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What we learned from the Spurs’ win over the Pelicans

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Spurs fought for a much needed win in the bubble.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at New Orleans Pelicans
A lot of the contest felt like this, if I’m being honest.
Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA’s dream of a Zion Williamson playoff debut finally bit the dust Sunday evening. For a league office intent on recouping as much of their financial losses as possible, I’m sure this was a disappointment. That it came at the hands of a Spurs team that refuses to bow out of its string of postseason appearances must have been doubly frustrating for league executives and national pundits alike.

Yes, the Silver and Black are still hanging on in Orlando’s play-in format after coming out on top in a contest that could likely have served as a point of postseason exclusion for either team. And despite the victory coming against a team that has frequently muddied San Antonio’s playoff seeding in the past, it’s difficult to feel overly elated about this one.

Since entering the bubble, it would not be unreasonable to argue that Derrick White has taken on a position of prominence as San Antonio’s most important player. Always a defensive stalwart and talented offensive conductor, White came out of the lockdown firing (and converting) three-balls at a individually unparalleled rate. Over the last six games White has averaged 20/5/5 while shooting 44% from deep, and this is without considering the other areas of his game in which he factors as a net positive.

For now, it seems that White has only suffered a contusion (though I’m sure that will be reassessed again in the morning), but the effect his absence had on a cruising Spurs team was immediately noticeable. Up twenty-points at the start of the third quarter, San Antonio began a gradual spiral as a mixture of questionable calls and growing Pelican confidence chipped away at both the lead and this team’s seemingly ever-delicate constitution.

With Zion feasting down low at Jakob Poeltl’s expense and JJ Redick free to fire away in White’s absence, both teams entered the fourth with he score all but evened up, and it was left to another late-game struggle (and a series of free throws) to decide the outcome.

This time San Antonio circled the wagons effectively enough to scrape by with a win, shooting 96.9% from the line, but the change in atmosphere did not go unnoticed. The players on both teams seemed keenly aware of the razor’s edge that the game had balanced on, and the Pelicans particularly so regarding the massive lead they had spotted a Spurs team that they seemed sure had had their number.

We’ve learned a great many things about this Spurs team this season. When simple solutions evade you, you tend to dedicate a not-inconsiderable amount of time to ruling everything else out. And I like to think that we’ve done a lot of that this year. But if there’s anything we confirmed in this game more than any in recent memory, it’s the vital place that Derrick White has taken in the franchise’s present and future.

Simply put, even with all of the proper parts in place, and the pleasantly surprisingly rise of several of San Antonio’s youth, this team as currently constructed (and perhaps regardless of construction) just does not function properly without a certain Coloradan. Here’s hoping that it’s just a contusion after all.

Takeaways:

  • Aside from the importance of Derrick White, it’s hard to imagine the Spurs managing to close this one out without the help of DeMar DeRozan and a suddenly sprightly Rudy Gay. On only one occasion has either player failed to score fourteen points or more, as San Antonio has used their scoring punch to hold on in close game after close game. For DeRozan this is less shocking (and perhaps even expected), but the frequently inconsistent Gay has been a revelation, serving as a distributor, rebounder, and sturdy defender (three steals in each of the last two games) as needed. DeRozan and Gay will have to keep showing out in order for San Antonio to make the postseason though, particularly if White’s injury hinders his on-court ability and/or play. Regardless, it’s hard to quibble too much with two players whose performances have already kept a leaky Spurs team afloat.
  • Fond as I am of Jakob Poeltl, he’s going to just have to expect to be disrespected by the officials for now. He has a habit of letting questionable fouls get to him and often quickly follows one with another out of frustration. I’m not saying that this will be easy, but if Jakob is truly looking to spend more time on the court, he’ll have to learn to pick his spots more shrewdly, particularly against the anointed superstars of the league. Lack of star power is no excuse as players like Joakim Noah, Marc Gasol, and Steven Adams had to go through the same process before gaining notoriety. It’s all a part of being a defensive big in the modern NBA.
  • I’m not sure what to say about Marco Belinelli that hasn’t already been said at this point, but I am growing tired of giving heavy preference to a known (and visibly declining) quantity over players like Quinndary Weatherspoon (who played 2 minutes to Marco’s 22). If youth is in fact the name of the game in the Orlando Bubble (as has been proclaimed by a number of Spurs staff members) it seems to me that Weatherspoon deserved more of a look than that.
  • Hesitant though I have been to commit to it until now, I think it’s fair to say that Drew Eubanks deserves at least one more season in the Spurs system and a serious look at a roster spot next year. I don’t exactly expect him to set the world on fire, but I also didn’t expect him to become such an effective cog in an array of bubble rotations. What Eubanks lacks in size he makes up for in all-out doggedness and a spirited approach to dirty work, and you can only keep that up for so long without some NBA team noticing. Fortunately for Drew, he plays for one of the teams most likely to seize on those kinds of attributes, and he’s shown out for them in the bubble. Interestingly enough, he appears to already be learning how to make up for his lack of size with crafty positioning (a long-standing San Antonio hallmark) and a nifty little jump-hook on the offensive end. And if you think those sorts of developments will go unnoticed by Gregg Popovich, you’ve not been paying very good attention for the past two decades. I would not be at all shocked to see Drew land himself something in the 2yrs @ $2.5mil range this off-season.

Playing You Out – The Theme Song of the Evening:

Tread Water by De La Soul