The (pre)season is finally here! In the Spurs first game of the year, they held on for a 106-100 victory at home. The team got off to a rough start, fell behind early and and the offense looked a bit stifled. A solid bench unit brought them back, and the Heat led by 1 at the half. Gregg Popovich found success after adjusting the lineup to start the 3rd quarter, something we’ll come back to later. The Spurs took a lead they never relinquished less than a minute into the 2nd half, even building a double-digit cushion at times. The Heat were frisky, but Spurs’ end-of-the-bench mob was just able to hold them off thanks to some timely contributions from Jaron Blossomgame, Okaro White, and Nick Johnson.
It was a fun game, as most wins are, and for a preseason game there was a lot to like for the Spurs. Even in limited minutes, it’s clear this team has more talent on the floor than it did last year, and it’s not particularly close. Whether the team can put that talent together in a way that wins basketball games may still be in question, but they definitely have the raw materials to do so.
Obligatory preseason disclaimer: It’s just one game and it’s just the preseason. The games are completely different when they count. Take everything with a grain of salt, small sample size, etc.
- It may have been DeMar DeRozan’s debut, but Rudy Gay stole the show. The most significant development was his shooting from three, where he went 3/3. If he’s going to be a knock down shooter on catch and shoot threes, there will be a lot more space for everyone to operate, especially its two dynamic guards.
- One of those guards, Dejounte Murray, is FAST. I know that’s not exactly a revelation, but he jumped off the screen. Given his individual talents, and the overall upgrade in athleticism all the way down the roster, it makes sense for the Spurs to get out in transition more. I’d like to see them push the pace looking for semi-transition opportunities, even off made baskets when possible. For at least part of the game, the team did just that. The overall pace for the game ended up at 106.4. It’s just a preseason game, but that’s quite a bit higher than the Spurs’ highest pace in a game last preseason (102.6 against the Nuggets) and it came against another typically slow team in the Heat. The Spurs were 28th in the league last year in pace, at 94.6, and the Heat were just 1 position higher, in 27th, at 95.6. That the two teams played at such a fast pace could be an outlier, but it may also be an indicator that the Spurs are going to try to take advantage of their explosive young point guard.
- That makes sense given the struggles of the starting five: Murray, DeRozan, Gay, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Pau Gasol. It was clear they weren’t comfortable with the offense or each other, and Heat defenders sagged all the way into the paint no matter who was lined up at the arc. Of course, if Rudy continues to shoot like he did in this game, he’ll command more respect. Until that changes how opponents play him, the Spurs will need those easy transition opportunities. They’ll also need to be effective operating in tight spaces.
- The Spurs expected this. They ran several sets designed to use movement and screening to open up the types of driving and cutting lanes that generate easy buckets in the paint, and hopefully, open looks from the corner. In general, they didn’t execute them well, which is to be expected in preseason game #1, but a few worked, and that’s a good start for now. There were also several possessions where the offense never really got started. DeMar is still adjusting to the team and learning the offense, and that should sort itself out over time.
- Rotations are still a question, and this game did little to provide much of an answer. The starting five struggled at the beginning but looked good in stretches and finished as a +1 in 10:31 of playing time. The group needs some more time together to get their offensive rhythm down, but the early returns aren’t bad. LaMarcus only spent 36 seconds at the 5, so the Spurs didn’t try out Davis Bertans or Rudy at the 4 next to him, which promises to be a more dynamic offensive lineup. Coach Pop likes to stay big, though, so it’s a distinct possibility that those lineups won’t get more than a handful of minutes every night, especially early in the season.
- Derrick White looked really good playing on the ball. Once he got past some early jitters, he was able to create and control the flow of the game. He didn’t look as good playing off the ball with either Patty Mills or Bryn Forbes initiating. Mills still has a more complete command of the offense, but the team will likely be better off in the long run to give the backup point guard minutes to White and have Patty and/or Forbes flying around off the ball for catch and shoot threes and attacking close outs. But none of the three cemented a hold as the best small wing option, leaving plenty of room for Lonnie Walker IV to seize some minutes once he’s healthy.
- Pau Gasol didn’t have a great night. As usual, he provided rim protection, solid picks, and great basketball IQ. He’ll likely remain a starter until there’s a dramatic need for a change due to Jakob Poeltl taking a leap, Pau’s play deteriorating, or spacing needs forcing the team to go small. A more likely change will be him not finishing games, a more important decision in terms of team success. Poeltl definitely showed that he deserves a shot at those minutes, too.
- At the other end of the roster, the game did provide some good insight into who’s ready for the NBA game and who’s not. Nick Johnson, Okaro White, and Drew Eubanks did not appear ready for the big-time, though all still have room to grow. Johnson and White each showed flashes of potential, but these games are more akin to auditions for other teams than opportunities to secure a spot with the Spurs. The roster is just too full of potential rotation players to bring on many projects.
- Chimezie Metu and Jaron Blossomgame, however, both showed flashes of big-league potential. With Metu already on a contract that leaves Blossomgame as an easy choice for the other two-way deal, alongside Eubanks. He could also take the 15th roster spot. But to do that, he’ll have to beat out Quincy Pondexter, and be better than whatever other potential players the Spurs may wish to sign down the road.
- As for Pondexter, he clearly understands the game and sees it at an NBA level, but it’s unclear if he’s all he way back from the health issues that kept him out of two consecutive seasons leading up to his brief return with the Bulls last year. He demonstrated good explosion in a workout video last year; however, he appears to have lost at least a little of his lateral quickness, which is unsurprising given the nature of his injuries and the duration of his recovery. Still, he’s hit nearly 36% from three for his career and the Spurs tend to value veteran experience. It’ll be interesting to see how he plays, but much of the decision will likely hinge on how the Spurs feel about Blossomgame.