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What we learned from the Spurs loss to the Clippers

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There are things to be said about falling just short, and not all of them are negative.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Los Angeles Clippers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

As far as losing is concerned, I was never much for investing in the concept of the ‘good loss’. More than a few coaches worked to instill in me an appreciation for progress in a failing effort and I can’t say that any of them were very pleased with the result.

The young are often possessed by an inherent belief that any and every positive result is there within their grasp for the taking. A boundless reserve of energy and an inborn assumption of one’s own immortality have a great deal to do with this, but it’s often a combination of age and a humbling by the world at large that teaches us otherwise. In time, we learn to endure, to execute when we recognize that the moment is upon us, and to pick our spots accordingly.

This is also something that sports competitors have to come to terms with in order to find success. Every franchise within the world of sports eventually finds themselves investing (willingly or unwillingly) in a youth movement. Only a select number will be able to mature their teams at the appropriate rate to place them within the realm of relevance and contention.

This season the San Antonio Spurs have found themselves thrust into such an investment by the decline of various veteran contributors and the difficulty of a circumstance brought on by something outside their control. And as a result, the Spurs have struggled with consistency, defeating teams that they should have no business testing, and then falling to others to whom they have no business losing.

Progress can be a tricky thing to gauge. In the minds of many, progress most relates to a win-loss record than to shining moments within a loss, and that has made this a rather depressing season for some. But for those paying close attention, there has been some very real splendor in the midst of some otherwise difficult stretches. Last night’s loss against the Los Angeles Clippers was full of such moments, but there was one in particular that caught my eye.

At the end of the fourth quarter there were a pair of possessions that could serve as a kind of summary for last night’s performance. Down 104-102 DeMar Derozan drove his way to the hoop, as he often does, and was rather cleverly tied up for a jump ball by the forward-who-must-not-be-named. And in a impressive turn of events, DeMar managed to come away with a tip to Patty Mills.

The resulting drive from Mills led to a kick-out back to DeMar, who in turn found Derrick White just a second too late, as White iced the triple to give them the one-point lead that was immediately erased because of a shot-clock violation.

As far as deflating moments in the regular season go, that’s about as big as they come. And this Spurs team of the earlier season would probably have just packed it in after that. Instead, they very nearly forced the Clippers (and Leonard) into a shot clock violation of their own, while DeRozan came up just short in forcing Los Angeles’ best player into a turnover of his own as he worked to avoid committing a violation.

Alas, the ball went out of bounds, but this moment of defensive cohesion sticks out at the end of a quarter in which San Antonio had a great deal of difficulty containing Los Angeles’ pair of talented wings.

The learning process is still in progress for this Spurs team. But the signs were there in the kind of crunch time stop that San Antonio has struggled to make against even the worst of teams this season, as the Clippers did everything they could to get Derrick White off of Kawhi Leonard and even DeRozan refused to play the role of the weak link. If not for a split-second of hesitation from DeMar and an impressive make by Paul George over Lonnie Walker’s near perfect shot contest, this Spurs team might have come away with yet another victory over one of the best teams in the western conference.

One by one San Antonio has begun to solve their most obvious issues. No longer does the starting unit start the game off by putting the team in a hole. Lonnie Walker has begun to see real minutes. And not unrelatedly, the defense has been performing like a top ten unit.

Apart from gross inconsistency (which has lessened somewhat) the Spurs are just some late-game issues away from playing like the squad that we initially assumed they’d be. And the margin for solving those issues is much smaller than you might think. In fact, I’d be willing to argue that it’s down to just one second.

Takeaways:

  • Derrick White has become an incredible pest. Despite scoring only four points on the evening and tallying zero steals, he was seemingly everywhere. His defensive presence simply cannot be understated. Frequently defending George or Leonard the Clippers were forced to set screen after screen in order to extricate their go-to scorers from his grasp. It was (as it tends to be) a quietly impressive performance on White’s part. If not for the aforementioned shot clock violation that stole away his stone-cold dagger he’d have been the all-around hero of the evening.
  • Patty Mills continues to propel the bench’s relevancy even when no one else seems to have it. On a night in which Gay, Poeltl, White, and Walker combined for only 14 points, Patty came away with 18 of his own, while burying several critical late-game threes in the process. As many times as his contract has been questioned in the last few season, I think it wouldn’t be unfair to suggest that he’s been worth every penny of it. He’s been the linchpin of the entire team since Manu’s exit and it’s fair to wonder where the Spurs would be/would have been without both his presence and his contributions.
  • Trey Lyles has come back to life in the past few games. After struggling with his shot and role at times, he’s proven once again to be a vital spot contributor. Not only in Aldridge’s absence last week, but also in this game where his length and outside shot gave the Clippers’ forwards some real trouble. I’d liked to have seen a few more points and rebounds from him, but I think anyone who remembers the stench of the Joffrey Lauvergne era will agree that a competent spot-contributing big-man is something that’s hard to take issue with.
  • In spite of (and perhaps because of) his limited offensive contributions it was great to see Lonnie Walker getting 20+ minutes. His defensive play, while not perfect, was enough to keep him on the court and Marco on the bench in spite of a 1-4 performance. It’s no surprise that San Antonio’s defense has been improving with his presence, as he simply has a lot more potential to work with on that end than Marco does. And against LA’s nasty pair of wings Belinelli would have been more than just a standard liability. Lonnie’s play keeping him on the court likely had a lot to do with keeping this one close.
  • I just can’t say enough about LaMarcus’s shooting from distance this season. I’d assumed that he’d start cooling down eventually, but he went 2-5 from deep on the evening and contiues to shoot at a 42% clip from long-range. Of all of the changes I’ve seen players make to their game in San Antonio, this has to be one of the most staggering. In more than one way Aldridge really hasn’t been given enough credit for how malleable he’s proven to be in his time here. Just remarkable.

Playing You Out – The Theme Song of the Evening:

For What It’s Worth by Buffalo Springfield