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Spurs lose their road opener to Clippers taking undefeated season off the table

Turnovers and a white hot 4th quarter from Kawhi Leonard send the Spurs to their first loss of the season.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Los Angeles Clippers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Clippers surprised most NBA fans and pundits last season by making the playoffs in the highly competitive Western Conference after trading Tobias Harris, who was the closest thing they had to a star player. Their success had mostly to do with their dynamic bench duo of Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell, both of whom are on two of the most team friendly non-rookie scale contracts in the NBA. They are exciting to watch.

Then Kawhi Leonard and Paul George had to team up in LA and completely ruin it for me. The Clippers are no longer the feel good underdogs scraping together wins with all grit and no stars. They are now an NBA powerhouse with multiple superstars. That’s now two strikes on you Mr. Leonard. Or is it 100? I’ve lost count. No team in the NBA is anywhere near their final form this early into the season, but until George returns from injury and gets acclimated into their system, the Clippers will remain in the egg phase of their path towards complete metamorphosis and potential NBA dominance.

I know you can’t win them all, but this game sure felt winnable. Leonard was incredibly inefficient in the first half and the rest of the starters hit just 7 of 23 for the night. Even the offensive wonder Williams was only 5 for 19. Harrell was great, scoring with his usual brand of efficiency while playing solid defense on LaMarcus Aldridge. Still, the Clippers didn’t play with a sense of urgency, opening the door for the Spurs to pull off the upset in LA.

But it wasn’t to be. The Spurs have lacked success on the road over the past couple seasons, and tonight was no exception. DeMar DeRozan was one of the few bright spots for the Spurs in terms of shooting, but he coughed up the ball seven times. Overall the Spurs totaled 18 giveaways, continuing their early trend of losing the turnover battle. The Spurs can survive some of these things at home against non-playoff Eastern Conference teams, but they will continue to lose on the road if they cannot keep the opposition from getting easy baskets in transition off live-ball turnovers. Last season the Spurs had the fewest turnovers in the league, but that statistic was a bit of smoke and mirrors because the turnovers they were committing were primarily of the live-ball variety.

Positive takeaways

  • Derrick White backed up his 21 points against the Portland Trail Blazers with a 20 point, one turnover effort against the Clippers. Unfortunately, his single turnover came late in the game with the Spurs down six and just over a minute to go. Still, it was an overall fantastic game for White. Even more promising was that White went 3 of 4 from deep. What impressed me about these shots was where they came from. Two of his makes came from the top of the key with his defender daring him to shoot. This was a similar tactic deployed by the Denver Nuggets in last season’s playoffs after they got tired of watching White torch them inside. The strategy certainly worked for the Nuggets, so watching White take — and make — those three pointers with confidence makes me feel all kinds of feelings inside. If he can make defenders respect his outside game he’s going to be incredibly difficult to stop. Oh, and he also hit a circus three pointer and had the play of the game on the defensive end.
  • Dejounte Murray had another quiet night offensively but he his hands were everywhere on defense, particularly to start the 4th quarter. In the end Murray finished with 23 minutes, right at his season average. Even so, I felt like Pop left him on the court in the 4th quarter longer than originally planned due to Murray’s active and effective D. The Spurs could end up with one of the best guard rotations in the NBA over the next couple years, and that’s saying a lot.
  • DeRozan’s efficient 29 point effort deserves recognition. He slithered his way to the rim with ease anytime he wasn’t turning the ball over. A couple of those turnovers made me feel icky, having to watch Leonard pick DeRozan’s pocket and go coast to coast for the slam. Sean Elliott said it best during the broadcast, “Things that make you happy can also make you cry.” Leonard’s patented steal and slam used to be my favorite thing to watch. The good news is that Murray is excellent at disrupting ball-handlers with his quick and long arms. Hopefully he can continue to improve his transition game to the point where Leonard has to sue him for copyright infringement.

Negative takeaways

  • Are we sure Aldridge played Thursday night? The boxscore shows that he logged a whopping 35 minutes, so it would appear that he did. He only scored five points and grabbed five rebounds, while countering that with three turnovers and numerous defensive lapses. It was not a great night for the big man, and not an effort that brings confidence about big games in the future. Harrell pretty much owned him tonight, but he has been the Spurs’ rock over the past couple seasons so he’s earned a pass for this stinker.
  • I truly believe Trey Lyles has the ability to disappear. Sometimes it feels as though the Spurs are playing 4 on 5 out there. He does give the Spurs the occasional extra possession on offense, but he has the Kyle Anderson thing going on where he practically has to be threatened before he’ll shoot the ball. I understand there’s only one ball so not everybody has to be James Harden, but the Spurs starters aren’t talented enough to handicap the field with Lyles being a complete non-factor on the court. I understand that he is taller than DeMarre Carroll, but how bad must Carroll be feeling right now to be glued to the bench while Lyles is out there starting games?
  • Pop refusing to limit Marco Belinelli’s minutes is getting on my nerves just four games into the season. Lonnie Walker IV got some actual burn in this game — four minutes worth — but it wasn’t at the expense of Belinelli. It’s true that Walker is still very raw, but he did a great job defending Leonard when he fought over a Harrell screen, forcing him into a poor shot. Belinelli is constantly behind his defender, which is not ideal if the goal is to stop the other team from scoring. He even closed this game out, which is something I hope not to see very often.

Next game

The Spurs have no time to cry over missed opportunities as they fly to San Francisco to play the injury-riddled Golden State Warriors. Steph Curry broke his hand during their last game and will not be available to play against the Spurs. Klay Thompson is also out for the entire season, leaving Draymond Green to lead the Warriors during their steep fall from grace. I really hope the Spurs take it to the Warriors tomorrow. It will be a great way to let out all the frustration they accrued during their loss to the Clippers.