and Aldridge is something the Spurs haven't had arguably since the halcyon days of young Tim Duncan but the trade off is that ISOs and post ups come at the expense of beautiful ball movement that resulted in open three-pointers in past years.
The Spurs did score 106 points on 48 percent from the field but they had 22 assists to 48 field goals and shot just 15 three-pointers. Last season they had only 14 games in which they had fewer than 25 assists on more than 45 made field goals and six games in which they took fewer than 15 three-pointers. This looks very much like a different team.
As far as identities go, one is not necessarily better than the other. It just takes some adjustment for Spurs fans -- and apparently, Spurs players -- who were used to the other way of doing things.
There were times when things were clicking, and in those moments the Spurs' offense looked like it had absorbed the best parts of the Thunder's and Grizzlies'. Sure, there were a lot of predictable isolations but they actually worked and there were also clever post ups with the other big in the high post. Unfortunately those times were sandwiched between moments of four guys standing around watching Leonard do the heavy lifting.
After starting the game well (nine first-half points on five shots) Aldridge faded in the second half (two points on seven field goal attempts), settling for outside shots instead of bullying his was into the paint. It might be just on my head but he seemed out of rhythm. Parker (three assists) wasn't prodding the defense as he usually does but looking to get it moving and giving up the ball as soon as it did. He was only on the court for 26 minutes but Duncan took just eight shots. Finding a groove in which everyone touches the ball as much as they want to and at the right times is going to take time.
There was talk at training camp that the second unit was looking sharper than the starters and the reason why seems to be that they haven't had to make big adjustments. On offense the bench looks like it did for the past two seasons, mostly. Manu Ginobili and Boris Diaw are its engines, constantly moving the ball. On defense things weren't as rosy, as the lack of length of the Diaw-David West pairing was damaging (six offensive rebounds allowed) and Anderson and Ginobili looked a step too slow.
There's obviously no reason to panic. Even with those problems the Spurs led for most of the game before collapsing on the last three minutes, getting outscored by six points. Leonard was sublime on both ends, clearly outplaying Kevin Durant. Ginobili and Diaw combined for 20 points and 13 assists, showing they are still relevant even on a team with more shot creators. Aldridge and Parker had their moments on offense while Duncan focused on the defensive end and finished with two steals and two blocks. The talent is there for this team to be special.
After two years of watching the same players execute the same sets it's not surprising that some of us probably had a strange feeling watching this game and are left with a sense of unease. It will pass. Objectively speaking, the Spurs looked much better than they should have this early on both ends for long stretches. Losing to the Thunder in Oklahoma City is nothing to be ashamed of. On Friday there will be a chance to get that first win and continue to gel as a team. Keep pounding that rock.
Play of the game
Remember we talked about floppy plays? What the Spurs do here is a variation called "floppy punch hammer" that they like to run after timeouts or at the beginning of quarters.
After running the floppy action, the point man passes to one of the players on the wing, who enters the ball to the post. On the weak side, the big man sets a back screen to free up the shooter. Good stuff.
Michael Erler's two cents
That wasn't even a loss as much as it was Gregg Popovich making a ritual sacrifice to the basketball gods. He threw what would've been an uplifting opening night win at Oklahoma City into the fiery volcano in the name of not skipping steps and respecting the process and blah blah blah.
Please understand, I'm not even mad at the Thunder. And I DESPISE the Thunder. Those dudes played hard, played smart down the stretch and deserved the win. But man, did Pop hand it to them on a black and silver platter.
That was automaton coaching out there tonight, with no discern or concern for who was playing well, who was playing poorly, and what the opponent's strengths and weaknesses were. The thought process didn't extend beyond "This is my starting five" and "this is my backup five."
The starters couldn't create much offense outside of Kawhi Leonard's brilliance, but they give you defense and rebounding, with one notable exception. The backups get whatever shot they want but are almost D-League level bad defensively as a unit, and can't protect the rim or prevent Enes Kanter from playing volleyball on the glass.
Ideally a Hall-of-Fame coach would mix and match late depending on game situation, who had the ball, etc. For reasons known only to him, Pop chose to stick it out with the starters, essentially wasting fantastic performances from Boris Diaw and Manu Ginobili. Neither of them will have 10 better games all season.
I get that the only way the team's chemistry will improve is by suffering through the growing pains with LaMarcus Aldridge and giving him as many reps as possible, no matter how many ugly shots he forces up in Iso situations, but Pop said himself that the team can't afford to get behind in the competitive West and the game was there to be won.
Even leaving Aldridge in late doesn't explain why Green or Parker didn't make way for Ginobili. The Thunder openly -- brazenly -- targeted the Frenchman all night, going right at whoever he was guarding. Even after Pop made the adjustment to put Green on Westbrook and Parker on Dion Waiters, the former Cav scored the game-tying and go-ahead buckets on Parker easily.
The only solace is that it was a road game. A "scheduled loss," as it were. Still frustrating though.
The Spurs return to San Antonio for the home opener on Friday. The schedule is easy for the next 10 games or so, which will give Gregg Popovich a chance to experiment and figure out what works and what doesn't.
For the opponent's perspective, visit Welcome To Loud City