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What we learned from a brutal Spurs collapse against the Sixers

Everything looked pretty good for the Spurs right up until it didn’t.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Normally I like to get a little existential in this space when the Spurs take a tough L like this one. You never want to get too worked up about a regular season loss, so it’s generally easier to sort of talk around whatever happened. It helps process the pain and contextualize it within the grand scheme of the universe. We’re on a big rock hurtling through space, ya know? A giant ball of gas 93 million miles away is keeping us warm right now and the Spurs lost one basketball game. No big deal.

This time though? Sorry, but I think we got to reckon with the real core message of the “What we learned” mantra and dive into an idea that I desperately hope the Spurs were able to learn from the game on Wednesday night. After all, if we can’t learn from a loss then we’ve truly wasted our time here. Are you ready? Are you ready to learn? Here we go . . .


Gregg Popovich is a great coach. One of the best of all time. This loss takes nothing away from him or anything, but it still seems crazy to me that Joel Embiid’s height and length were somehow left out of the scouting report. He’s so tall, you guys. 7’0” certainly isn’t the tallest person in the NBA or anything, but it’s still very tall. We haven’t even mentioned his wingspan yet. You won’t be surprised to learn that it is extremely wide! 7’6”! He’s practically Doc Oc out there attempting to block shots.

Embiid used his considerable length to a particularly damaging effect in this game at one of it’s most crucial moments. As the Sixers were making their run to close the gap down the stretch, our intrepid heroes had two very important opportunities to extend their lead. These were opportunities which, in hindsight, would’ve likely secured victory for the Silver & Black.

The first one, with 1:50 left on the clock, saw DeMar DeRozan take a hand-off from LaMarcus Aldridge and drive towards the rim. A classic play that I’d normally be very supportive of in this situation. Here though, he runs into the aforementioned Joel Embiid who, let’s remember, is very tall. DeMar tries to push into him and draw contact at first. This is where things start to unravel because here in crunch time is probably not the time to bank on the refs giving you a call. No matter, DeMar has done his job and successfully drawn three defenders onto himself leaving a wide open Rudy Gay out on the three point line. Here’s the thing though, instead of hitting Rudy, DeMar attempts to go up to finish towards the rim. He can be a high flyer when he wants to be, but his momentum had already slowed at this point from trying to draw contact. His feet don’t even leave the ground on this layup and Embiid, who is very tall, does to the ball what tall people do to weak layups.

This next one comes with even higher stakes. Now the Spurs are down one with about 20 seconds left to play. YIKES. The little Sixers run really escalated quickly, didn’t it? No matter, we’ve got the ball, and the shot clock is turned off. This is exactly where you want to be in a close game. The onus is on us to put the ball in the hoop instead of hoping that they can’t. Here we go.

Once again, the Spurs opt to put the ball in DeRozan’s hands here at the end of the game. You can’t fault them. DeMar has been struggling lately but, wow, he was incredible in this game. 26 points on 12-19 shooting is the type of stat line we’ve gotten used to from him. Hitting a game winning shot on the road would certainly be a nice little capper to cement this turnaround game and send us on our way with a revitalized DeMar flying high.

However, this pick-and-roll seems doomed from the start. Embiid follows Aldridge out to the three point line, and he’s very recently demonstrated how effective his length is as a deterrent to layups, so DeMar has no intention of trying to test that out again. He’s going right the whole way and he’s going to make his defender, Wilson Chandler, make a play on him. Here’s the thing though . . .


DeMar gets to the height of his jump and, unfortunately, at this stage of the game it is not very high. Maybe his legs were tired or maybe he mistimed his takeoff but, whatever the reason was, DeMar was in the air the same time as Wilson, and Wilson was much higher. DeMar tries to double down on his mistake with a pump fake but the fate of this ball has already been decided. This ball will be sailing into Wilson Chandler’s forearm instead of the hoop.

You hate to see that. There were a lot of ways that final play could’ve gone and the way that it went was definitely one of the worst. We’ve now arrived at my third and final lesson from this game . . .


This whole piece probably sounds pretty glib at this point, and that has a lot to do with the fact that I am running out of ways to tell you that every single night with these guys is a coin flip. Are the Spurs good or are the Spurs bad? We’ve seen DeMar hit a number of clutch game winning shots and we’ve seen him take some pretty weak layups against very tall men. We’ve seen them whip the ball around the floor and find open looks for a surprisingly deep cast of sharpshooters. We’ve also seen the offense stall and run out of ideas with no warning. They had an 8 point lead with 3 minutes left to play. 2 minutes later that lead was gone.

I had a friend say to me after the game last night, “I have zero trust in us this season” and I recoiled because it just sounded so negative. I like this team. I like these guys. I certainly trust them . . . don’t I?

Trust is a funny thing. If the Spurs were simply bad then I would trust them to lose every night and go on about my business. If the Spurs were simply good then I’d trust them to win. Right now we’re in the weird limbo where we aren’t sure what’s going to happen on any given night and it’s extremely unsettling. After every game I keep looking for some type of firm ground that I can plant my feet on and say, “okay, now this is who we are” and then it all seems to shift the next time they play.

The one thing I keep coming back to is how weird this team is. This is the weirdest Spurs team we’ve seen in . . . maybe ever? They are mid-range assassins in 2019. They are the best three point shooting team in the league and are, at the same time, seemingly allergic to taking more than 20 threes a game. They cobble together a decent defensive rating almost in spite of themselves. I guess if we’re going to put our faith in anything, it’s going to have to be the weirdness. These guys will take turns all season delighting us and crushing us in equal measure. Set your watch to it.

The Spurs are very weird.

And Joel Embiid is very tall.