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What we learned from the Spurs loss to the Rockets

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San Antonio shows once again that there’s no lead too big for them to make up...or let slip away.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a relatively famous television episode in which a group of individuals roll a die to determine who will have to leave an apartment party in order to retrieve and pay for a number of previously ordered boxes of pizza. The structure of the episode then revolves around a variety of possible outcomes precluded by the rolling of each given number, with certain consistencies being affected by presence and absence of particular group members.

Each of these timelines results in a varying number of a failures and successes, with one timeline emerging as the most harmonious and another as very much the least. Dubbed “The Darkest Timeline” the latter is a scenario in a which every conceivable outcome is ostensibly negative, which is something worth noting if one were in fact compelled to take a look at last night’s meeting through the murky prism of chaos theory.

Though the final score resulted in a narrow loss for the silver and black, it’s important to recognize that last night’s game was anything but the result of a darkest timeline. Coming off of a string of tight contests against teams that the Spurs should have put away earlier, or otherwise had no business being in due to their own quality of play, it was my expectation that an enraged Houston Rockets team would make mincemeat of a San Antonio grouping that just hasn’t been able to find equilibrium this year.

To my very great surprise the lads from the Alamo City came out with a chip on their shoulders, seemingly determined to embarrass the Rockets in their own building, and gradually constructed a lead that at one point left as much as a twenty-two point gap between themselves and Harden & Co.

Perhaps the number twenty-two should have been the first sign of trouble. It was after all, a twenty-two point lead that this Spurs team overcame in that last controversial match-up, and while I’m not particularly superstitious (I did play baseball) I couldn’t help but meditate on that for a moment as Houston began the slow, steady work of digging themselves out of the hole they’d helped put themselves in.

San Antonio closed out the half holding a nineteen point lead, but by the middle of the fourth quarter had seen it whittled to a mere six points, the same numerical lead they had taken into the end of their contest against Cleveland, and then consequently given up.

Once again, I’m not much for putting stock in such things, but notions of fate and chance can often prove themselves to be self-fulfilling, and by that point it was clear that I wasn’t the only one losing faith in San Antonio’s ability to hold on, as a Spurs team that had been so steely-eyed in the first half coughed up the ball and let Houston back into a number of possessions that should have found the sure hands of San Antonio big men.

It was a mirror image of the previous contest to the point of feeling like the result of an alternate timeline; one of several, each of which would have resulted in widely varying results. But what was encouraging was how the Spurs still had a chance spite of a woeful second half. The blowout that should have come, never did, and the silver and black made a game of it in the midst of what can only be described as extremely hostile territory. Have a few foul calls go a different way, perhaps avoid a certain busted lip (or have it called as the not-so-common foul that it was) and some problematic substitutions, grab one or two critical rebounds, and San Antonio could have come away with a victory in this one.

It was a summary of the season in a single game: so close, and yet not quite it. But with that notion comes the accompanying impression that neither this game nor this season as a whole have been as far away from the ideal result at it may seem to fans of a franchise who have definitely inhabited one of the best timelines available for the past twenty years. And while the season hasn’t met the loftier standards of this particular reality, it’s not time to put on the black goatees just yet. There are plenty of chances yet to pick up the die and roll again.

Takeaways:

  • The Spurs fired on all cylinders in the first half, and all but ran the Rockets off of the court in the process, which is the one thing that was perhaps the most frustrating about the loss. This team has a habit of occasionally showcasing the cohesion that San Antonio’s front office anticipated when constructing the roster, but it always seems as if this group is just one change, perhaps even one player away from fielding a consistently competing group. For this group to show such a degree of firepower and then subsequently collapse within the same game, half, or quarter is perhaps the most confounding thing I’ve seen in my years watching the team. (And I remember the Richard Jefferson years very clearly)
  • While the Spurs displayed a degree of scoring balance that was eerily reminiscent of past teams, it would be a crime not to single out Bryn Forbes’ contributions in particular. After going 6-6 from three in the first half in spite of being hampered by some iffy foul calls in the second quarter, Forbes just barely rimmed out a critical three via an unfortunate lack of shooter’s roll, but finished the night as the starting line-up’s leader in +/- and a very efficient eighteen points. In spite of his defensive flaws, Forbes was an offensive linchpin in this one, and a large part of how the team amassed such a large lead in the first half. His foul trouble had a noticeable effect on an offense that struggled in his absence, and had to work with a very inefficient Marco Belinelli instead. (Zero points on 0-9 shooting)
  • Surprisingly, Lonnie Walker only got ten minutes of court time in the loss, and both his presence and absence were noticeable. Without Walker IV taking on Harden, the problem of the dreaded corner threes reared its head once again, and a number of Houston’s shooters capitalized accordingly. Whether this had to do with Lonnie’s lingering light-injury status, or Harden’s frustratedly gratuitous elbow to his face in the first half is hard to say, but it was easy to see that his impact was missed.
  • Equally surprising in regards to lineup changes was Pop’s decision to start Trey Lyles again. Being of the opinion that Lyles is best suited to spot minutes, I was not enthused to see him on the court that early. However, it was quickly clear that Pop knows something I didn’t know, as Lyles actually gave Clint Capela quite a bit of trouble. Forced to choose between defending an on-the-mark LaMarcus Aldridge with either Capela or the much better equipped P.J. Tucker, Mike D’Antoni unsurprisingly chose the latter option, and Lyles’ speed and ability to shoot from distance played hell with Capela’s positioning, and therefore also Houston’s defensive spacing. It was a large part of why DeJounte Murray and Derrick White were able to slash to the hoop at will in the first half, and made up for the lack of rim protection on the other side. It was an interesting chess move from Pop, and one that almost got the better of his longtime and long-suffering coaching rival. Say what you want, but senility is a word I wouldn't particularly associate with Gregg Popovich quite yet
  • On the other hand, Jakob Poeltl only ended up getting ten minutes of court time, and once Houston started to break things open in the third quarter, that was a problem. I’m not much for wielding a hatchet when it comes to these things, but once Houston and D’Antoni had made the adjustment in the second half, a change might have been warranted.

Playing You Out – The Theme Song of the Evening: