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What we learned from the Spurs loss to the Celtics

Featuring a loss San Antonio was in for all of 3 minutes, but kept trying for the full 48.

NBA: Boston Celtics at San Antonio Spurs
A picture worth exactly 1,596 words.
Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

To quote Dire Straits’ final album: “Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug.” Saturday night the Boston Celtics took on the role of the former, while the San Antonio Spurs did their best impression of the latter. In a game that somehow managed to feel more like an away game than perhaps any of San Antonio’s actual away games, it was clear by the end of the first half that for whatever reason, the Spurs just didn’t have it.

There were no obvious outliers to blame. No major (and presumably minor) injuries, no cross-country travel, no bodies wearied from the wear-and-tear of the first game of a back to back. This was just a good old-fashioned whooping, plain and simple; which is honestly a bit of a relief. As any human being who’s been alive long enough to know knows, some days you just get licked.

It could certainly be argued that this was the somewhat predictable result of an inevitable letdown coming off the team’s most comprehensive victory of the season; it’s not every night that one of your best players scores just shy of forty-points on eighty percent shooting. But after teasing the home crowd by surging to an early 7-0 lead, the Spurs allowed the Celtics to score seven straight to even it back up, held on for a minute or two, and then cratered like an over-picked zit, relinquishing what would go down as their only lead of the night. The Celtics would finish the quarter up 39-30, and San Antonio wouldn’t get within ten points of them for the remainder of the game. Take away that deceptive four-minute burst, and Boston would have gone wire-to-wire to win it.

It’s my experience that, generally speaking, it’s hard to take too much away from runaway wins and massively one-sided losses, so I’m always cautious about labeling a match-up like this, but Gregg Popovich certainly wasn’t, expressing his disappointment in a performance he called “non-aggressive and non-physical”, while praising the Celtics for the inverse. And to be fair, he had a point.

After coming out with a head full of steam, the Spurs seemed intimidated by Boston’s hyper-active defensive play and sharp passing, as Boston turned the tables on them with a barrage of timely threes and slick interior play. And it quickly became clear that their well-timed switches and doubles were getting into San Antonio’s heads as they piled up another fifteen turnovers on the night in a display that featured both the occasional bout of sloppiness and chronic over-passing.

By the arrival of the third quarter the Spurs looked alternately out-of-it and desperate, as they consistently ignored LaMarcus Aldridge and tossed up shots far too early in the shot clock. That Pop subbed out all five of the players on the court a-la-hockey more than once (And once in the first quarter!) said everything that needed to be said. This just wasn’t going to be San Antonio’s night.

But one of the wonderful things about nights like this is knowing that this is just about as badly as your team could reasonably play. And that it came against one of the best teams in the league is hardly shameful. If you think about it, three of San Antonio’s four losses have come against three of the best teams in the league, and San Antonio was more competitive against both the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers than either final score indicated. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather get these sorts of games out of the way early in the season, and I’d rather not have it happen against a team like say…the Knicks.

This was the crème-de-la-crème of losses as far as losing goes; a fart in a fifteen mile-an-hour wind, the stench of which quickly blows away. Better to just take it on the chin and move on. Heck, this was a night that made Marco Belinelli look like a prince among men as he tallied his first multiple three-pointers-made + zero turnovers game of the season. (He made two. Let’s not get crazy here, ya’ll.)

All-in-all, it’s hard to get an exact bead on this team. They’re still in the developing phase, regardless of what the denizens of Spurs Twitter might insist. A few more tweaks, and another twenty-or-so games should give us a better idea of this team’s ceiling, but for now they look a bit like last years team inconsistency-wise. Only time will tell if that’s the truth of the matter, but in spite of how it might feel, that would still put San Antonio near the fifty-win mark and would involve betting on this team not quite figuring it out. I’m not quite sure I’m ready to make that bet just yet.


  • Among the Spurs who didn’t resemble orcs in a reenactment of Helms Deep’s final charge, DeMar DeRozan stood out with 22 points in just twenty-seven minutes of play. This was largely the natural conclusion of some dartingly sly moves to the basket, a number of which resulted in free throws against a highly athletic and remarkably stout Boston interior. The crazy thing is that they arguably should have resulted in even more, as the officials seemed reluctant blow the whistle on a not-insignificant number of San Antonio’s drives to the hoop.

  • I know some of it is the result of ongoing defensive struggles, but it sure would be nice to see a team not go off from three-point land against San Antonio. They cooled off a bit later on, but Boston’s barrage of early threes definitely took a toll on the Spurs mentally. It was hard to watch considering how confident our lads had looked at tip-off.

  • Speaking of getting hot from long-distance, San Antonio stayed absolutely torrid from three (46.7%), despite the quality of some of their looks. This is a nice trend, but also seemed to be a part of Brad Stevens strategy, as he had his team focus on denying San Antonio interior looks, almost daring the Spurs to spot up from outside the arc. It was an interesting tack, and one that appeared to take the Spurs off guard, but it was also quite the gamble. If San Antonio hadn’t coughed up so many turnovers and had gotten a few calls to go their way this could have been a very different game. Stevens got away with it this time, but it’s definitely something to keep an eye on in the future. I have no doubt Pop and his assistants filed this one away for later.

  • That the Spurs’ defense was a hot mess almost goes without saying. But that the Celtics scored (30!) more points in the paint than San Antonio was the story of the game. It’s not often that the Silver and Black lose a contest that they make 14 threes in, but when you’re that porous inside and give the other team 28 free throws, (25 made. The most on the year against SA.) it’s going to be hard to be competitive. I wouldn’t expect that to continue, or for Pop to be long for this world if it does.

  • Kemba Walker should have had a max-contract years ago. He is one of the slipperiest players in the league on the offensive end, perhaps even as slippery as a healthy Steph Curry. He’s also a perpetually underrated distributor and ball-handler, who acted as a one-man torture chamber for San Antonio’s young guards tonight. I imagine he’ll have a harder time once Derrick and Dejounte start sharing the back-court together, but tonight they both got schooled. Murray had a particularly rough night on both ends, which is bound to happen every now and then, especially considering that’s he’s still making a comeback from injury, but that it still managed to surprise me says a lot about how far he’s come.

  • Trey Lyles continues to defy my expectations, which admittedly have been low, but I have to say, the kid is winning me over. He was 3-5 from three tonight and continued to be active on the boards. Reservedly speaking, he is beginning to look like an ideal front-court partner for Aldridge, and if he shows off some more of that nifty passing he seems to be capable of, he’ll go down as San Antonio’s biggest (and easily most unexpected) steal of the off-season.

  • It’s a bit of a dead horse to keep beating on Marco, but Pop’s decision to give DeMarre Carroll Rudy Gay’s minutes rather than Marco’s was perhaps the most baffling moment of the night for me. It makes me wonder if Rudy’s got some sort of nagging minor injury, which would make sense considering how inconsistently he’s been moving thus far.

  • Beating aside, it was sad to see Gordon Hayward sustain yet another injury. I’ve watched him play since his freshman year at Butler, and he’s long been one of my favorite non-Spurs in the league. When healthy, he’s one of the most unique and multi-faceted players in the league, a sweet passing guard in the body of a forward, and I spent most of his first years in the league hoping San Antonio could get a hold on him before the Utah Jazz figured out what they had on their hands, or at least by the time Manu started closing in on retirement. It didn’t work out that way, but it’s sad to see his body breaking down on him so early regardless.

Playing You Out – The Theme Song of the Evening: ‘The Bug’ by Dire Straits