With the regular season and Western Conference playoff race mercifully coming to an end, the Spurs played like a team looking to cross the finish line in one piece, rather than sprinting through it. Luckily for them, they finished the game exactly the way they started it: in the postseason, and mostly healthy.
The Pelicans have long been a problem for the Spurs, and the game Wednesday night was no different. Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday were both spectacular while Anthony Davis and Nikola Mirotic were very solid, and the Spurs struggled to keep up with them on both ends of the floor.
Though the Spurs hit the offensive boards hard to start the game and played Anthony Davis quite well in the first half, not much else went their way. Turnovers, poor interior defense, and a terrible offensive flow really defined their play for most of the second quarter, which was more than enough to bury them for the rest of the game. Even with a considerable boost from the bench in the first half, the Pelicans ran out to an 18-point lead heading into the half.
After getting into the playoffs the previous game, it’s fair to wonder how much the Spurs concerned themselves with Wednesday night’s game against the Pelicans. With health the most important thing going into the postseason and the team being in need of some luck with the other games having playoff implications throughout the night, it’s entirely possible that this game was more about finishing the season and less about fighting for playoff positioning.
With that said, the game had plenty of playoff implications. The Pelicans aggressively double-teaming LaMarcus Aldridge to start the game, putting the onus on the supporting cast to get buckets. Should the Spurs play the Golden State Warriors, you can bet a similar defensive scheme will be waiting in The Bay, and it’s probable that every other potential draw in the first round will heavily consider doing the same.
The Spurs did not fare all that well against the double-team, but it did provide some wide-open looks from 3 that they missed and some interesting isolation opportunities for Rudy Gay. Gay converted on some one-on-one looks in the post, and Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday bothered some of his other attempts, which is to say that elite defenders can bother him but lesser ones probably won’t.
The double-team also opened driving lanes for the likes of Manu Ginobili and Dejounte Murray, who could not take advantage of the opportunities against the Pelicans but could on another night against another team. Davis is possibly the best defensive player in the game and wipes away several good looks each game just by standing near the hoop, but he won’t be there in the playoffs against San Antonio.
The Spurs also opened the second quarter with an ultra-small lineup featuring Gay and Kyle Anderson at the center and power forward positions, which could be leaned on heavily come playoff time should Pau Gasol and Joffrey Lauvergne prove to be ineffective. Without a true big man on the floor for either team, the Spurs were able to generate some good looks that simply didn’t go in the hoop. Though the Spurs are not known for being a small-ball team, they have the pieces to keep up with most other teams’ small-ball lineups.
Tony Parker looked good offensively all game and seemed to be warming himself up for the playoffs. He had his legs under him on his jumpers and there was just a bit more pep in his step on drives to the basket. It goes without saying that Parker reaches a point in the season where he looks a little washed, and then he turns it on when it matters.
In an attempt to close the 20-point deficit and to get some defense on the floor, Pop unexpectedly turned to Brandon Paul, who has not had a particularly strong rookie season overall, but still has some untapped potential as a stout defender on the perimeter. As with many inexperienced Spurs players, the first year does not guarantee much. However, he has real NBA skill, and come playoff time, there’s just no way to predict if he randomly finds himself in a pressure-filled moment to provide defense and energy. [Should anyone disagree with this, please look to the 2017 playoffs, when Murray started against the Houston Rockets after playing about half the regular season.]
With one of the weirdest regular seasons in Spurs history in the books, everyone can look to the playoffs as an opportunity to start fresh. Regardless of opponent, fans should feel like this team has a chance because of the team’s veteran presence, collection of talented youngsters, and their all-star big man. This season should be remembered for many things, but the biggest might be that Aldridge has rejoined the highest ranks of elite big men in the game, and the rest of the team followed his lead game in and game out.
As always, on to the next one.