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What we learned from the Spurs win over the Rockets

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A controversial ending in the midst of a much less controversial rise.

NBA: Houston Rockets at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom; it was the age of foolishness. It was the epoch of belief; it was the epoch of incredulity. It was the season of Light; it was the season of Darkness. It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. We had everything before us, we had nothing before us. We were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way. In short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
A Tale of Two Cities

Aside from the brazenness of leading into a sports article by quoting Charles Dickens, I feel that it’s not unfair to point out the similarities between the sentiments expressed in the opening of one of his most famous works and the sentiments expressed by a coterie of fans baffled by the inconsistencies of a certain Spurs team.

More than any such group in recent memory, the 2019-2020 Spurs have been nothing short of a divisive point of conversation for silver and black enthusiasts, the divide growing almost daily as the team has struggled in a variety of areas.

This is hardly shocking. In a certain sense, sports fandom has always functioned as a study in the emotional highs and lows of athletic competition. Extremes in sentiment are welcomed here perhaps more than any arena outside of politics, and in a time of weaponized polarity and expanded means of communication, a certain degree of dysfunction can only be expected.

Trade ideas are thrown back and forth with the ferocity of a primary debate; favorite candidates chosen and arduously argued both for and against. Player demeanor and public statements are scrutinized to a near conspiratorial extreme, the chasm extending itself with each game, as both losses and wins alike are combed for statistics that support competing arguments.

But every so often there comes a shining moment of near universal agreement. And Tuesday night took its place as one such glimmering instant. Lonnie Walker, contained for so long, burst forth in a supernova of on-court brilliance that couldn’t be dimmed by one or two moments of sophomoric misfiring.

Spurs fans rejoiced in as unified a voice as they have in some time, and Walker threw down as sturdy a performance against James Harden as just about any defender in the league, particularly in a fourth quarter in which Lonnie himself scored as many points as the entire Rockets team.

What came after was nothing short of gravy as the Spurs prevailed in a pair of overtime performances that all but banished the specter of their nearly season-long late-game struggles. And it was not just Walker that made the difference, as a team that held Houston to a meager eighteen points in the fourth quarter authored their win with as cohesive a defensive effort as we’ve seen from them this season.

In some ways this was more impressive than San Antonio’s recent win against the Clippers, as this group found a way to win — not only in the absence of a major contributor — but after falling to the depths of a twenty-two-point deficit. For once it wasn’t the Spurs squandering the fourth quarter lead and drying up offensively under the pressure of adversity.

And even when the shots weren’t falling, it was San Antonio’s defense finding a way, in spite of a Rockets franchise record of twenty-four straight free throws made by Harden. It was a victory that, in spite of the controversy over a spate of obviously missed calls, deserved the bestowing of that glowing title: Team Win. A triumph that, in the meshing of somewhat disparate personnel, tugged a little bit at the rift between two groups of ardent supporters, united by a singular passion. And in sports, as in life, what more can you really ask for?

Takeaways:

  • Lost amidst the glory of Walker and Poeltl’s performances, were two subtler, but equally important ones. For a portion of the game, a supposedly ‘old dog = old tricks’ coach employed a four-guard lineup, trotting out Rudy Gay and Trey Lyles at center. And while this isn’t the sort of gambit that will pay off against some teams, it was perfect for a Rockets squad that (apart from Clint Capela) is largely jello at the interior. Certainly Rudy didn’t shoot well, but he held up surprisingly well on the defensive end, keeping the Spurs in it during a first half that very well could have gotten away from them.
  • Lyles on the other hand has proven to be an ideal spot contributor; active on the boards, and showcasing a quick trigger beyond the arc when given an opening. Barring injury, I doubt that we’ll ever see him in the starting lineup again. But his work ethic, motor, and willingness to work within his role have turned him into a very welcome surprise, and not one that I counted on at his signing.
  • Also lost in the euphoria of Lonnie-Mania was the defense of Derrick White and Dejounte Murray, whose efforts kept the perimeter from completely collapsing. The Rockets went 15-51 on the night from long distance, and that was no coincidence, as Walker’s defense of Harden allowed other defenders to flock to the areas that have been taken advantage of by so many teams. (The open look from the corner in particular has been a real doozy this season. More than any that I can remember in any case.)
  • On the one (somewhat) negative Spurs note that I am allowing myself, DeMar DeRozan, in spite of late heroics, was very not good for most of the game. He made up for it in the clutch in a way that didn’t involve scoring, but San Antonio’s not going to survive many nights in which he sports a 36.0 FG% on 25 shots, even if he was being singled out as a scoring threat.
  • James Harden on the other hand has seemingly perfected the art of empty statistical contributions as he went for fifty points on a night in which he missed twenty-seven shots. I have never held any sort of personal grudge against Harden. He’s relatively quiet, and he works harder than most, both attributes that should have warmed me to him by now. But he also stands as the poster boy for a world of analytics without context. Harden is the basketball equivalent of the random statistic that someone quotes to justify an inhumane philosophy, and for that reason alone he deserves to be de-emphasized.

Having had the misfortune of not getting to write a win-related recap since October, it took me a few minutes to adjust to that relative novelty before setting this down, but after wins against both the Clippers and Rockets, with a competitive loss against LeBron James thrown into the mix (I’ve wiped the Detroit game from the recesses of my mind), it’s hard not to wonder if this Spurs team has finally begun to find their stride.

It’ll take more than hard fought losses to convince me that the silver and black have in fact turned it around. But with the assumption that Lonnie Walker has in fact earned his share of significant minutes, there is a very real chance that we are witnessing the beginning of another Spurs core primed to continue a winning tradition here in San Antonio. After tonight, the hearts of many a fan are all but won. All that’s left now is to put some wins together.

Playing You Out – The Theme Song of the Evening:

Bonus: A more amusing exercise in James Harden related analytics.