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Spurs survive Zion’s burst and hang on to beat Pelicans

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San Antonio needed every bit of its early lead to grab a win in New Orleans.

San Antonio Spurs v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images

With the hype leading up to the game between the San Antonio Spurs and New Orleans Pelicans - the game time was pushed back to allow for it to be nationally televised - both teams came out of the locker room understandably tight. The slow offensive start by both teams actually worked in the Spurs’ favor, as the toughest thing in a road game like this is to keep the game from getting away early.

The first 38 minutes of Zion Williamson’s highly-anticipated NBA debut couldn’t have gone any better for the Spurs. They controlled the pace and kept both Williamson and Brandon Ingram in check. Anytime Williamson would make a move to the basket, the Spurs would have their hands all over the ball. With ten minutes left to go in the game, Williamson had five points and five turnovers and the Spurs were up ten.

The next five minutes of basketball were stuff of nightmares if you’re a fan of the Spurs. I have no doubt that the defensive strategy of most NBA teams early in Zion’s career will be to sag off Zion and force him to beat them with jump shots. It makes sense, as he truly is a special talent athletically while his jump shot is still a question mark.

Ironically, in this game the Spurs found success against Zion when he drove to the basket. They made sure to get their hands on the ball and were able to force several turnovers. This is understandable since it is going to take time for Zion to adjust to the speed and length of NBA defenses. When the Spurs dared Zion to shoot from the outside in the fourth quarter he made the Spurs pay. I need to look at the tape again, as I’m not sure if the Spurs were giving Zion those outside shots all game but he wasn’t taking them, or if the Spurs truly did change their defensive strategy in the fourth quarter. If the latter, I’m not sure why they tried to fix something that wasn’t broken.

Below is the sequence from the 8:52 mark in the fourth quarter until Zion exited the game with 5:33 left to go in the game:

  • Zion three pointer made. Mills stood at the free throw line and watched Zion line up the first three of his young NBA career. Spurs up five.
  • DeMar DeRozan layup made. Spurs up seven.
  • Zion alley oop made. Spurs up five.
  • Derrick White three pointer made. Spurs up eight.
  • Zion three pointer made. Zion trailed the play and walked into a wide open three pointer at the top of the key. Jakob Poeltl was well inside the painted area, giving Zion all day to line up the shot. Spurs up five.
  • DeRozan jump shot missed.
  • Zion putback made. Spurs up three.
  • White layup made. Spurs up five.
  • Zion three pointer made. Poeltl once again sagged way off Zion. Spurs up two.
  • White turnover.
  • Zion three pointer made. LaMarcus Aldridge spaced Zion, even though Zion was on fire from distance. Spurs down one.
  • Marco Belinelli three point made. Spurs up two.
  • Zion makes one of two free throws. Spurs up one.
  • Dejounte Murray layup shot made. Spurs up three.

This was by far the most exciting stretch of basketball in the game. I don’t fault the Spurs for telling Zion to prove it from distance, but once he proved it, some would have adjusted the strategy and forced him to put the ball on the floor. That strategy had worked just fine for the first three quarters of the game.

The final five minutes was a lose/lose situation for Coach Alvin Gentry. Zion had almost single-handedly put the Pelicans back into the game and had re-energized the crowd, but he had also been on the court for seven straight minutes. With this being Zion’s first game back after missing the entire first half of the season with a knee injury, Coach Gentry unquestionably made the right decision by benching Zion the rest of the game. Even in hindsight, it was the best thing for the franchise longterm. Winning one regular season game is not worth risking another injury.

The Pelicans were able to keep it close down the stretch even without Zion, but Aldridge’s 32 points and 14 rebounds proved just enough to squeak out a huge road victory in a string of recent road victories. I won’t be listening to any of the national media over the next 24 hours, but if I were to guess, I’d say the narrative will be that the Pelicans would have beat the Spurs had Zion not been benched for the final five minutes of the fourth quarter. It’s hard to argue against that narrative given how he was playing, but a win is still a win and I’ll take any win at this point in the season.

With the Memphis Grizzlies losing, the Spurs moved up to eighth in the Western Conference standings. Their next game is on Friday at home against the Phoenix Suns.

Notes from the game:

  • There is something about Aldridge feeling disrespected by attention surrounding other bigs that seems to bring the best out of his game. Or maybe he just likes torching bigs from New Orleans. Aldridge still spent parts of the game spacing the floor - he took four three pointers - but he also spent more time inside the arc than we’ve seen recently. He finished the game with 32 points on 20 shots and had a season high 14 rebounds.
  • After Aldridge, I would have to give the game ball to White. Twelve points and seven assists doesn’t jump off the screen, but he was flying everywhere on defense in this game. He only ended up with one steal and zero blocks, but that just shows how counting stats such as those rarely paint an accurate picture as to a player’s effectiveness on the court. I felt like White deflected like ten passes this game, and he did an overall great job defending whoever he was guarding. He also hit some clutch shots in the fourth quarter when the Pelicans (ok Zion) were making their run.
  • DeRozan got back to his 20+ points on 50+ percent shooting, though it was an extremely quiet night for him. The Spurs still won, so I guess that’s a good thing?
  • Murray played a very good, controlled game. His jumper is starting to look better and he did a good job of picking his spots and getting to the rim. Both of the Spurs’ young point guards are starting to raise their level of play, and the Spurs are winning more games as a result.
  • I can’t say enough good things about what Poeltl does on the court. He truly is a force on defense. With his free agency coming up this summer, hopefully the other teams haven’t noticed. Yes, he gave up a couple of those Zion three pointers, but I’m certain that had to do with the defensive strategy of the team and not Poeltl missing defensive assignments.
  • Rudy Gay still looked sick, though he wasn’t playing great even before he got sick so who knows. He only played nine minutes, and missed both of his shots during that stretch. If the Spurs are serious about making a playoff push they are going to eventually need his scoring. Hopefully he can fix whatever has been ailing him this season.
  • Ingram was terrible in this game. He made only six of his 22 shots, and when he replaced Zion in the fourth quarter, Ingram failed to lead his team to a victory at home. Ingram went 1-4 from the field and 1-4 from the free throw line during the final stretch of the game. I know he’s having the best season of his career, but this is a game he’d soon like to forget.