These Spurs seem to love suspense. That’s the only explanation as to why they didn’t seal their 113-110 win against the Trail Blazers while they had the chance and instead had to rely on an incredibly lucky bounce on a Damian Lillard three-pointer to avoid overtime.
The only constant in the Spurs’ first three games has been an inability to play hard and smart for a full 48 minutes. On Monday they had two good quarters bookended by some awful play that almost cost them their undefeated status. The Blazers, on a SEGABABA and with Lillard in supernova level late, deserve an enormous amount of credit for fighting until the end, but without San Antonio’s collaboration they wouldn’t have been able to get to the last possession with a chance to pull off the comeback. Fortunately Lillard’s last shot went in and out to save the Spurs from embarrassment.
End of game set for the Blazers. Tolliver spins into a screen for Lillard to get him to the opposite corner. No idea what happened to Lyles but great effort by White to get himself in position to even contest without fouling. pic.twitter.com/STBeFkyv8f— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) October 29, 2019
The near fourth-quarter collapse will get most of the attention, which is understandable. The Spurs were leading by 19 points with under six minutes to go before failing to score for over three minutes and letting Portland, led by an inspired Lillard, back in the game.
But the start of the evening was similarly disappointing. The Blazers opened the game scorching hot from beyond the arc and quickly carved out a double-digit lead that would take the Spurs a long time to erase. Lackluster play by the starters early was a staple of too many games last season and it returned to haunt San Antonio on Monday. Small mistakes on defense piled up and the offense was too passive and predictable. Instead of striking early to put away a tired, road weary opponent, the Spurs gave the Blazers life and had to spend a lot of energy later on to make up for their first-quarter complacency.
As frustrating as the beginning and the end of the game were, the middle part did provide signs of how good this team can be when everything is clicking. The bench provided its usual jolt of energy when it was most needed, with Derrick White leading the way on offense. The stars, while far from playing perfect games, produced in the way they are expected to. Depth still looks like a huge strength, as there’s always a role player ready to step up when another one struggles. Turnovers were an issue throughout and the lack of outside shooting remains a problem, but these Spurs look like they have the pieces to be solid every night and dominant when things go well. Which makes the stretches in which they look clueless or borderline disinterested all the more maddening to watch as they happen.
The challenge for fans so far has been to remain focused on the big picture. Right now the Spurs are 3-0 and a lot of their issues on both ends can be attributed to early-season sloppiness. No one wants to peak before 2020 even starts and expecting no struggles on a team with two new starters would have been silly. Consistency should come in time.
The Spurs are fine. We all know that. It would just be a lot better to not have to remind ourselves of it every game when they decidedly don’t look like it for a few minutes.
- LaMarcus Aldridge didn’t shoot well from the field, but was one of the few Spurs that didn’t struggle with turnovers and he logged five blocks. DeMar DeRozan had a very efficient shooting night but coughed it up five times and missed two free throws that would have iced the game. Not the best night from the stars but not the worst, either.
- Dejounte Murray dished out a career-high eight assists but had trouble scoring. Fortunately Derrick White came alive on this one, contributing 21 points on 8-for-11 shooting, including a team-high 10 in the fourth quarter, when no one else had it going. It’s such a luxury to have those two on the roster right now, even if they don’t share the court.
- Is Trey Lyles good? It’s so hard to tell. He’s been solid defensively but he’s just so passive on offense. He moves the ball, but that’s about it. For now he should probably continue to start, since scoring hasn’t been an issue, but I just can’t see the Spurs reaching their full potential with him playing almost 25 minutes, like he did against the Blazers.
- Nothing new to report in the backup small forward role watch. Marco Belinelli continued to get those minutes, while Lonnie Walker IV and DeMarre Carroll both got DNP-CDs. It was a shame that the Blazers made it a game late, because it would have been great to see both get a shot at impressing Gregg Popovich in garbage time.
- One small positive thing that deserves a mention: the Spurs did a great job of gang rebounding. Limiting offensive boards was clearly a priority and everyone contributed, with six players having at least four defensive rebounds. It’s something that San Antonio will have to do all season, so it was good to see it in action on Monday.
- Damian Lillard had 10 points on 16 shots in the first three quarters. In the fourth he scored 18 consecutive points and almost sent the game to overtime. He’s the scariest late-game scorer in the league right now, by far.
Next game: @Clippers on Thursday
The Spurs will visit Kawhi Leonard on their first road game of the season. They’ll need to be sharper than they were against the Blazers to escape the Staples Center with a win.