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What we learned from the Spurs’ win over the Rockets

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San Antonio struggles to set themselves apart from the shorthanded Rockets in a closer-than-it-should-have-been victory

Houston Rockets v San Antonio Spurs Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

After dropping a winnable matchup against the astonishingly shorthanded Rockets in their return from a grueling but successful Western Conference road trip, San Antonio bounced back on Saturday to put an end to their four-game home skid. Despite another slow start in which they let Houston hang around for the better part of three quarters, the Spurs took charge down the stretch and never relinquished the lead in the final frame.

The Silver and Black brought themselves above .500 with this win, but the finale of their two-game midseason miniseries was hardly a cause for celebration. Their opponent fielded a roster of only eight healthy players. And they had trouble bottling up undrafted rookie Mason Jones and career-journeyman Ben McLemore as the ragtag tandem burned them for 45 combined points.

With that said, a win is a win, and while not all victories are created equal, the Spurs will probably take any assistance they can get staying afloat in a tightly contested playoff picture. And though coach Pop should have a surplus of material to pick apart his team in their next film session, Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker IV, Keldon Johnson, and Devin Vassell gave a glimpse into San Antonio’s promising defensive future.

Observations

  • Father time eventually comes for everyone, and unfortunately, LaMarcus Aldridge appears to have become his latest victim as the 15-year veteran has struggled to get going early this season. His lateral mobility, vertical pop, footspeed, and range of motion look sapped, and his numbers have taken a massive hit across the board. Traditional statistics, advanced analytics, and game-tape show LaMarcus is among the worst players on the Spurs this season. And while that could change if he ever finds a rhythm (he is coming back from shoulder surgery and dealing with a sore knee, after all), it’s tough to envision the 35-year-old improving drastically amid a condensed schedule riddled with three games in five nights and a handful of back-to-backs. Coach Pop made the questionable decision to close the game with an ice-cold Aldridge occupying the interior in San Antonio’s Thursday night loss but turned to Jakob Poeltl on Saturday. Though the change yielded better results for the Silver and Black, LMA finished with just four points and two rebounds in 17 minutes. The odd thing is, the Spurs have mostly been a better basketball team when LaMarcus suits up, posting a losing record when he sits. His rebounding totals are down significantly, his points per game are at a career-low, and his defense is an unmitigated disaster. Yet his screening creates opportunities for his teammates and the threat of his shooting alone spaces the floor better than any other big man on San Antonio’s roster. Ultimately, this franchise will probably be better once they move on from LaMarcus, even if he still contributes to winning now. Their reliance on him has less to do with his positive impact on the game and more to do with their lack of a starting-caliber center.
  • It feels as though the Silver and Black have consistently matched the level of their competition. That uncanny ability has come in handy when facing title contenders like the Lakers and Clippers. However, the same thing that makes you laugh can make you cry. And it’s been oh-so frustrating to witness San Antonio strain dispatching bottom of the barrel competition like the Karl-Anthony Towns-less Timberwolves and the shorthanded Rockets. This trend goes back to last season, and I would love to see it come to an end sometime soon. There are only so many excuses for the Spurs losing to the understaffed Rockets, and it’s a bit concerning it took them until the fourth quarter to pull away from an eight-man roster made up of Christian Wood, G-Leaguers, third-stringers, and role-players.
  • That’s enough negative feedback so let’s move on to more encouraging exploits. Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker IV, Keldon Johnson, and Devin Vassell highlighted an incredibly talented young core capable of locking down ballhandlers and dominating in transition. Dejounte scored ten of his 18 points in the final frame, giving him the most fourth-quarter points on the team through 13 games and hinting at a potential future as a closer. His three steals, three assists, and ten rebounds showed off his propensity to stuff the stat sheet, and the fourth-year guard looks well on his way to making a run at the Most Improved Player of the Year Award. Keldon Johnson has also put his name in the discussion for that highly coveted end of the year honor, and his two-way impact is impossible to ignore. The sophomore wing plays with an infectious energy that rubs off on his teammates, and his physicality convinced coach Pop to throw him on a white-hot Christian Wood despite a five-inch heigh disparity. And as insane as it might sound, San Antonio might have a third candidate for MIPOY in Lonnie Walker IV. He failed to score in double-figures for just the fourth time this season but played through the pain of an unnamed wrist ailment and managed to get to the line five times. While Walker wasn’t at his best, Devin Vassell stepped in and picked up some of the slack. The first-round rookie racked up nine points, seven rebounds, and two steals in almost 20 minutes of action. He also joins Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, and Tyus Jones as the only active NBA players with more career steals than fouls. We shouldn’t ignore the small sample size, though with how cautiously calculated Vassell plays defense, it wouldn’t surprise me if he remains entrenched among that rare group of ball-swiping maestros.