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What we learned from the Spurs loss to the Grizzlies

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Sometimes you walk right into a perfect storm.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

If we are to believe that one good turn deserves another, then I think it’s safe to say that it wouldn’t be a terribly difficult task to come to terms with San Antonio’s loss to the Memphis Grizzlies last night. After a recent series of unexpectedly good turns for the Spurs (seemingly set off by an absolute shellacking of the very team in question), it was simply the Grizzlies’ turn to have some good fortune of their own. And did they ever.

No doubt fueled in large part by the thirty-point pre-Christmas beat-down of a few weeks ago, they entered the arena with a ferocity that lacked only in a symbolic foaming of the mouth. Defending with a rabid energy and shooting lights out from just about every portion of the half-court, it was clear from the get-go that Memphis was working with pocket aces in a metaphorical game of Texas Hold’em (made all the more metaphorical by the referees’ touchy reactions to physical contact).

To their credit, the Silver and Black made the best of a lesser hand, pushing back at Memphis’s seemingly endless assault on a defense that just couldn’t hold them at bay, but when your bluffs all fail and it’s time to show cards, someone has to have the better hand. And as fans who’ve already seen their fair share of overtime contests this season, we all know there’s no such thing as a split pot in this sport.

That being said, in many ways this was a much closer contest than the final score indicates, as a Spurs team that refused to go quietly into that good night reeled back a multitude of double-digit deficits (six by my count) until the Grizzlies beat them into submission with a furious final salvo in the last four minutes of the game. And as hard as that was to watch, it was almost matched by a sense of pride in watching a team that despite a veritable parade of miscues and blown rotations, refused to give up.

In a game in which the San Antonio Spurs were out-rebounded (49-37), out-assisted (39-29), outpaced (22 points to 9 points in the fast break) and outdone in virtually every hustle stat, they refused to hang their heads and surrender, a vast difference from their demeanor in similar situations at the start of the season.

In some ways it’s harder to assess real change when a team is winning, but a team’s reaction to losing can tell you a great deal, and these Spurs are starting to behave like winners, even in defeat. They took a team that was playing better all the way to the river card, gave what they had to give, and refused to hang their heads about it. In the end, that’s all you can ask of any team, or any human being really.

There’s no satisfaction to be found in losing, that’s for certain. But with an attitude like the one these Spurs have been sporting as of late, I find it hard to imagine that they’ll be down for long. Sometimes losses just happen. Sometimes you just get dealt a bum hand. But even if San Antonio comes out short in the next deal too, for the first time this season I feel confident that they’ll play it the best that they can. Once more unto the breach, dear friends; once more.

Takeaways:

  • As previously mentioned, the final score is not quite indicative of how contested this game was for most of the contest. As hot as Memphis was shooting, I was shocked to find that Spurs matched them in just about every category (both teams shot over 40% from three and 87% from the free throw line with only a slight difference in shots taken) but almost as shocking was how badly Memphis beat San Antonio in the paint. (56 points to 36 points) And while I’ve been pretty pleased with Pop’s rotations on the whole (Marco played a total of 2 minutes last night) it did make me question even more Jakob Poeltl’s very limited use in this one. As has been previously covered, Jakob’s rim protection has reached an elite level this season, in spite of some very erratic usage, and last night proved to be no exception as Poeltl came away with three blocks in only twelve (!) minutes of play. In addition to his tidy offensive contributions (3-4 for 6 points and a pair of assists), I feel the need to grouse about it a bit. This is one of the more confounding rotation quandaries I’ve had since Belinelli was regularly playing 20+ minutes.
  • This is made all the more confounding by how off an evening Trey Lyles had. I understand the desire to have him on the court when he’s on, as it stretches defenses that are already having to adjust to LaMarcus’s new tendencies even further, and his presence in the lineup did prove very effective in San Antonio’s last match-up with Memphis, but when it’s clear that it’s not working, he needs a quick hook from the coaching staff. You’re just not going to be able to get away with bleeding points in the paint in this version of the NBA.
  • To be fair to the Spurs’ interior defenders, just about every member of San Antonio’s guard rotation had trouble keeping up with Ja Morant, except perhaps for Derrick White, who was rather unfortunately experiencing a terrible shooting night. The match-up I was most interested in proved to be a near total bust as Dejounte Murray was roasted by Morant on numerous occasions. As much as I like him, Murray’s perimeter defense has to be on the list of things that have added to San Antonio’s defensive woes this season, and while I know it likely has a great deal to do with his extended injury absence, I am getting a little concerned about it. His positioning has regularly been the worst I’ve seen from him since his All-Defense season, and he’s gambling a lot to make up for it. If nothing else, it’s certainly something to keep an eye on.
  • On a more positive note, the Spurs continued to maintain their current shot profile, even when the shots just weren’t falling in the second quarter. Loss aside, this continues to allow for the best offensive version of the Spurs, as the mid-range accounted for only 14 of their points on the evening. Defensive issues aside, most nights this would have been enough to take down just about any team. Unluckily, the Grizzlies were able convert just as successfully on that end.
  • Bryn Forbes, the current recipient of a large portion of the outrage once aimed at Marco Belinelli, proved critical in just about everyone of San Antonio’s comebacks in this game. Hitting a wide array of difficult shots (and just missing on a couple of others), he continues to be an important part of this surging Spurs offense. And while I myself don’t love seeing him in the starting lineup, I have to admit, he has a habit of regularly rising to the occasion when the team needs it. Now if only he could find a way to conjure one last growth spurt (preferably after San Antonio re-signs him on a team-friendly deal).
  • I’ve saved this last spot for DeMar DeRozan, whose continued offensive efficiency and refusal to quit carried the team in this game, as it has in so many others this year. A 36-9-9 stat-line in thirty-eight minutes of play, on 61/93/100 shooting is absolutely stupid on so many levels. Whether DeMar ends up in San Antonio long-term is still very much a doubtful outcome in my mind, but there’s no doubting that he’s done just about everything he could reasonably be asked to do while he’s been here, and he deserves some love for that, especially when you consider the circumstances of his arrival. If nothing else, you’ve got to give the man credit for raising his trade value as much as possible with less than a month to the deadline. That’s just clutch as hell.