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Surprisingly spry Spurs win opener vs. Memphis

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NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

I have to admit it. After the Spurs three preseason games I was not very excited about the start of the season. I don’t generally like being negative. Especially toward people that can do something astronomically better than I could ever dream of doing it. But I was worried I would have trouble finding silver linings in the Silver & Black’s season.

But right from the get go it was proven once again that I rarely actually know what I’m talking about. Popovich’s starting 5 looked a lot more like the bubble Spurs than the preseason Spurs. First and foremost we need to welcome back Keldon Johnson. What a sight for sore eyes. After missing training camp and preseason basketball he was inserted into the starting lineup after only a few days practice. Ah, to be young again. He was slotted next to LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan in the frontcourt. With DeJounte Murray and Lonnie Walker IV rounding out the starters in the backcourt.

The lineup may have resembled what we all wanted to see, but early on the results were anything but. Aldridge was particularly dreadful in the first few minutes. He let opposing Grizzly big man Jonas Valanciunas get off to a quick start. Then threw in a lazy inbound pass that got stolen by Ja Morant and finished his poor start off with another turnover on a traveling call. It looked as though the preseason was no aberration.

Things slowed down and the Spurs kept fighting to keep the game close. It was really Rudy Gay and Patty Mills off the bench that provided the first real spark. After that everyone seemed to pick up the intensity. The second unit defense was great. Especially in the second quarter where they forced 6 Grizzly turnovers. By halftime they were up by 13 points and never looked back going on to win 131-119.

This was a true team victory. The Spurs played 9 guys and 7 of them scored 10 or more points.

The first shoutout I’d like to give is to Keldon Johnson. The Spurs got off to a slow start, but it wasn’t his fault. He brought energy and aggressive play immediately. He wasn’t afraid to shoot from long range when he needed to and took the ball to the basket with purpose. I especially appreciate his body control on his drives. He takes off from the floor, takes body to body contact from the defender and while the defender is falling back to the floor, Keldon seems to hang for an extra second to get off a decent look at the basket. I’m so glad he’s in the lineup again.

Another shoutout has to go to DeJounte Murray. I don’t want to get too ahead of myself, but if this is him taking the next step it is a welcome sight. His defense was intense and scrappy and his offense was the best I have seen it. He didn’t settle for his usual mid-range jumpers from the elbow. He drove the ball. And when he drove he got all the way to the basket and made things happen. He scored 21 points on 9/15 shooting with 9 assists and only 3 turnovers. If he can keep this up when Derrick White comes back the Spurs backcourt will suddenly become very tough to handle on both ends of the floor.

Lonnie Walker IV showed his good aggressive self. He was 6/9 shooting overall and 34 from downtown for 16 points. He also showed off his athleticism with two very nice dunks. One coming on a fast break after a steal. He would have had three, but he tried to put some extra sauce on and early tomahawk attempt, but it got blocked from behind. Walker IV’s biggest weakness right now is consistency. Let’s see if he can string a few performances like this together and not disappear like he has a tendency to do.

At first glance it would look like the Spurs did not play a very good defensive game and on the whole I’d have to say I agree with that. However, they showed up in spurts that helped them gain and then maintain their lead. I already mentioned the second quarter where they forced 6 turnovers and held the Grizzlies to 20 points. That’s awesome. But I was actually encouraged by how they came back after spells of not so stellar play.

They had several scenarios like this one they had in the third quarter. The Grizzlies were on a little run and had cut the lead down to eight after a basket. On the other end Patty Mills made a savvy veteran play to draw a foul and score a bucket for an old fashioned 3-point play. The Spurs then played just enough defense to get a stop and DeMar DeRozan drew another foul on the other end and hit two free throws and the threat was ended and the lead was back up to 13. If the offense can continue to play at a high level I believe they can make just enough plays on defense to make a run at a playoff spot.

In my free time I like to get on the nostalgia train and watch old school 80s and 90s basketball. Recently I watched some highlights of a young Michael Jordan when he put up 60 something points on the Celtics in the playoffs. Everyone was going crazy about this young kid schooling the mighty Celtics. Even the video title was all about Jordan’s accomplishment. But you know what? I don’t think the Celtics cared how many points Jordan scored. You know who won the game? The Boston Celtics. 9 times out of 10 the team will beat the individual. That was tonight's game. I’m more than okay with Ja Morant scoring 44 points as long as the Spurs win. He got whatever he wanted, but nobody else could do anything. Team over individual.

There is one last person I would like to talk about and that is DeMar DeRozan. Tonight he showed why he is the leader of this team. On my initial viewing of the game I didn’t really notice him doing too much. When I looked at the box score I was surprised to find out that he scored 28 points and almost had a triple double with 9 rebounds and 9 assists. But his numbers aren’t the most important thing he provides this team. He is a run stopper. When Memphis would look like they were starting a comeback the Spurs could run their offense through DeMar. He is equally effective with a pick and roll or isolation. In either scenario he uses his unique ability to carve his way into the interior of the defense and make something happen. His penetration gets guys open for outside shots and more importantly draws fouls. It sounds boring, but his ability to get to the line can be a major momentum staller for the other team. Just when they get things going he can get to the line and slow the game down to help his team catch its breath. He can manage the game and keep things calm for the younger players.

Game notes:

  • Devin Vassell did not come out of the gates like I might have expected. He played 19 minutes, but only had 3 points and 3 rebounds. The regular season is different than preseason. But I’m not discouraged because he still did all the little things that don’t show up in a box score. Him and Jakob Poeltl were the only Spurs that got playing time that didn’t score at least 10 points. But what I really noticed them doing was giving extra effort. Especially on offensive rebounds. They didn’t get a lot of them, but they kept the ball alive with a tip here or a tip there. Effort plays like that don’t always work out, but when they do they can be a major momentum shifter and that behavior can be infectious throughout the team. Keep up the good work guys.
  • I loved Rudy Gay and Patty Mills as the first guys off the bench. If the old guys on the team can come in with effort and energy then the young guys had better do it too. Rudy and Patty for co-sixth men of the year.
  • I gave LaMarcus a hard time for his less than great start to the game. But after that he was actually pretty good. I admit that a weakness of mine is evaluating individual defense, so I’ll leave that up to the experts. However, on the offensive end he put up good numbers. He was only 14 from 3, but his scrutinized mid-range game showed up and was highly effective. He shot 9/17 and had 20 points. I kind of wish the starting center had more than 3 rebounds, but everyone else pitched in so I’ll take it.

Next up vs. Raptors on Saturday 12/26

The Spurs try to improve to 2-0 versus the Toronto/Tampa Raptors.