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What we learned from Spurs preseason loss to the Hawks

Turns out that the defense without Murray could use some work.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Denver Nuggets

The story of the night was two-fold: The Spurs offense finally showed up but their defense apparently didn’t make the flight to Atlanta. It was a preseason game, the Spurs are still working through their rotations, and LaMarcus Aldridge took the night off, so don’t trade everybody just yet. Even in a game where they gave up 130 points to a projected lottery team, it wasn’t all bad.

On the positive side, Derrick White’s poise in his first start in place of the injured Dejounte Murray stood out from the very beginning. With 15 points on 63.1 TS%, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks, and a steal against only one turnover, he played the kind of well-rounded game he’s known for. He still has some things to work on, though. He picked his dribble up too soon a handful of times and wasn’t ready to attack when he received a couple of kick out passes.

Those were generally outliers. He showed the ability to keep his dribble alive deep into possessions, weaving in and out of the paint and around defenders to get an open shot close to the basket. He also anticipated a couple of passes, moving into or away from the catch depending on the situation to generate separation between him and his defender. That little bit of advantage keeps the offense flowing, and is an absolute necessity in the motion offense.

He will continue to grow and learn, but for right now, it appears the Spurs have a viable option at point guard. Their decision not to pursue a veteran to replace Dejounte, or even back up Derrick, speaks volumes about their confidence in the roster as it stands.


  • The defense was bad. The Spurs are going to struggle to defend against perimeter scorers. They don’t really have any one to match up against small, quick point guards, like Trae Young, or dynamic wings, like Taurean Prince. Neither is a top tier player in the league, but they are good examples of the types of players that will give this team problems. The Spurs don’t necessarily have bad defenders, most of them just aren’t versatile, and the two Hawks fall right on the Venn diagram of overlapping weaknesses.
  • The pick and roll, especially, showed huge holes in the team’s ability to execute their scheme. Time and again, Atlanta’s ball handlers were able to penetrate all the way to the rim. It’s easy to pin that on the player defending the ball handler, but in most cases in this game, the big dropped too far back to even make the ball handler consider passing or pulling up. In the 2nd half, help defenders did a little better job of stunting at the ball handler, and helping on the roll man, but there is still a lot of work to do.
  • Neither Rudy Gay nor Dante Cunningham can stay with players like Prince, though both did a much better job in the 2nd half than the 1st. The Spurs either need to change their scheme, which is unlikely, play smaller, with DeMar matching up against the opponent’s best wing scorer, or play with more rim protection. Coach Pop will likely choose to play two bigs, though it would be nice to see DeMar take those types of assignments from time to time. He’s capable of solid defense in stretches, and that will be incredibly important to this team.
  • At point guard, none of the team’s three options made much of an impression on that side of the ball. Derrick and Bryn Forbes were solid at least, but both still got beat on simple actions and struggled to get over picks and back into the play. In the regular season, a lot of that will turn into rotations, but there isn’t a whole lot of hustle going on in preseason games. If the Spurs can anticipate those rotations, and execute as a unit, some of these holes will get cleaned up.
  • When the team was able to generate misses, they continued to get out in transition. Though there were less one-man fast breaks without Dejounte, they pushed the pace, and DeMar and Rudy both attacked mismatches early in the shot clock to great effect. Though they frequently pulled the ball back out and ran the offense, they consistently put pressure on the Hawks defense to get back.
  • When they couldn’t get to the bucket in transition, the team was very comfortable moving into primary and secondary actions. The starters even ran the motion offense a couple of times, and ran it well, which was a bit of a surprise. That certainly had a lot to do with having Derrick on the floor, but it also speaks to DeMar DeRozan’s comfort level with the offense, and the strides the team has made in learning how to play with each other.
  • Shot selection improved dramatically in this game as well. The team took 31 threes, by far their most of the preseason, and hit 12. That’s not quite lighting the nets on fire, but at 38.7%, it’s much better the 35.2% the team averaged last year. Rudy, however, is leaving a trail of scorched earth behind him. His TS% so far in the preseason is 83.2%. That’s the highest in the league for any player with a usage over 20% who has played in more than 1 game. The next two players on the list with higher usage and similar TS%? Damian Lillard and Stephen Curry. That’s not bad company at all.
  • The offensive progress is very encouraging. It was the team’s most pressing need last season, and indications are that they will be much better off this year. Still, it’s hard to come away from this game without some significant concerns over their perimeter defense. LaMarcus’ return will help, as will more time playing together and more reps. It’s important to remember that with Dejounte out, this team isn’t returning a single 5-man lineup that played even 5 minutes together last season . It’s going to take some time to get everyone on the same page. How long it takes may well be the key to whether this team can make a push for the playoffs or not.