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What we learned from the Spurs loss to the Grizzlies

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A tale in which Spurs fans suffer two very different varieties of heartbreak in one evening

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Memphis Grizzlies
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

William Shakespeare once asserted that “Never was there a tale of more woe, than that of Juliet and her Romeo.” With all due respect to Mr. Shakespeare, it’s obvious that he’d clearly never seen Monday night’s San Antonio Spurs loss to the Memphis Grizzlies.

And while comparing the contest to Shakespeare’s most popular tragedy might be a bit of an exaggerated reaction on my part, (For one thing, it was nowhere as well written as any of the Bard’s dramatic works. Well, maybe ‘Two Noble Kinsmen’. No offense, but it’s an excuse for a play) falling so frustratingly short of victory on a night in which Spurs fans had prepared themselves to say goodbye to one of the last major links of the Big Three era felt like an epic tragedy.

I had already experienced a certain degree of uneasiness when San Antonio’s front office had initially announced that Tony’s retirement ceremony would be taking place on a night in which we would play host to Memphis. Having worked on a preseason preview for the Grizzlies, I spent time pointing out the latent potential in that ball club’s roster, as well as their knack for playing the Spurs close regardless of personnel.

This was, in my mind, not far from scheduling the ceremony to take place against the Lakers or the Mavericks. Even worse, Memphis arrived at the AT&T Center after a pair of brutal thrashings and without a single road win. Knowing they had played both the Rockets and Suns close and tallied a victory against Minnesota (with this year’s Terminator version of Karl Anthony Towns) and with the Spurs favored to win by 11, this felt like the perfect trap game, and boy howdy was it ever.

As has been the trend for the opposition, Memphis came out hot from the get-go, as the Spurs struggled to circle the wagons. The quarter ended with Memphis up by thirteen points, and the game looking a bit like our last bout against the Celtics. Fortunately, the Grizzlies are not that caliber of team. (Yet. Give it a year or two.) San Antonio capped a furious quarter-long rally down by three at the half.

Unfortunately, they promptly forgot the difference between the first and third quarters and gave us a replicant version of their terrible opening frame. The only human thing about it was that it gave birth to another furious fourth quarter rally, which fell short when San Antonio (down by only three points) suddenly discovered that they couldn’t make threes, and Memphis discovered that they couldn’t miss them. A subsequent mess of some of the blindest officiating I’ve seen since the infamous 2016 Oklahoma City inbounds non-foul all but set the Spurs fate in stone, as both LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan bricked vital free throws in the closing moments.

Combined with Tony’s jersey retirement the whole evening felt like a jarring reminder of where San Antonio’s team currently sits in the NBA hierarchy as well as in the Western Conference: 5-5. Whatever degree of potential this team has, (And to be clear, I still think it has quite a lot) their current record is a fitting symbol of how the team has actually played thus far, and where they will remain until they find some sort of equilibrium. Playing as they are, this is a .500 team, plain and simple. Whether they and their coach find a way to elevate their level of play will be the tale of the season.

Takeaways:

  • The worst part of this game was the maddening inconsistency of it all. You’ve heard the expression ‘a game of two halves’? Well, this was a game of two quarters, and San Antonio just couldn’t seem to put them together consecutively. This was exacerbated by the fact that rather than alternating quarters of average offensive play with massive offensive surges, the Spurs decided to synchronize quarters in the which they played smothering (for them) defense, with ones in which they wilted offensively.
  • The plague of excessive turnovers reared its ugly head yet again, with Dejounte Murray responsible for four of the thirteen himself. This was a problem on a night in which he also didn’t do much scoring. Murray is chock full of talent, but it seems like he’s now having difficulty sorting out his role in the starting rotation, and he might be better suited to the faster paced bench squad for a while.
  • Derrick White on the other hand, had a very solid outing and was rewarded with an uptick in minutes as a result. I still think that White’s more deliberate style of play meshes better with the starters, offering them a play-maker who functions just as well off of the ball when DeRozan is ball-handler, as well as giving them another threat from deep without sacrificing defensive prowess.
  • Speaking of threats from deep, Trey Lyles canned another triple while providing his usual rebounding presence. He’s no rim-protector, but he continues to marginally improve and that’s not nothing. Things could get really intriguing if White does get some run with the starters, as that would give Pop four credible outside threats in conjunction with DeRozan’s ability to slash and drive-and-kick out to the perimeter. Anybody want to see some four-out offensive sets with bigs on the perimeter? I know I do.
  • On the other hand, San Antonio hasn’t been able to defend the interior with any consistency, especially in the last two games. Historically that’s not an area that opponents have been able to take advantage of, and certainly not to that extent. (48 points given up in the paint tonight, 60 to Boston) I’m not sure what’s going on there, but it is a bit concerning, especially if it continues.
  • Inconsistencies aside, the Spurs actually shot pretty well tonight (46.7 FG%, 40.0 3PT%), it was just that the Grizzlies shot even better. Much more shockingly it was their rebounding that failed them. For the first time all year, the league leaders were beaten on the boards by another team, often in critical periods of the game. This was exacerbated by San Antonio’s continued free throw issues. (76 FT% on the night) Thankfully the Grizzlies shot even worse (70 FT%) or this might have ended up as a rout, and honestly, I’m not sure that wouldn’t have been better.
  • Bryn Forbes continued to put his shooting drought behind him as he went 4-9 from deep. Marco Belinelli did the same by going 2-4, but unlike Bryn he was regularly (and successfully) targeted by Memphis on the defensive end, while DeMarre Carroll continues inexplicably to rot on the bench. At this point I’m almost getting desperate enough to hope that Pop will just put Jakob in and try to make three bigs work on the court simultaneously. It could work, right? (I’m going to take your collective silence as a resounding yes. Thanks, guys. Your unwavering support is one of the the only things keeping me going at this point.)
  • I thought about typing up something lengthy for Tony, but ain’t nobody got time for that, (or at least, not me at this moment since it’s 2am right now) and honestly, I’d have a hard time topping what I’ve written in the past. Words are very nice things, and I like using them to express a wide variety of asinine claptrap, but sometimes they are in fact insufficient, and this is one of those times. To say that I miss that turbocharged little Gaul would be an incredible understatement to the point of near insult. Merci infiniment, Tony. It’s the best I can do for now.

Playing You Out - The Theme Song of the Evening:

For those of you who (like me) thought long and hard about setting fire to your couch last night, and then followed it up with the bittersweet melancholy of Tony’s ride into the sunset.