The preseason mercifully came to an end for the shorthanded Spurs on Thursday. Unfortunately, they couldn’t find their footing against a Rockets team that put all James Harden trade rumors aside to destroy their division rival en route to a 128-106 win.
The Spurs came out looking flat, which is understandable considering they just probably want the season to start already, but the Rockets didn’t share their disinterest and carved out an early double-digit lead by simply being sharper and more energetic. Christian Wood was giving LaMarcus Aldridge all sorts of trouble on defense while the rest of the Rockets were finding opportunities on the break thanks to San Antonio’s turnover issues and lackadaisical transition defense. On the other end Houston was simply packing the paint and daring shooters to punish them, a plan that proved successful since the Spurs couldn’t buy a three. Things could have been uglier than they were if not for some good DeMar DeRozan offensive possessions.
The start of the second quarter was particularly auspicious, since FIBA Patty was struggling to get buckets, making the lack of a shot creator in the second unit a glaring issue. Not everything was bad, though. Fueled by a disruptive defense that took advantage of some complacency by Houston, the Spurs made a run. Dejounte Murray found room to attack, especially on the break, while Devin Vassell continued to look NBA-ready by being helpful on both ends. Eventually the Rockets came out of their funk and with James Harden orchestrating the offense and Wood continuing to outplay Aldridge, they managed to close the half strong against the Spurs’ starters, going on a 10-2 run that gave them a 15-point lead at the break.
The second half proved that the stretch of good play was a fluke and that the disastrous performance of the starters wasn’t. The turnover woes continued and the defense was once again terrible both on the break and in the half court. The Rockets targeted Aldridge mercilessly, typically in the pick and roll, and whenever he couldn’t simply stay near the rim, he failed to do much to stop them. The Houston lead ballooned once again, and this time there was no response from the bench. San Antonio’s lack of energy didn’t help, but they were simply outclassed in the third quarter by a team that had a clearer identity and superior personnel. Not even some interesting Vassell moments could redeem what was an awful half of basketball for a Spurs team that is still trying to find out who they are while dealing with absences and integrating players to new roles.
- LaMarcus Aldridge probably played one of his worst games as a pro. Not only did he miss his five three-pointers and only pull down four rebounds in 25 minutes, but he was also a disaster on defense despite logging three blocks and two steals. He was helpless defending the pick and roll and hesitant to leave the paint to contest jumpers. He did hit a couple of shots from the left block, so we know he can still do that if needed, which is nice, but in terms of looking ready for more of a 3-and-D role, his performance didn’t offer a lot of hope.
- DeMar DeRozan contributed 21 points and took 11 free throws, so he gets a pass, but he also had no assists to three turnovers. The version of DeRozan we saw in the bubble was exciting because he never forced anything and instead got others involved. He did that in the first game of the preseason but struggled in the last two.
- Lonnie Walker IV is completely lost right now. He doesn’t seem to know what to do in a starting role that requires him to play off others. Sometimes he plays aggressively for stretches, like the last game, but he continues to disappear for quarters on end. Logging just one point and two assists in over 28 minutes is just unacceptable. Maybe a move back to the second unit, where he’ll get to run and use more possessions, could help.
- If Lonnie is looking like someone who should maybe come off the bench, then Devin Vassell would probably be the one to replace him. The rookie once again looked poised despite his inexperience and contributed on both ends, showing off his competitive spirit on defense and a more advanced offensive package than expected on his way to 18 points in 13 shots. It’s only the preseason, but Vassell has been very impressive.
- Dejounte Murray played aggressively, which is always a welcomed sight. Not every foray to the rim resulted in buckets or assists, as his finishing and decision-making continue to be a work in progress, but on a night in which few Spurs played hard, Murray definitely did.
- Rudy Gay should probably have a smaller role at this point, but the Spurs need him to be their starting power forward by necessity. He’ll have to do better than 1-for-5 from beyond the arc and three rebounds to be able to fill that hole well, but it’s hard to be too mad at him when he’s simply being asked to do too much.
- The same goes for Patty Mills, who at age 32 shouldn’t be trying to carry the second unit. FIBA Patty is fun, but if Mills leads the Spurs in shot attempts, like he did on Thursday, then the team might struggle. For now his volume scoring (16 point in 15 shots) is needed, but hopefully once Derrick White returns Mills’ role will become a little smaller.
- Jakob Poeltl and Trey Lyles were largely bad, but mostly not needed against a small, athletic Houston squad. Drew Eubanks did some work in garbage time, like he always does. There will be games in which big man depth will matter greatly, but this simply wasn’t one of them.
- The Pistons decided to pay Jerami Grant and Mason Plumlee a combined $27 million instead of retaining Christian Wood . . . yikes. Wood won’t always put up 27 points and 10 boards, but he will cause more plodding bigs like Aldridge all sorts of trouble on offense. If his defense improves, he’ll be a steal for Houston.
Next game: @Grizzlies on Dec. 23
The Spurs will open the regular season by visiting Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and the Grizzlies in Memphis. They will have to play a lot better than they did in preseason to start the year off with a win, but it’s not impossible.