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What we learned from the Spurs loss to the Kings

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The Spurs ran into a buzzsaw Monday night to kick off their annual road trip.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Sacramento Kings Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Have you ever watched a young dog try to play with an older one?

The old dog sort of just stands there with his mouth open watching as the young dog runs around in circles nipping at his heals and yapping away. The old dog will eye the pup, almost wary of its intentions. For the most part he’ll stand stock still, as if he’s too dignified to debase himself with all of this running around nonsense. Every once in a while the old guy will engage for a ferocious 30 seconds of intense action because, come on, he’s just old and not dead, right? But 30 seconds is plenty and right after that he usually reverts to the only logical step of lying all the way down. All the while, the pup is just doing circle after circle. Happy as can be, practically shouting in dog language, “Can you even BELIEVE we’re getting to play right now?? This is the BEST.”

This is what it felt like to watch the Spurs and the Kings play on Monday. The Kings seemed to have tapped into a well of boundless energy and exuberance and the Spurs seemed to have . . . showed up to the the arena on time. The Kings should be excited. They are a young and fun team, saddled with zero expectations, who are in the middle of a full on brawl for a playoff spot. They’re playing in a brand new arena full of fans who are desperate to love a group of players as much as they love the team itself. It’s an incredible atmosphere. Every mistake is a teachable moment and every great play is gift from the basketball gods.

How amazing was that Marvin Bagley III 360 alley oop in the 4th? Nemanja Bjelica collected a rebound on the defensive end, quickly got it up to Yogi Ferrell in transition who then found Bagley wide open and soaring through the air. He caught the pass, did a tight spin, and slammed it home as the crowd erupted.

Looks fun, right? Well, it was. For the Kings.

There wasn’t much fun to be had on the San Antonio side of things. The Spurs looked like a team conserving their real energy for later. They played okay and worked hard and did all the things you would expect from a professional team out there doing their jobs, but at the end of the day they didn’t have enough to match the energy that the Kings brought to this contest. The Spurs were working and the Kings were playing. That was the difference.

The Spurs are locked in the same tight race as the Kings for the Western conference’s rapidly shrinking playoff picture. In fact, with their win on Monday the Kings secured a tiebreaker against the Spurs in the event that it comes down to something like that. Did you know that? I didn’t know that. Seems . . . ominous. The Kings look like they are invigorated by this playoff hunt. They look like nothing could be more exciting than squaring off with Golden State in the 1st round and seeing if they could land a few punches. The Spurs look like they’ve been there before.

Most of the time I really value the calm, professional nature with which the Spurs go about their business. It makes them feel inevitable. They are a sturdy ship navigating through choppy seas and all that’s required is to stay the course. Other teams will burn themselves out playing with playoff level intensity on a random nights in February, but not the Spurs. They just pick up wins where they get them and keep on rolling. That’s the way it’s always been under the reign of Gregg Popovich and that’s the way it probably will be until he rides off into the sunset.

The end of the season is still a long way off and I’m sure there are many twists and turns still to come. I would’ve liked to see the Spurs show that they are able to match the energy of a team like the Kings. I want to know that they’re still hungry. I want to see that they realize a playoff spot is not going to be handed to them simply because it says SPURS on their jerseys.

I’ve seen flashes of it this season, but I didn’t see it on Monday.

Takeaways:

  • It seems like a pretty cruel joke the universe is playing on us right now. As soon as we’ve all pretty much come to the conclusion that Derrick White is a centerpiece of the 2019 San Antonio Spurs, we’re now going to get to watch them try to navigate a few games without him. Cool. Cool cool cool. His absence showed in this game all over the court. The defensive effort missed his energy and the offense missed having him as a weapon. Without Derrick out there probing the defenders and attacking the rim, the Spurs offense seemed to revert back to that old thing where they all just move around a little and hope LMA or DeRozan can make something happen. Injuries are always annoying, but this one is a real killer.
  • Hey, one of the few bright spots of this game is that DeMar DeRozan looked like the DeMar DeRozan we all know and love. His shots were falling, finally, and his attacks towards the rim seemed to have a little more confidence than they did in his first few games back. This is encouraging. It’s been great to see this team come together and figure out a way to win without needing DeRozan to go off for 30 points a game, but the really scary version of the Spurs is being able to marry that group of guys to the playmaking ability we know DeMar is capable of. We’re getting warmer, you guys.
  • LaMarcus Aldridge notched 22 points, however, he missed out on racking up another double-double by a single rebound. What a bum.
  • It was nice to see Jakob Poeltl out there getting some run again. I feel like I’ve missed seeing him around. He works so hard on the glass and watching him battle against the young front court of the Kings was genuinely pretty thrilling. I think that, barring injury, we’re all going to have to deal with a little more Pau Gasol down the stretch than we’d like simply because Popovich will always value his experience in games that matter and all of us clamoring for more Poeltl minutes are going to just keep losing arguments to Pop since he’s, you know, in charge of the team and we’re out here sitting on a couch.
  • MARCO WATCH: Not a banner day for those of us heavily invested in the Marco Belinelli stock exchange. He was 2-9 from the field and 1-7 from deep. Not ideal. I like to talk a lot about all the intangibles Marco brings to the table. Things like his raw imagination or his irascible disdain for the normal ebbs and flows of this sport are invaluable weapons that the Spurs are able to deploy against the nightly monotony that can seep in to the regular season. However. Even this faithful Marco correspondent is willing to acknowledge that his job is, first and foremost, to actually make his shots. Without the made shots, the shine comes off the apple pretty quickly. This particular game was a stinker. His lone highlight was a layup, early in the second quarter. He drifted around the perimeter, never changing his speed or his angle, as if being controlled by some unseen, god-like being working a protractor. He ended up at the right side of the basket and quietly laid it in with his left hand before swinging into his return orbit back up the court, proving that even his quietest moments are laced with a peculiar measure of grace and oddity. Friends, the magic never leaves, sometimes you just have to look a little harder for it.