I came into the NBA restart without expectations. I was simply looking forward to making some popcorn, sitting on my couch, and watching some stress-free Spurs basketball. The Spurs had been hit by the injury bug, and objectively speaking, hadn’t been very good even at full strength. Nobody was expecting the Spurs to climb up the standings before the playoff seeding, so why should I? I just wanted to watch the youngsters play together to see what the future might hold. I had promised myself there would be no yelling at the TV during games. I have a five month old daughter now. She’s not old enough to know how crazy her dad can get during a competitive Spurs game with playoff implications.
Yet here we are. The Spurs had given me the Keyser Soze treatment all season, convincing me their chance at the playoffs didn’t exist. Then in a twist I didn’t see coming, the depleted, young, undersized Spurs started to win games. Not only that, but the other teams looking to lock up the final playoff spot were losing games. Expectations started growing in my mind. The Spurs were playing the 76ers and the game seemed important. I once again found myself yelling at the TV because I was fully invested in the game, caring whether or not the Spurs came out on top.
Keldon Johnson was once again having an impressive outing. He didn’t at all look like a rookie scared by the bright lights. I starting envisioning a world where the Spurs squeak into the playoffs and Johnson shuts down LeBron James in the first round, launching him into the role of next great Spur in the long list of great Spurs that seemingly came out of nowhere.
Unfortunately, the Spurs were unable to close out a third straight win in Orlando, losing a heartbreaking nail-biter to the 76ers 130-132. The Memphis Grizzlies also lost today, so the Spurs missed an opportunity to get within one game of the 8th place Grizzlies. Not all is lost though. There’s a lot to love about what we’re witnessing during this stretch of Spurs basketball, and with a shot at the final playoff spot still well within their grasp, the Spurs have a lot to play for over the final five games of the regular season.
The first quarter against the 76ers had a different feel to it than the first quarter of the Spurs’ previous two games. Instead of deferring to others like he had against the Grizzlies and Sacramento Kings, DeMar DeRozan was looking for his shot early and often against the 76ers. Maybe he liked his matchup, maybe the game plan was for him to come out more aggressive, or maybe he was just more excited to play the 76ers than he was his two previous opponents. Rudy Gay was also not shy in his first stint on the court. DeRozan and Gay each scored 11 points in the first quarter, with their points accounting for 22 of the Spurs’ 32 first quarter points. Both vets were efficient, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t slightly disappointed to see the youngsters revert back to the spectator role in an isolation-heavy offensive attack.
Jakob Poeltl found himself in foul trouble for the second straight game, this time picking up two quick fouls just one minute into the game. Being the only capable defensive big against a team with two extremely talented bigs in Joel Embiid and Al Horford, this was a less-than-ideal scenario for the Spurs. Pop was forced to turn to Drew Eubanks far earlier than he had hoped. Nothing against Eubanks, but I’ve had nightmares where I’m trapped in a collapsed mine shaft while being haunted by a ghost clown that was less frightening than the thought of Eubanks having to guard Embiid for extended minutes. So of course shortly after he checked into the game he drew an offensive charge against Embiid. Eubanks was definitely not perfect out there, but he did much better than I was expecting. That’s all I can really hope for given the Spurs’ front court situation. See? Low expectations equals happy fan.
Tyler Zeller even got three minutes of run in the second quarter. He managed to put up four shots in those three minutes - connecting on only one of those shots - but he did grab four rebounds and seemed like a better defensive presence in the paint than Eubanks. Regardless of how I felt about his time on the court, Zeller would not see the court in the second half of the game.
Despite the new-look Spurs being younger, more athletic, and defensively-inclined, they felt short in both stature and in talent compared to the rotation of the 76ers. This made it difficult for the Spurs to get defensive stops on a consistent basis. Luckily, the offense was strong enough to allow the Spurs to only trail the 76ers by two points heading into the second half. Despite the competitiveness of the first half, it felt as though the Spurs were hanging on by the skins of their teeth and would struggle keeping pace in the second half.
