I’ll be the first to admit that when the plans for the bubble were first revealed, my original thought was, I hope anybody but the Spurs gets the 8th seed in the West. Then I started writing for a Spurs blog and now my thinking is, I hope the Spurs make it into the playoffs just to annoy the rest of the basketball world.
Please don’t blame me for my outsider thoughts. I didn’t know any better. From what I had heard, the Spurs were the kings of the mid-range jumper whose two best players couldn’t spread the floor. They sounded old and boring.
But the team I was expecting was not the team I saw. Due to injuries to LaMarcus Aldridge and Trey Lyles, the Spurs were down to just one big man with anything resembling NBA experience, forcing them to contort their lineup and play small ball. And at first, it worked. It was fun and different. DeMar DeRozan was being used in a way that highlighted his strengths and hid his weaknesses. He had plenty of room to maneuver around the court and make things happen. Also the young players were finally able to play together. And they were thriving.
They started out bubble play by beating the Sacramento Kings: a foe directly in their way in the chase for the 9th seed. Then they followed it up by beating the team everyone is chasing for 8th — the Memphis Grizzlies — in a nail-biter that went down to the wire. The best version of themselves had shown itself for two straight games (plus their final scrimmage against the Indiana Pacers). They were in the 9th seed and in control of their own destiny.
Then the true test began, beginning with two games versus the Philadelphia 76ers and the Denver Nuggets. How would this new small ball lineup hold up against teams that had truly talented and athletic big men? Long story short, they didn’t win either of those games, but they sure did put up a fight.
They had a thrilling comeback against the 76ers where they put up 43 points in the 4th quarter alone. They ended up falling short, but it wasn’t for the lack of trying (and a bit of bad officiating). Then against the Nuggets, they hung in for most of the game, but were eventually overwhelmed by Denver’s size and depth.
So here the Spurs sit. 2-2 halfway through the bubble. What do we make of them now? One of the major concerns I’ve read is their tendency to build a big lead only to give it up. I see how that can be frustrating, but I don’t think it’s as bad as it seems. That’s just what today’s NBA is. The game is faster paced with more scoring and less defense. Teams go on runs all the time and no lead is safe anymore. What I think we should concentrate on more is the mental toughness that the team showed.
Versus both the Kings and Grizzlies, they gave up big leads. It would have been so easy for a young team to hang their heads and think, “it’s just not our day”. But they didn’t. They showed resolve and grit. They got punched in the mouth and stood right back up ready to fight some more. That is a championship mentality.
Against teams with superior talent they fell behind but fought back, made those teams sweat it out, and earn their victory. Thus far in the bubble they have shown the mentality you would want out of your young team.
Stylistically the brand of basketball they have played so far fits perfectly with what DeRozan does well. He has thrived playing in a Russell Westbrook type role. He’s able to use the room he has on the floor to drive to the basket and either finish or kick out to wing players who can knock down threes or drive to the basket themselves. In the bubble he’s scoring 22.2 points per game while grabbing 4.7 rebounds and dishing out 7.2 assists. And by they way, he’s shooting 57% from the field.
Right there alongside him is Derrick White, whose numbers have skyrocketed inside the bubble. Not only does he play great defense with his knack for drawing charges, his offensive game is right up there with DeRozan’s. Over the last 4 games he has averaged 21.2 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 5.5 assists, all while hitting 45% of his 3-pointers. He’s the young guy to build around.
Rudy Gay has been coming off the bench and doing what Rudy Gay does. 19 points, almost 6 rebounds and shooting 42% from beyond the arc. He doesn’t start, but he plays crunch time minutes and is a steady hand for the young guys to look to.
On the wings, they have a pair of up-and-comers ready to claim more playing time. Fans have been clamoring for more Lonnie Walker IV all season. In the bubble his play has been a little uneven, but is still showing promise. He’s crazy athletic and has the ability to shoot from the outside. He just needs to round out the rest of his game more and show better consistency. Keldon Johnson has improved in each and every game he has played since the restart. He went from scoring 8 points to 9 points to 15 points to 20 points. Plus he grabs about 5 rebounds per game. He’s only taken 29 shots, but he’s made 18 of them for a ridiculous 62%. He should be taking somebody starting job soon.
