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What We Learned from Zion’s debut — uh... make that the Spurs win over the Pelicans

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The Spurs survive an unreal barrage from the Pelicans’ number one pick and leap back into a playoff spot.

San Antonio Spurs v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

I know that this is a Spurs-focused website that puts content out into the world for a community of Spurs fans, and I know that you can go to almost anywhere in the sports media landscape right this second if you wanted to simply bathe yourself in Zion Williamson coverage. You’re probably thinking to yourself, “I’ll head over to Pounding the Rock. That will be my safe haven to simply indulge in a nice little Spurs win without having to excessively hear about a 3 minute stretch of basketball played by a teenager.” Well, my friend, if that was your goal then you’ve come to the right place.

Sadly, you’re also mistaken.

When a game like this happens, you simply can’t lead with LaMarcus Aldridge burying elbow jumper after elbow jumper en route to a clean 32 points when the number one pick, in his NBA debut, came out in the 4th quarter and gave everyone the ability to taste colors for a bit. It’d be like if you were eating lunch in your house and an elephant suddenly burst into the living room and rampaged around, and then when recounting the story later to a friend you mostly just talked about the turkey sandwich you were eating at the time. It’d be like literally ignoring the elephant in the room; albeit his 30 seconds in the room.

That stretch of basketball was unreal. It’s been a couple of hours, and I still haven’t really calmed down about it. It’s always hard when guys who are super hyped make their first appearance, and the whole game threatens to sink under the weight of expectations. It’s unreasonable to think that a 19 year old kid is going to come out of the blocks fully formed and ready to master the entire universe his first time on the floor, but you’re still hoping he might do it anyway, right? The thing about special talents is that part of what makes them special is that they pretty regularly go out and do unreasonable things. So when Zion spent the first 3 quarters looking less like the next LeBron and more like a kid coming off a major knee injury who hadn’t played 5 on 5 basketball in a few months, it was difficult not to feel a little disappointed. It seemed like a boon for the Spurs bottom line, sure, but I think we all would have preferred to see a few fireworks.

Then the fireworks came. Despite playing Zion perfectly for the majority of the game, the Spurs decided to switch tactics on him in the 4th quarter and let Zion have a little zone defense, as a treat. It was like a switch was hit and it all started making sense to him. He stepped into threes and took them with confidence. He got more active on the boards. He looked like he was bursting with some sort of kinetic energy whenever he got the ball in his hands. The Spurs had been hanging out with a comfortable lead and then, in a blink, they were down by one. It genuinely seemed like Zion could do anything he wanted in that moment and the Spurs had no choice but to hang on for dear life and hope Alvin Gentry didn’t succumb to the peer pressure from the crowd and just leave him in.

Somehow, by the time Zion finally did come out, the Spurs had managed to survive and wrestle the lead back. The fact that they managed to calmly and maturely hold on to it for the rest of the game was pretty impressive to be honest, because it seemed like everyone else in the arena was only capable of looking around with dazed looks on their faces. It was an incredible debut from a truly special talent. He messed up a bunch and he looked extremely raw but, man, for about three minutes there we were all just hanging out in Zion’s world, and even though the Spurs were on the business end of it all, it was still pretty thrilling.

It was a weird experience as a fan to have your team on the other end of a hype train like this. On the one hand, you’re just watching another regular season game and hoping that your guys go out there and play well. On the other hand, you’re watching the team you root for become a historical footnote right in front of your eyes. It can feel like you’ve been watching a season of TV and all of a sudden a different show has merged timelines with the one you’re watching and all your favorite people aren’t the main characters of the story anymore. I feel like I spend a lot of time thinking about the narrative of this Spurs season, but I don’t really spend much time thinking about how this team fits into the overall narrative of the NBA season. Do they fit in? Do they matter at all?

The Spurs won the game on Wednesday night and continued this trend they’re on of looking like a half-way respectable basketball team. They survived an out of body experience from an exciting young player and they lived to tell the tale. Maybe 20 years from now, someone will ask a trivia question about how many points Zion Williamson had in his NBA debut and you’ll be able to confidently stand up and shout, “He had 22 . . . BUT ONLY BECAUSE POP SWITCHED TO A ZONE LIKE AN IDIOT.”

Takeaways:

  • The thing is, there’s actually not a ton of new information to report about the Spurs from this one. They continue to look and play better than they have all season. They are getting good contributions from the guys they need good contributions from, and it all is just sort of continuing to roll along. The good things are still good, the annoying things are still annoying: The 2019-2020 Spurs experience in a nutshell.
  • It is one of the most on-brand Spurs things of all time that with the entire world tuned in to watch Zion Williamson light up the night, they instead were mostly treated to a LaMarcus Aldridge mid-range jumper festival. The spirit of Tim Duncan’s bank shot is alive and well within the soul of this franchise. Oh, you like cool, exciting NBA stuff do you? Well get a load of this:
  • I know Bryn Forbes is a divisive subject here in Spursland, and I don’t have anything productive to add to the conversation about him really other than that I begrudgingly have to respect the amount of confidence with which he plays the game of basketball. I genuinely think that he might think he’s the best player on the court at all times. Remember the first half against Phoenix the other night when he just couldn’t miss? I’m pretty sure that’s just what it looks like inside his brain, and the ability to project that kind of greatness onto yourself and get away with it for the most part is just this side of a superpower as far as I’m concerned.
  • TIM DUNCAN FIT WATCH: Watching the game on ESPN last night, I felt extremely exposed every time the camera panned over to Timmy sitting there on the sidelines. Like, I’m not sure I was ready for the rest of the world to really be out here commenting on Tim’s new vibe. I was scrolling through twitter last night during the game (big mistake, I know) and I was taken aback by the number of people I saw making jokes about how he looked. There were a lot of people expressing surprise at his new hairstyle or the idea of him wearing khakis or just the idea of him being dressed up at all. Look, I know that he’s still not Russell Westbrook out there and I’m aware that what he’s rocking on the sidelines still very much falls somewhere in middle of the Venn diagram between “teenager has to wear a suit to church for the first time” and “dad going to his kids a violin recital,” but it still somehow managed to hurt my feelings a little bit to see people getting jokes off about him. We should be celebrating him for getting out of his comfort zone instead of mocking it. Tim Duncan in a textured blue blazer and bone white khakis, looking like he’s headed out to a yacht club after the game, is a magical site to behold, and I honestly don’t think the rest of the world deserves it. Shame on you NBA Twitter. Shame.