This certainly seemed like the case coming out of the break. The Spurs’ offense sputtered and their strategy to trap Embiid in the post was a failed experiment. Embiid did a great job finding the open man, resulting in several wide open three point attempts. When he wasn’t passing out of the trap, he was shooting over the shorter help defenders or drawing contact and getting to the line. Other than one forced turnover on a possession where Embiid attempted a cross court pass, the 76ers’ points per possession from the post during this stretch was likely well over two points. The 76ers quickly found themselves up 14 midway through the third quarter, and the Spurs - who were on a SEGABABA - looked to be running out of gas.
The Spurs were down 10 with just a few seconds left in the third quarter when an obvious shot clock violation by the 76ers was missed by the refs, resulting in an Embiid layup and a 12 point deficit for the Spurs heading into the final quarter. At the time I didn’t think the missed call would have any impact on the end result, but it turns out the Spurs weren’t ready to throw in the towel.
For those craving to see the Spurs’ youngsters showcase their talents on offense as they had in the two games prior, the fourth quarter would be a welcome treat. For the first six minutes of the quarter, White scored 12 points, Poeltl four points, Johnson two points, and Murray four points. All of this scoring cut the Spurs deficit down to two points, and just like that, the Spurs were right back in the thick of things.
The second half of the fourth quarter resorted back to the DeRozan and Gay show, which isn’t a bad thing since both players had excellent games. Another clutch jump shot by DeRozan put the Spurs up by four points with just a minute left in the game. Unfortunately the 76ers would score quickly on offense then did a great job defensively of denying DeRozan the ball on the next possession. This led to a missed shot by Murray, opening the door for the 76ers to pull out the win. Embiid would get to the line but was only able to hit one of two, allowing the Spurs to cling onto a one point lead with 20 seconds to go. Then in a wild possession that almost saw Murray turn the ball over, White ended up getting fouled with 10 seconds left in the game. White hit one of two, giving the Spurs a two point lead.
The final defensive possession of the game for the Spurs was one they would like to have back. Murray overcommitted to double-teaming Embiid in the paint, leaving Shake Milton wide open behind the three point line. Milton calmly knocked down what ended up being the game winning shot. The Spurs had one more possession to keep their winning streak alive, but DeRozan passed the ball to Poeltl while driving to the rim, who was unable to connect from close range.
Despite the disappointing result, it was an excellent game that could have gone either way. The no-call at the end of the third quarter seems to have cost the Spurs a potential victory, but the butterfly effect means that had the shot clock violation been called, there’s no guarantee everything that happened in the fourth quarter would have still happened. The Spurs had a chance to win down the stretch and came up short. Leaving a good shooter at the end of the game instead of forcing the 76ers to go for the tie instead of the win was a mistake. Hopefully they will learn and grow from this loss.
Notes from the game
- All this time I thought that if the Spurs had to choose between either LaMarcus Aldridge or DeRozan that Aldridge would be the obvious choice. I’m not so sure anymore. Aldridge slows down the game, reducing the effectiveness of the young, athletic guys on the team who are looking to get out and run and create pressure on the defense. Turns out DeRozan fits well with that style of play, however he’s been having to play the four during this stretch, which is way out of position for him even at a time of position-less basketball. It’s been fun for a small stretch, but I don’t think it would be sustainable for an entire NBA season.
- The veterans were great in this one, with DeRozan and Gay scoring 30 and 24 points, respectively. I would even argue that DeRozan was the best player on the court, hitting clutch shot after clutch shot. He also had two euro-steps against Embiid in the paint that completely froze the shot-blocker. It was beautiful to watch.
- Though the youngsters took a backseat to the veterans during stretches of the game, they still found ways to make their mark on the game. White had another excellent outing scoring 20 points, and was particularly great in the fourth quarter. Aggressive White is definitely the best White. Murray had 13 points, but was relatively inefficient and made a poor defensive decision at the end of the game that lead to the game winning shot by Milton. Johnson continued to impress with his defensive prowess while scoring a career best 15 points. I’m trying to decide if him or White have the best two-way potential on the team right now. Walker was very quiet against the 76ers but did have a thunderous dunk at one point. Poeltl has been great for the majority of the season but he struggled in this one. He was in foul trouble the entire first half, and that seemed to impact his aggressiveness in the second half as he got blown by in the paint on several occasions. Hopefully next game is better. It has to be if the Spurs want any chance at making the playoffs.