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What we learned from the Spurs win over the Wizards

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A tale of remarkable hot streaks and horrifying inconsistency.

NBA: Washington Wizards at San Antonio Spurs
Same, DeMar. Same.
Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

I think it goes without saying that the Spurs dodged a bullet Saturday night. (Whatever ... Wes Unseld would have thought that was funny.) The Wizards came out focused and hungry coming off splitting two close games, and Scott Brooks had them looking sharp from the opening tip. San Antonio, on the other hand, looked sluggish and out of sorts as Trey Lyles got the start at power forward, and Derrick White continued to come off the pine while acclimating to the pace (and the perimeter-oriented defensive deficiencies) of the bench mob.

Granted, it’s hard to take too much out of two games worth of action, but patterns are starting to develop, and some of them are concerning. San Antonio was once again plagued with inconsistency on both ends of the court, spending parts of the game jumping out to 5+ point leads, and then almost immediately surrendering them, before losing it completely for what felt like an ominously prophetic five-or-so minutes in the middle of an otherwise hotly contested fourth quarter. That was followed by a series of DeMar DeRozan heroics (going 5-5 in the last five minutes) that gave the Spurs the lead and led to a final defensive possession that featured a near-mythical sighting of Dejounte Murray and White sharing the court in route to a block on a driving Bradley Beal.

Indeed, the end of this game felt a lot like close games from the beginning of last season (like the opener against Minnesota, or the overtime win against the Lakers), something that felt less disconcerting at the time due to the lowered expectations resulting from the Kawhi Leonard trade and Murray’s injury. But now, with Murray back in the fold and looking as spry as ever, the growth of last season’s contributors in Jakob Poeltl, Bryn Forbes, and White, and the addition of DeMarre Carroll to shore up the roster’s weakest position, it feels like a somewhat jarring dose of deja-vu.

To be sure, there’s bound to be a bout of awkwardness that the team will have to sort through, but some of it feels just a tad bit unnecessary. Another start from Lyles seemed likely to be in the cards after Scott Brooks opted to run with sizable forwards in Isaac Bonga and rookie sensation Rui Hachimura, but Pop appears determined to try and make up for starting DeRozan at small forward with slight differences in height rather than defensive proficiency, and Carroll ended up tallying yet another DNP.

And while Lyles ended the night with the team-high +/- of +7, his 2pt, 0 block, 25% shooting (in 18 mins) stat line told more of the tale than his LaMarcus Aldridge -aided advanced stats might suggest. Matched up against Hachimura (once again, a rookie), Bonga (who is somehow still designated as a point guard?), and the similarly limited Thomas Bryant, Lyles could find no advantage and made not a single memorable play against them. It’s still early, and Lyles is new to the team, but it’s not looking good for fans of Lyles’ addition. Poeltl managed to almost match him in rebounds and exceeded him in both blocks and assists (three and four respectively) in only 15 minutes of court time.

All in all, it wasn’t the most confidence-bolstering performance from the Silver and Black, particularly on the heels of a debut in which they nearly squandered quite a sizable lead against the New York Knicks, but at the end of the day, a win is a win, and in the tightly packed Western Conference every victory matters, no matter how slim. I’ve always felt like you learn more about a team from its losses rather than its wins, but in that vein, close wins are often the most revealing victories as far as winning is concerned, and I think we’ve learned that this team still has quite a ways to go in unlocking anything close to their full potential.

The defense, as is often the case in San Antonio, will likely improve with time, and the offense will likely do the same once some sort of hierarchy is agreed upon, but for now, these Spurs remain a tantalizing emblem of “could-be”, doggedly chasing after an even rhythm. Let’s hope they find it, and soon. There are bigger, deadlier fish waiting at the deep end of the Riverwalk, and treading water makes for any easy target.

Takeaways:

  • Heroics aside, DeRozan just can’t seem to get into a shooting rhythm earlier than the 4th quarter. And while I am at least grateful that he has a habit of making shots when it matters, it sure would be swell if he could do that earlier in the game too.
  • That being said, he laid down some absolutely savage dunks in the earlier quarters that seemed to fire up the both the rest of the team and the crowd. And if Space Jam’s debut taught me anything about basketball (Spoiler: It didn’t.), it’s that you ALWAYS respect the dunk.
  • Murray got in on the fun too, taking a pass from DeRozan on the break and using every ounce of his lanky frame to hammer it in. This, in combination with his tricky interior finishes and the threat of his newly minted 3-point shot (he went 0-3, but the form was good and the confidence is there) rendered him one of the most difficult players for a locked-in Wizards team to contain, despite playing mostly in limited stretches.

  • After teasing us for years, Aldridge canned a pair of threes in the sort of trailing action that Pau Gasol used to be utilized in. He’s been able to make long, contested twos for years, so this has been a long time coming, and it’ll be interesting to see if it ends up happening more often than in the past.
  • Forbes made a number of timely (if not flashy) defensive plays that largely went unnoticed. At this point it’s clear that he’s an absolute frost giant from deep (see also: stone cold killer) but it continues to amaze me how much he improves each season on the defensive end. Anybody who can make a shot from the AT&T logo AND subtly body-up Beal in the final minutes of a game is cool by me.
  • Marco Belinelli’s usage continues to confound. It’s early, but Marco has yet to make a three-pointer (the shot that most legitimizes his court time) and has been more of a sieve defensively than ever. After being burnt on a number of possessions, he managed to force Pop’s hand substitution-wise, leading to Lonnie Walker IV’s only stretch of court time.
  • Speaking of Lonnie, he looked about as great as any NBA player can in five minutes of playing time, moving with the eerie grace of a water spider as he scored effortlessly on a runner. This led to my somewhat public musing that he reminded me a bit of a young Jamal Crawford (who perhaps not coincidentally is Murray’s mentor), something that came out of Drew Gooden’s mouth not ten seconds later. This was a big deal to no one but me, but hey, who doesn’t love bias confirmation? Then again, it came from the mouth of someone who once thought that shaving everything but one patch of hair on his head was a legitimate hairstyle, so it’s hard to call that a definitive win.
  • Never, ever, ever, ever, EVER leave Davis Bertans open outside the arc. I cannot emphasize this enough. You likely already know that, but apparently no one else did last night, hence the emphasis.