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Spurs scrap and claw, but still lose to superior Lakers

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Keldon Johnson had a career night and Derrick White made his season debut, but the Spurs simply couldn’t beat a more talented Lakers team that flipped the switch late.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

It’s the hope that gets you. By any measure, these Spurs hanging with the reigning champions for most of fourth quarters is an accomplishment in and of itself. But because of the glimpses of potential we see from this team, the 109-103 loss against the Lakers is a little more bitter than sweet despite the return of Derrick White and the stellar performance from Keldon Johnson.

At all points it seemed like the Lakers were barely trying, biding their time before pouncing, but it was more obvious in the first half. They not only had a huge advantage in terms of star talent but also size, so keeping up with the Spurs wasn’t particularly difficult for them. San Antonio had no answer for Anthony Davis and whenever there was a drought on offense, Los Angeles could just grab an offensive board and try again. The Spurs, meanwhile, were making up for their iffy execution on both ends with effort and some surprisingly hot three-point shooting. There was a stretch in the second quarter were they seemingly had a chance to take advantage of a rare extended rest by LeBron James to create some separation, but young teams don’t always capitalize on those opportunities, and these Spurs are a young team.

After a close first half the Lakers seemingly awoke in the third quarter. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope led the way, taking advantage of some atrocious transition defense and miscommunications to give his team a seven-point lead early on. Normally that would have been the point at which the superior team would put its foot on the gas pedal and drive away with it, just like the Spurs used to in their contending days. But Caldwell-Pope rolled his ankle and San Antonio, aided by a barrage of three-pointers by DeMar DeRozan and Keldon Johnson, of all people, managed to hang on. After that initial push, the Lakers went back to playing uninspired ball and the game became sloppy and unpredictable. It was at that point when a win against arguably the best team in the league seemed attainable.

Alas, it didn't happen. The Lakers flipped the switch later than expected, but early enough enough to get them past an opponent that still has a lot to learn. The type of little mistakes that we should expect from such a young team abounded late and resulted in some key buckets for the visitors. It wasn’t hard for Davis and James to take over, as the Spurs simply didn’t have answers on either end and no superstar to turn to for bailouts from bad execution. They didn’t quit, because fortunately quitting doesn’t seem to be in this team’s DNA, but they were simply outclassed in the end, as expected.

Game notes

  • Derrick White is back! White was a little rusty, which is understandable, but he still did some Derrick White things. In 25 minutes off the bench he had nine points and a handful of impressive defensive plays.
  • Dejounte Murray couldn’t repeat the fantastic performance he had in the previous game against the Lakers, finishing with 12 points on 13 shots and just one assist. Lonnie Walker IV and Jakob Poeltl were not particularly good either. Having White back and potentially starting soon will hopefully make the first team more reliable.
  • While three of the starters struggle, the other two were great. Keldon Johnson couldn’t get his driving game going against the big Lakers front line early on but fortunately his outside shot was on point. Johnson won’t likely hit five out of nine three-point attempts often, but if he can at least become a more consistent outside threat, he has the makings of a potential star.
    DeMar DeRozan, meanwhile, also hit some threes and orchestrated the offense well, logging seven assists to zero turnovers. His defense was bad, but we can’t expect much from him on that end while he’s playing out of position.
  • Rudy Gay had more shots than points and Patty Mills only pitched in 10 points in 25 minutes. They continued to move the ball in the second unit, try on defense and occasionally hit big shots, but they couldn’t give the Spurs the edge they needed off the bench to make one big run. Not an awful performance by either, by any means, but far from great.
  • Drew Eubanks was an abject disaster on offense, so a look at the box score might cause some to wonder why he played 23 minutes, three more than Jakob Poeltl. The simple answer is that Spurs desperately needed someone springy to try to both switch and battle inside and they simply don’t have a big man like that. Eubanks comes closest to matching that description, so he got minutes.
  • Since the Spurs were going to be undersized no matter what, it’s possible that embracing small-ball fully by playing Devin Vassell for a few minutes either in place of Gay or in place of Eubanks, with Gay at center would have been smart. What do you think?

Next game: Vs. the Jazz on Sunday

The Spurs will host a Jazz team that has started the season a little slow, but beat the Clippers on Friday. Donovan Mitchell remains in a funk, but the two-headed monster of Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors could give San Antonio’s centers a lot of trouble.