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Spurs hold off Pelicans in the second half to keep playoff hopes alive

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Spurs lose Derrick White (and their composure) in the third quarter, but avoid a second half collapse through the strong efforts of DeRozan and Gay.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at New Orleans Pelicans Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

Though the circumstances surrounding the completion of this season’s NBA regular season couldn’t be any more different than season’s prior, much of the in-game action has felt relatively the same. There are teams who have solidified their playoff seeding and have turned their attention to finding the right balance between resting and preparation for the upcoming playoff grind. Other teams have secured a playoff berth and are now focused on jockeying their way up the standings. Then there are those teams like the San Antonio Spurs and New Orleans Pelicans who are literally playing in the NBA bubble while on the metaphorical playoff bubble.

While the Spurs’ playoff chances appeared to be nonexistent before the NBA restart, a struggling Memphis Grizzlies’ team and a play-in rule between the 8th and 9th seeded teams has opened the door for the Spurs to somehow keep their playoff streak alive. With so many teams fighting for the final playoff spot in the West there are a lot of scenarios in play, but for the Spurs and Pelicans, winning out is a virtual must.

The Spurs played three excellent quarters and one terrible quarter against the Pelicans, which turned out to be just enough to come out on top 122-113. The usual suspects of Derrick White, DeMar DeRozan, and Rudy Gay were excellent, but a knee injury to White casts a cloud over the Spurs’ playoff push.

Game flow

With this being a must win for both teams, I found it surprising that the Pelicans came out as lethargic as they did. To the Spurs’ credit, they brought intensity on the defensive end and Derrick White continued his torrid play, scoring 12 points in the first quarter on five of seven shooting. The Pelicans were able to erase a early 11 point deficit with an 11-0 run of their own midway through the first quarter, but the rest of the quarter belonged to the Spurs, finishing the quarter up 27-19. Though White looked good early, the rest of Spurs shot only 5 for 22 in the first quarter.

The second quarter saw both teams pick it up on offense. While White was the main offensive threat in the first quarter, the Spurs got a much more balanced effort in the second quarter. The Pelicans were barely hanging on, and had it not been for the hot shooting of JJ Redick, the game might have been out of reach by halftime. The Pelicans still found themselves down 19 heading into the break.

White was well on his way to another incredible performance, scoring 16 points, 3 assists, 3 rebounds, and a block in the first half alone. The only thing that was able to slow down White during the NBA restart was an unfortunate injury late in the 2nd/early in the 3rd quarter. Early word is a knee contusion, so it’ll be interesting to see if he’s able to play anymore in Orlando.

With White going down to injury, the Spurs looked lost on offense the rest of the third quarter. The Spurs had been relying on White to do so many things the past few games that it took some time to figure things out on offense. It’s easy to forget that one of White’s biggest strength is his composure. He’s able to run the offense at his pace regardless of what’s going on throughout the game. With White injured, the Pelicans went on a run in the third quarter and the Spurs started to try and play outside their comfort zone. We started seeing far too many turnovers and players settling for poor shots. I think I even saw three or four possessions in a row where Marco Belinelli was the focal point on offense. All I could think of during this stretch “was please make it stop.”

Thankfully, DeRozan and Gay refused to let the Spurs blow this very important game against the Pelicans. DeRozan started scoring at will in the fourth quarter at a time when most of the Spurs’ team looked scared, or unable, to provide the offensive spark the Spurs desperately needed. Much has been said of DeRozan’s inability to come up big in clutch moments, but outside a couple missed free throws towards the end of a close win against the Grizzlies’ earlier in the NBA restart, DeRozan has been as clutch as they come.

Playoff seeding update

  • This win pushed the Spurs ahead of the Suns for 10th in the West, though the Spurs still need the Suns to lose at least one game to have a chance at finishing ahead of the Suns at the end of the regular season.
  • Unfortunately for the Spurs, the Portland Trail Blazers won a nail-biter against the Philadelphia 76ers, maintaining their half game lead over the Spurs for 9th in the West. The 76ers had an excellent chance at beating the Blazers, but Damian Lillard was unstoppable all game. In addition to needing the Suns to lose, the Spurs also need the Blazers to lose at least one game to have a chance at finishing ahead of them in the standings.
  • The final team the Spurs have a chance at surpassing is the Grizzlies, but that would require two Spurs wins and two Grizzlies losses. The Spurs must pass two of these three teams if they want a chance at playing their way into the playoffs.
  • The loss by the Pelicans against the Spurs and a win by the Blazers eliminated the Pelicans from playoff contention.

Game notes

  • Mark Barrington mentioned in his Final Score article that he turned down the opportunity to be a virtual fan at this game because it would distract him too much from his writing commitments. Wise decision my friend. After participating as a virtual fan to start the game, I can confirm that being a virtual fan, indeed, distracted me from analyzing the game. Long story short, I spent much of the first half trying to find myself in the virtual stands, all while fighting the blurry, choppy feed provided to us as a virtual fan. At one point the feed froze for at least five minutes. I had the game on my TV as well, but that stream was lagging by at least a minute. But I digress.
  • The Spurs connected on 31 of 32 free throws against the Pelicans. That’ll get the job done on most nights.
  • Despite their lack of size, the Spurs still out rebounded the Pelicans 51-48.
  • This may come as a surprise to nobody, but Derrick White is essential to the success of this team. I guess a knee contusion is a better diagnosis than other knee-related injuries, but I still won’t sleep very well tonight. I can’t see the Spurs beating the Houston Rockets without White, but I would expect the Spurs to rightfully proceed with caution.
  • The veteran due of DeRozan and Gay continue to play excellent, especially in the clutch. DeRozan finished with 15 in the fourth quarter and 27 overall on an efficient 10 of 16 shooting. Gay scored 19 points and filled up the stat sheet. He also had a clutch block on Zion and a steal in the paint late in the fourth quarter to help the Spurs put the game out of reach. I’ll say it again: if the Spurs had this version of Gay all season they wouldn’t have to be fighting for a playoff spot right now.
  • Why is Belinelli getting 20+ minutes a game still a thing? He takes so many bad shots on offense and is hard to watch on defense. I’ll never know why Pop has decided to play Marco instead of Patty Mills (my guess would be size or just giving Patty a break), but I don’t like it one bit.
  • Jakob Poeltl found his minutes limited for the third time in the past four games due to foul trouble. This time most of his fouling was done on the offensive side of the court. He still managed to rack up 14 rebounds (5 offensive) in his 22 minutes on the court and was integral in holding Zion WIlliamson in check during the first half, but the Spurs need him to be able to stay out of foul trouble. I may have my Spurs-colored glasses on, but a couple of those foul calls against Poeltl seemed iffy at best. I’m not expecting referees to be perfect, but it sure would be nice to see them be consistent on what constitutes a foul throughout a game.
  • To Dejounte Murray and Lonnie Walker IV: please work on finishing at the rim in the offseason. Murray’s 44 percent is second only to Walker’s 41 percent for worst shooting percentage on drives to the rim out of all the Spurs with at least one drive to the rim per game. Walker has trouble honing in on his athleticism and tries to make things more difficult than it needs to be. Murray has trouble finishing in contact and in general is just a poor finisher at the rim. These two finished only 8 for 27 from the field against the Pelicans. If White is out for an extended time, more will be asked of these two and they must respond if the Spurs are to have any chance at making the playoffs.
  • Keldon Johnson had his moments against the Pelicans, but he really struggled guarding the extremely shifty (and annoying) Redick. I’m certain Johnson will learn from this game. To be fair, nobody did a great job guarding Redick, as he finished with 31 points and connected on 8 of 12 from deep.