Down in the trenches, the Spurs have a nice little rotation going with Jakob Poeltl and Drew Eubanks taking turns manning the middle. Eubanks didn’t play much in the first game, but since then he’s averaging 8 points and 6 rebounds coming off the bench. Not bad for a guy who only played in 17 games during the regular season.
Now I’m getting to the part I didn’t want to get to. Dejounte Murray’s play has been less than ideal. Sure he’s averaging 2 more points per game than he was during the regular season, but he’s also taking 4 more shots per game, and his shooting percentage has gone down from 47% in the regular season to 38% in the bubble. He has shot the ball as many times as DeRozan and White with far worse results. I know DeRozan has taken a step back recently to let the young guys shine, but the Spurs would be better off if those shots went to Walker or even Johnson. I don’t want to bash the guy too much. Who knows how long it really takes ACLs to heal, and he’s still only in his 3rd year. But when you look around the league and see other young guys like Ja Morant and De’Aaron Fox budding into superstars Murray plays like Lonzo Ball lite, it can be frustrating. It doesn’t sound like it, but I really am rooting for him. I promise.
As of Wednesday the Spurs are two games behind a struggling Memphis team and one game behind a rejuvenated Trail Blazers team. Who knows, if Memphis keeps playing like they are they might lose the 8 seed altogether. They might even fall past 9th. The Spurs are fighting hard to get into either of those positions. Here’s what they have left on their schedule.
The Jazz came into the bubble without one of their best players; Bojan Bogdanovic.
They still have managed to go 2-2. They beat the what-the-heck-are-they-doing-with-Zion Pelicans on opening night, then lost 2 straight to the Thunder and Lakers before beating a depleted and demoralized Grizzlies team. I honestly don’t know how I should feel about them.
If we’re being real they only have 6 viable players on their roster right now in Rudy Gobert, Royce O’Neale, Joe Ingles, Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley, and Jordan Clarkson coming off the bench.
After that their talent falls off a cliff. The next three guys off the bench are Emmanuel Mudiay, Georges Niang, and Tony Bradley. I’m not sweating those guys.
I do sweat the other six though. Gobert is a monster in the middle, and I hope that Poeltl and Eubanks are feisty enough to not let him feast on offensive rebounds. Rebounding is going to have to be a team-wide effort. If the Spurs can keep Gobert off the glass, their lack of size shouldn’t hurt them because other than him, the Jazz lack size too. The Spurs have to play them twice and I’m really looking forward to it.
New Orleans Pelicans
I’m really looking forward to this match up too. Who really knows what is going on between the Pelicans, Zion Williamson, and their medical staff. I can’t figure it out. All I do know is that Zion only played 15 minutes in each of their first 2 games, which were both losses. Then he played 25 minutes in a victory against the Grizzlies, and that was before they lost Jaren Jackson Jr. for the rest of the season.
It seems as though all the Pelican’s hopes hinge on how much Zion plays. Outside of Zion, the Spurs and Pelicans are very similar teams as far as they are constructed. They both have a core of young players with some veterans sprinkled in.
If the Spurs can somehow slow Zion down, or if the Pelicans medical team decides he shouldn’t play, San Antonio should have a real good chance of winning this one.
There are only two problems you have in dealing with the Houston Rockets. James Harden and Russell Westbrook. How do you go about guarding them? Do you play them straight up, let them score a lot, and keep everyone else down hoping your whole team can outscore the two of them? Or do you sell out trying to stop them (while praying the refs aren’t feeling too generous towards them) and hope the other guys are having an off night from 3-point range? That’s pretty much it. Against the Rockets the chances of victory basically come down to how many threes they hit. It sounds simple and boring, but it’s really fun to watch.
Oh, I should also let you guys know Westbrook is my favorite player in the league right now. I'm not saying he’s the best, just my favorite.
And there you have it. The Spurs finish up by playing the Jazz, Pelicans, Rockets, and Jazz again. I’d go over the rest of the contenders for the final spot in the western conference playoffs, but I’m not a scoreboard watcher. Handle your business and if it’s good enough great. If it’s not, it’s not. Simple.
At the very least the Spurs get to play in some meaningful games down the stretch. I know they had a great seven-game series versus the Nuggets in last years playoffs, but any and all experience you can get is worthwhile in my opinion. No matter what happens down the stretch in these next four games it should be fun and isn’t that what sports are supposed to be about anyway?