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What we learned from the Spurs win over the Thunder

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A casual examination of playing time and youthful exertion.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

In its simplest interpretation, the 1st Law of Thermodynamics states that “Matter can be neither created nor destroyed. It can only change forms.”, which is all well and good when it comes to physicists and the pondering of the eternal and universal but is considerably less helpful when applied to the far more urgent concerns of an NBA audience.

There aren’t many hard-and-fast laws in the world of sports. There are aphorisms and axioms aplenty [‘Live by the 3, die by the 3.’, ‘The run opens up the pass.’, ‘It’s hard to win when you lose the turnover battle.’, etc.], but these are more points of accepted knowledge and are subject to changes within the sport. In fact, the first two have been significantly challenged just in the last decade of the 21st century alone.

Thankfully, we do have something that I like to call Al McGuire’s 1st Law of Rotations (“Minutes? The minutes will always be there dammit. The minutes are eternal!”) to help us reflect on at least one of the greater conundrums of the basketball universe: playing time.

There are two-hundred and forty minutes in a basketball game. Precisely how these minutes are distributed varies widely, depending largely on a near-infinite combination of team composition and coaching personalities, but McGuire’s point stands; the minutes will always be there. Long after Gregg Popovich retires and the memory of Tim, Tony, and Manu fade into the mists of time, the minutes will still be there. And barring the folding of the NBA (unlikely), an extension to the length of NBA contests (perhaps more unlikely), or the onset of a deadly worldwide viral pandemic (no comment), those same two-hundred and forty minutes will always be there.

In many ways, the unvarying presence of those minutes constitutes the most concrete reality of the NBA world. Storyline after storyline has met its inevitable end, great player after great player has finally hung up the ol’ jockstrap, but the debate over the allocation of NBA playing time rages on; the pyre growing in ferocity with every tweet. It’s the commodity that every fanbase is most focused on, convinced that these singular tweaks in distribution would more frequently assure their team of victory. Sometimes they are right.

Over the past two seasons in the Alamo City, the players who have most populated these kinds of online exchanges have been Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker IV, and Keldon ‘Big Body’ Johnson. Coming off of a significant injury, Murray’s restrictions made sense to most, which led to somewhat of a hyper-fixation on grievances surrounding the latter two.

Fits were pitched, tweets were tweeted, calls for the resignation of PATFO abounded, but for all the exhortation, The Minutes remained largely unmoved. After all, what is the suffering of a single-losing season but a mere drop into the bucket of the eternal?

But this season the skies finally opened up with the exit of two rotation players, and last night, in the absence of a critical contributor, Murray, Walker, and Johnson all played for 30+ minutes in the same contest for the first time in their careers. In a glimmering moment Time, once ethereal, proved itself more concrete for that trio of Spurs youngsters, and with it rode Victory.

Combining for a total of 106 minutes and 58 points, they made up for DeMar DeRozan in the aggregate in addition to their usual contributions. Even more impressive was their effect on a San Antonio perimeter defense that has proven inconsistent at best. Rotating with prejudice the youthful stallions were critical in stifling a team that had averaged just a tick over 40 three-point attempts per game to just 26 long-distance shots and a 27% percent conversion rate.

Each of their respective games are still exhibiting gaps, but there can be little doubt that on Tuesday evening they complemented each other in near harmony. Walker (sometimes still shy of contact around the basket) functioned as the primary perimeter and mid-range threat with Johnson doing most of his best work around the rim. Meanwhile all Murray did was almost flawlessly orchestrate the offense while throwing in a little bit of everything else. If there was any argument that could be made to curry the favor of The Minutes, that was it, and it was good.

It’s hard to know what their allocation will be once DeRozan returns to the lineup. Lonnie Walker has been particularly vocal about continuing to be aggressive irrespective of DeMar’s reappearance, but DeRozan comes with a price tag of 34 minutes in a world whose events are driven by an unyielding 240.

Their minutes could still come from a variety of places, and perhaps they will. But if nothing else, this was a victory that argued their case more effectively than an onslaught of tweets ever could. Maybe it’s finally time to give them their time. After all, the minutes will always be there.

Takeaways:

  • I’ve been quiet about Devin Vassell so far this season, but it’s not for a lack of enthusiasm. Vassell was the player I most wanted the Spurs to draft, and after eleven games I’m willing to crown him an absolute stud. In spite of going 0-5 on the night, Vassell was the other critical component in San Antonio’s defensive success, particularly in a first quarter that found the Spurs trailing. With Vassell on the court, the lengthy-switchy version of this team was on full display as the they suffocated the Thunder offense to the tune of 17 points in the second quarter. Taken individually, Vassell was a subtle disruptor of just about everything Oklahoma City wanted to do, coming out of the contest with the team high +/- of +20. Taken from a larger perspective, Devin was one of the biggest keys to the 2nd quarter lead that San Antonio coasted on from that point onward. I cannot wait to see what this team’s defense can become with Derrick White back in the rotation.
  • On the other hand, someone I’ve also been holding off on talking about has become a bit of a point of concern. Jakob Poeltl just has not been himself during the opening stretch of this season. Until Tuesday night he had tallied a total of three blocks in 10 games. For most players this would be something to pass over, but Jakob’s value is largely contingent on how effective he can be as a rim protector, and over the last two seasons he’s been an excellent one, even in limited minutes. Almost equally concerning has been his offensive timidity. I’m not sure if some of his strength was supernaturally sapped whilst living in Orlando’s magical kingdom last season, but he hasn’t been the same since. Never a prolific dunker, Poeltl seems even more hesitant to go to work around the rim offensively, which is problematic when his shooting range extends to about 12 feet. Maybe he’s suffering through some sort of unseen physical ailment or just experiencing those new contract slumps, but San Antonio’s going to need him to snap out of it asap if they’re going to survive their already glaring big-man depth.
  • I still don’t know what to make of Trey Lyles. Over the past two games he’s at least been serviceable, and his shot suddenly looks better (Good on ya, Chip!), but anything is an improvement over whatever was going on with him earlier in the season, so that’s a low bar. For now I’m willing to see if anything will come of it, but once DeRozan and White return, someone’s going to have to be the odd man out, and right now it’s looking it’ll be Lyles.
  • You know who else deserves some love? Rudy Gay. Tossing aside Derrick White’s single appearance, Gay has been the Silver and Black’s most reliable bench contributor outside of the scorching-to-incandescent Patty Mills. There always seems to be some contingent of any fanbase that’s infuriated by steady but rarely spectacular performances, but those kinds of players absolutely have their place, especially when it comes to anchoring a bench mob. Gay’s contributions might not be the sexiest, and his inability to hit uncontested threes in spite of smoking so many contested ones deserves a rule of its own, but he’s a big part of keeping the ship righted (and the record above .500), so let’s give the man his due.

Playing You Out – The Theme Song of the Evening:

Time of the Season by The Zombies

* In case you can’t get enough of Al MacGuire and his lingo/quotes.