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What we learned from the Spurs loss to the Sixers

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Mistakes were made, but so was some considerable progress.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Philadelphia 76ers Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

It was only a matter of time, I suppose. Riding a rare (for this season) wave of victories over teams still adjusting to a number of absences and the effects of a significant layoff, the San Antonio Spurs were bound to come back down to earth a bit.

It was an all but foregone conclusion that deeper, more talented teams would eventually acclimate and pull away from the frightfully fresh-faced lineups that the Silver and Black have been rolling out. Down a number of veteran players, the Spurs that remained bulldozed their way into NBA Bubble relevance powered by some bizarre combination of tameless youth and restless will, but that kind of momentum is a hard thing to harness, much less guide and maintain.

The signs were all there. The Spurs entered the game on winning streak, and the 76ers were coming off of an embarrassing loss to the Indiana Pacers. San Antonio found themselves thin in an area that functioned as one of Philadelphia's biggest strengths, and all that separated a close contest from a impending blowout was a gossamer thread dependent on avoiding early fouls.

And yet, there they were, up four points with two minutes left to go, early foul calls on Jakob Poeltl be damned! Against all odds, that decidedly outgunned and out-manned cabal of youngsters had clawed their way atop a contest that they little business contending.

Poeltl had acquired two fouls within the first minute-and-a-half of the game, and San Antonio had still managed to out-rebound an imposing Sixers front-court. The officials treated Joel Embiid’s personal space like that of an NFL quarterback, and still the Spurs managed to do what the Pacers could not: hold Embiid to less than thirty points (he went for forty-one points vs. Indiana). They out-shot Philadelphia from three and from the free throw line; matched them in steals, blocks, and limiting turnovers, got Ben Simmons to foul out, and yet here we are.

At 132-130 a two point margin still fails to do justice to how much closer this game was than that. At the end of the 3rd, the Sixers were granted an erroneous two points, and with the game in his hands in the late 4th, the typically solid Derrick White missed one of what would likely have been a pair of clinching free throws.

But the crowning horror was yet to come, as the still inconsistent Dejounte Murray made three consecutive decisions that would largely determine the final result. At four points up, Murray forced an errant shot in the paint against two Sixers rather than deferring to a red-hot DeRozan. He would then follow this up on the next possession with a gun-shy decision to defer to a closely monitored Poeltl who was immediately contested by Embiid and another Sixer.

And then, as the sickly sweet icing on an unquestionably horrible, horrible cake, Murray made the mistake of leaving the imbounding (and distance gifted) Shake Milton open from beyond the arc in favor of doubling Embiid. Milton would sink the open three-pointer, Philly would go up by a point with .6 seconds (and no timeouts) left, and after a pair of Embiid free throws and .1 second full-court heave, Paradise was Lost.

In retrospect, it’s not particularly hard to comprehend why Murray made those choices. One was the smart, safe decision and a concerted attempt to make up for an earlier misguided instinct. The other was an improperly hedged (though not entirely senseless) bet on his opponent’s strategic choices.

It reminded me just a bit of a moment in an Episode of Star Trek in which Captain Jean Luc Picard chided the android Data for his indecision and almost incapacitating over-calculation as the ship’s second-in-command thusly: “It is possible to commit no mistakes, and still lose.”

Caught in between caution and recklessness, mistakes were most certainly made on Murray’s part, but it’s the learning from these mistakes that will program automatic responses to similar situations, and ultimately determine whether or not this team will continue to be just as exciting (in the winning sense) in the future. And it’s worth remembering that it’s this process of trial and error that many of us would have killed for just a number of months ago.

Given the circumstances, it’s hard not to feel crushingly disappointed. Shut up in our various abodes with precious few sporting events for a number of months, this late-season surge has meant more to Spurs fans adrift in an ocean of raised voices, pointed fingers, and economic hardships than it might have otherwise.

But just as in our dealings with the outside world we should be mindful of progress made, imperfect though it may be. Independent of losses, these new San Antonio Spurs are still fun, some semblance of the world has been made right in the return of an NBA season nearly lost to time and disease, and there are still five more games of progress (and perhaps even winning) ahead.

It’s a magical world, friends. And to quote Samuel Beckett: “The failing is better now.”

Takeaways:

  • Rudy Gay, Derrick White, and DeMar DeRozan had one heck of a night, and a mostly outstanding fourth quarter. (DeMar even came away with a clutch steal, some cold-blooded free throws, and tossed up three 3-pointers) Combining for a whopping 74 cumulative points (more than Philly’s top three scorers combined) they were the three-headed engine that drove San Antonio’s offense and spearheaded the comeback from a twelve point deficit in the fourth quarter. Just one more made basket, and we’d be debating which of these three deserved player of the game.
  • On the other hand, Jakob Poeltl had one of his worst performances as a professional. Certainly the uneven officiating of contact in the post in this one had something to do with it, but unsure of how to alternatively counter Embiid, Jakob vacillated between timidity and his normal mode of rim protection, which led to a degree of foul trouble that resulted in Tyler Zeller getting court time. Jakob will have to find some variety in the ways in which he defends the paint if he wants to be more than a backup center in this league, particularly one without a reliable offensive shot.
  • With Poeltl’s usual defensive presence compromised, it was up to the rest of the Spurs to keep the perimeter from leaking to the point of overwhelming the surprisingly plucky Drew Eubanks. While Eubanks’ speed did seem to aid him in minimizing Embiid’s dominance down low, he’s still not enough of rim defender to be able to make up for other problems in the rotations.
  • Enter Keldon Johnson, whose came just shy of leading San Antonio in +/- for the night, and dropped fifteen points on 66% percent shooting, all the while darting back and forth between defensive assignments and anticipated penetrations. It’s no coincidence that most of San Antonio’s best stretches came with Johnson on the court, as he sometimes seemed (for instance: when the starters rotated out) to be keeping the lid on the metaphorical cookie jar single-handedly. It’s only been a few games, so I’m trying to avoid hyperbole as much as possible when it comes to the rookies, but it’s plain to the see that this kid is the real deal.

Playing You Out – The Theme Song of the Evening:

It Aint’ Over ‘Til It’s Over by Lenny Kravitz