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Spurs’ deep bench holds off Magic’s late comeback attempt

The Spurs built a big lead with their normal rotation, but had to endure a late charge by the Magic’s starters after sending in their third stringers in the fourth quarter.

NBA: Preseason-San Antonio Spurs at Orlando Magic Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

In a preview of the upcoming opening night matchup, the Spurs faced the Orlando Magic. It should have been a comfortable win for the Silver and Black, but after building up a big lead in the second half, Gregg Popovich went deep into his bench while Orlando kept its starters in. The result was a thrilling ending that saw San Antonio’s third stringers barely hang on to defeat the home team 101-100.

While there was plenty of experimentation later on, the Spurs went with their likely starters for this one and played a rotation that could resemble the one they will use in the regular season. The starters had a nice rehearsal for how opponents will treat them in games that count, as the Magic packed the paint and dared the less proven shooters to hurt them from outside. At first the threes fell, but when they started to rim out, the offense stalled. Fortunately the defense was more reliable and kept an Orlando team lacking in self-creators themselves in check. Once the benches checked in, the Spurs busted out a zone that further complicated things for their opponent while their own subs poured in some points.

The second unit picked up where it had left off in the first quarter to start the second. The offense had a little more flow, there were more drives instead of jumpers, and defensively they held their own. It was when the starters checked back in that Orlando finally started to chip away at the lead and started to look more competitive. Keldon Johnson took over on offense for the Spurs to keep the Magic at arm’s length for a while, but eventually the attack went dry, the energy level dropped, and some poor individual performances like Derrick White’s started to hurt San Antonio. Luckily the Silver and Black had built a big enough buffer that even with the Magic’s anemic offense showing signs of life, they still managed to go into the break with a nine-point lead.

The momentum seemed to carry over for the Magic’s starters in the third quarter, as they essentially deleted the deficit, but the Spurs bounced back. