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Spurs can’t quite overcome bad start in close loss to the Mavericks

As they have many times this season, the Spurs tried but failed to come back from a disastrous start.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs dropped their third straight game on Wednesday. In their return home after the Rodeo Road Trip they couldn’t complete the comeback against the Mavericks and lost 109-103 in a strange, sometimes sloppy, but overall weirdly entertaining matchup.

The fact that the score ended up being close is surprising, considering how bad the Spurs were early on. Gregg Popovich decided to go small, starting Lonnie Walker IV in place of the injured LaMarcus Aldridge, which made a lot of sense against a Mavericks team that plays essentially a point guard at power forward in Luka Doncic. Unfortunately the plan didn’t work, as Doncic had his way with the Spurs’ defense early, and Kristaps Porzingis dominated the paint on defense and punished a severely outmatched Trey Lyles on the other end. To make matters worse, the new lineup seemed completely baffled by Dallas’ zone defense and kept wasting possessions by trying to attack a packed paint and turning it over. It was a disaster of a first quarter.

The Mavericks led by 16 points after the first 12 minutes and seemed well on their way to a blowout win on the road. No one would have been surprised if the Spurs had simply packed it in and gone through the motions, considering they were undermanned and are unlikely to make the postseason at this point anyway. Fans certainly wouldn’t have complained too much if they had gotten a good look at Keldon Johnson and Luka Samanic in extended garbage time in the second half. But if there’s one thing we know about these Spurs is that, for better or for worse, they don’t give up all that easily.

DeMar DeRozan carried the offense in the second quarter with 11 points while the Mavericks struggled to both score and defend with Doncic and Porzingis off the court. The paint was suddenly open for the Spurs, and they attacked it relentlessly, making up for a lack of outside shooting. After being down by 19 points early in the period, San Antonio managed to reduced Dallas’ lead to seven in the penultimate play of the quarter before a Tim Hardaway Jr. three-pointer got it back to double digits.

The start of the second half wasn’t auspicious. The Mavericks were keeping the Spurs at arm’s length and eventually getting the lead back to 16, but San Antonio managed to make another run. Once again it took Porzingis and Doncic going to the bench for the reaction to truly come, but it did. This time it was Pop who was largely responsible for it by going small with Rudy Gay at center, which allowed the quicker Spurs to wreak havoc defensively on a Mavs team that has little shot creation and no paint defense when the stars rest. By the time Doncic and Porzingis returned early in the fourth quarter, the lead was just five points.

Alas, we’ve seen this movie enough times this season to know how it ends. The Spurs’ comeback attempt after getting down by double digits early on fell short. Porzingis and Doncic took over, like stars do, while the role players that had powered San Antonio’s late charge returned to their more terrestrial form. The Mavs seemed determined to give the game a suspenseful ending by making some egregious mistakes after taking a 10-point lead with 1:34, but ultimately prevailed.

It is almost unfortunate that this version of the Spurs so often refuse to roll over like the bad team they are. All these comeback attempts, both the fruitful and the futile, have so far only served the purpose of making both the coaching staff and the more optimistic fans believe that the team is closer to respectability than it probably is while delaying the true start of a youth movement.

At the same time, it would be the height of ungratefulness to complain too much about fun performances, and this one definitely was fun. Maybe that’s the best way to enjoy these Spurs as we enter the last stretch of the season: revel in the ups and downs, get excited in the moment, and don’t think about the future too much.

Game notes

  • DeMar DeRozan flirted with a triple-double, finishing with an efficient 27 points, plus eight rebounds and nine assists. It would have been great to see him carry the team late like Doncic did, but he did enough earlier to consider this a very good game for him.
  • Lonnie Walker IV and Derrick White made plays defensively and did a little bit of everything. Dejounte Murray, on the other hand, struggled greatly with finishing at the rim and sat in crunch time. Two out of the three young perimeter guys doing well is not bad, though. Hopefully we’ll get to see them share the court more going forward.
  • The Mavericks had a gigantic edge on spot-up three-point shooting. Outside of Doncic, who takes really tough shots from outside, they shot 41 percent and had eight players with at least one make. The Spurs only had five players who connected and relied on a hot night from Marco Belinelli to score from beyond the arc.
  • Rudy Gay looks slow on defense and his outside shot remains MIA, but in certain matchups he remains helpful thanks to his versatility. He finished with five points, four rebounds, two assists, a steal and a block.
  • Bigs who can shoot continue to give the Spurs trouble. Jakob Poeltl barely played because he’s not comfortable venturing out of the paint too much, and Trey Lyles is just not big enough to guard players like Porzingis. Aldridge would have helped, since he would have at least made Porzingis defend, but he’s not the solution to this particular issue.

Next game: Vs. Magic on Saturday

The Magic, winners of four of their last five games, will visit San Antonio. They are bad on the road, so the Spurs could snap their losing streak and keep pace in the playoff race with a good performance. That’s the hope, at least.