As they are wont to do, the Spurs followed a deflating loss against an inferior opponent with a surprising win over a good team. After losing to the Bulls in Chicago on Monday, they beat the Jazz in San Antonio 127-120 behind a fantastic performance by DeMar DeRozan.
Sometimes matchups matter more than records or numbers, as the Spurs keep showing. The Jazz, with their 12 more wins and a top 10 defense, just had no way of stopping San Antonio in the first half. Utah’s game plan consists of protecting the paint and the arc at all costs, even if it means closing out strongly enough to be out of a play or not helping a defender who is struggling one-on-one in order to not leave anyone open. It’s a smart strategy, but not necessarily one that works well against the Spurs, since they are more than happy to let their guys work in isolation and take shots from the mid-range area.
Similarly, Utah had a gigantic edge at the center position, especially once Jakob Poeltl quickly got in foul trouble, but scheme mattered more than talent on that end as well. Rudy Gobert is one of the best big men in the league, so no one would have been shocked to see him dominate, but the way the Spurs mask their lack of size happens to be the exact tactic a team would use to negate Gobert’s impact as a dive man and offensive rebounder. San Antonio simply played zone or helped off shooters to tag him as he rolled to the rim, packing the paint. Since Gobert, for all his virtues, is not a post scorer, they even got away with having Rudy Gay guarding him.
So if they had such an advantage in the matchups, why did the Spurs only led by eight at the half and only by four after three quarters? Well, unfortunately for them three is more than two and the tactic that allowed them to keep Gobert in check meant surrendering a lot of outside shots. San Antonio just doesn’t have the personnel to play good defense inside and out and prioritized protecting the paint. In the first three periods Utah had 14 three-pointers to the Spurs’ five and that was enough to keep the Jazz in it despite some at times atrocious defensive effort and an inability from the supporting cast, outside from Jordan Clarkson and Joe Ingles, to score off the dribble.
The Spurs inability to blow out teams has hurt them plenty of times already this season, and I’m sure many fans braced for another close loss on this one, but fortunately San Antonio mustered enough shot-making to hold off a Utah team that was simply having a bad night. The Silver and Black hit three three-pointers in the final quarter while Utah went cold from outside, so trading buckets actually worked in the Spurs’ favor. The Jazz still had a chance to steal it late but their offense sputtered while DeMar DeRozan made some timely shots to counter the last Donovan Mitchell-led push. In the end, there wasn’t as much suspense as it seemed there might be, which is always a welcomed sight.
As good as a win against the Jazz clearly is, especially without LaMarcus Aldridge, at this point we know that it probably means very little. This is the same team that lost to the Bulls on Monday, after all. The ups and downs are expected by now.
It is, however, still reassuring to know that Gregg Popovich can find ways to make a favorable matchup work despite being at a talent deficit and to watch the young guys continue to get some minutes and do well.
The Spurs might not be able to turn a corner and become the consistently good team we’d hoped they’d be, but it’s good to know that for every disappointing performance, there might be a pleasantly surprising one in the horizon.
- DeMar DeRozan was aggressive from the start to make up for Aldridge’s absence and just demolished the Jazz’s defense. He had 38 points in 19 shots despite not shooting threes because he shot 19 free throws. DeMar definitely won the battle of the stars against Donovan Mitchell, who finished the night with a very impressive 31 points and four assists but wasn’t as efficient or dominant.
- The young guards did well, once again. Dejounte Murray made seven of his eight two-point shots and was deadly from mid-range. Derrick White had 10 points, including a big three in the fourth quarter, and found a balance between deference and assertiveness. The two also shared the court for five minutes in which the Spurs actually outscored their opponent, which is always encouraging.
- Rudy Gay cannot hit a three-pointer to save his life right now (0-for-6 for the night, an unfathomable nine percent in the last five games) but he was asked to play center and did it well enough. If Aldridge keeps missing games, he might be asked to fill that role more often, since neither Chimezie Metu nor Drew Eubanks have done enough to claim it. Hopefully Rudy will step up to the challenge like he did against the Jazz.
- Lonnie Walker IV only got 15 minutes. It’s hard to argue with Pop’s decision this time, since Marco Belinelli and Bryn Forbes did well enough to justify their playing time, but it would be great to see Walker be able to play through mistakes. Hopefully at some point this season Lonnie will gain Pop’s trust.
- Mike Conley came off the bench for the Jazz and finished the night with 12 points and just one assist to one turnover. He’s coming back from an injury, which would partially explain why he looks a little lost, but the Spurs are exactly the type of defensively-challenged team against which he should excel. If he can have a few good playoff performances the Jazz won’t regret trading for him but so far he hasn’t had the impact many, including me, thought he’d have in Utah.
Next game: Vs. the Hornets on Saturday
The Spurs will get two days off before hosting Charlotte on their last home game before the Rodeo Road Trip. It should definitely be a win, but who knows with this team.