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Undermanned Spurs nearly upset Thunder

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The young guys come up just short against their conference rival

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Oklahoma City Thunder Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

After looking like a team on the verge of being blown out and then on the verge of stealing a game in Oklahoma City, the young Spurs battled hard and ultimately came up short. Though games like this can be difficult to measure appropriately, the Spurs have plenty of reason to be hopeful about their tenacious young core. Without LaMarcus Aldridge, Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard, Manu Ginobili, or Rudy Gay, a depleted Spurs squad showed real grit. The Spurs-Thunder matchup can often get testy, and give credit to rookie Brandon Paul for setting the tone early by being the aggressor on both ends of the court.

Paul spent a good amount of his first career NBA start defending the star trio of Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, and on offense he repeatedly attacked off the dribble and created nice scoring opportunities. At 26, Paul can physically match up with the Thunder in a way most rookies cannot, and tonight he looked every bit the part of a role player unafraid of opposing star players. Come playoff time, he will be ready to contribute.

In the backcourt, the nearly opposite skillsets of Bryn Forbes and Dejounte Murray have meshed well in extended playing time in this season, and tonight was an intriguing example of the kind of promise they have together.

Murray got to the hoop nearly at will against almost every OKC defender, and found ways to finish over very good defenders like George and Andre Roberson. Even in a game featuring Westbrook, Murray’s speed with the ball stood out. He has been in and out of Pop’s rotation this year, and tonight’s game is a prime example of why he will probably continue to be. He has tons of promise on offense, but there’s still quite a bit of learning to do.

Even without the desired results, Forbes’ confidence as a shooter and ball-handler showed against the Thunder. He took the right shots, he was decisive when the ball swung his way, and he made himself available for passes by constantly moving off the ball.

While Murray’s decision-making on offense varies wildly from possession to possession, his knack for finding Forbes the second he becomes open is a joyous thing to watch, and tonight was no different. He had a nice pace to his movement while waiting for Forbes to work his way open.

Defensively, Forbes has worked himself into a disciplined player that does not make too many mistakes. Against the Thunder, Forbes continued to impress by staying on the ground during pump-fakes and limiting reaching, while Murray’s immense physical tools already make him uniquely suited to give Westbrook more trouble than any other Spurs point guard ever has. Even when he was beaten off the dribble, his athleticism allowed him to work back into plays and affect the outcome.

In the frontcourt, Davis Bertans delivered one of the most impressive two-way performances of his career. He is not a shot blocker, but he had a handful of effective defensive plays in which he either moved his feet well while keeping his arms straight up or actually did get a piece of the ball [he had five blocks!], which resulted in a Spurs defensive stop.

Bertans is quite undersized to play center, but there he was in the fourth quarter, battling down low with Steven Adams on defense and sprinting around the 3-point line, bombing from deep on offense. I still don’t know what he is, but he has the potential to be a wildcard when an opponent seems to have figured the Spurs out.

Former Thunder Joffrey Lauvergne did what he was meant to do for the Spurs and created offense off the bench. Even with a gross finger injury late in the game, he continued to crash the offensive boards, finish around the hoop, and threaded passes around the court from the high post. He is limited, but he is effective.

In the first meaningful minutes of his career, Derrick White had the unpleasant experience of being on the wrong end of a Westbrook four-point play, a Josh Huestis alley-oop and a blown gamble on a steal, resulting in a dunk. But White also got on the board with a couple of free throws and a floater, and eventually settled down.

While it wasn’t apparent in this game, White has the potential to really score the ball efficiently. He was hesitant to launch from 3 and the size of Thunder defenders bothered him in the paint, but this game was almost like tossing a person that cannot swim into a pool. He’s going to be fine.

Offensively, the Spurs struggled to manufacture points, and most of that came down to being without their best scorers. Before going down with a scary knee injury that [for now] seems to be a sprained MCL, Kyle Anderson found some traction exploiting the defensive limitations of Carmelo Anthony by taking him to the hoop. Put a pin in this for later in the year once the Spurs are healthy and let’s see how much more effective this matchup could be.

In limited minutes, Danny Green, Patty Mills, and Pau Gasol all looked like effective cogs against the Thunder, primarily as shooters. They struggled to knock down shots, but they had good looks that will continue to be there throughout the season.

This is one of the weirder games so far this year, but come playoff time when Pop tosses someone into the game for big minutes, this will be one of the reasons why that player was ready.

Some notes:

-Brandon Paul has shown some nice passing chops and had a few good reads tonight while driving to the hoop.

-Danny Green continues to block 3-point attempts and they always seem to come out of nowhere

-Lauvergne’s dislocated finger was on live television and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t completely grossed out by it.

-Patty Mills is money when he has a chance to pump-fake a defender and take a dribble to the right.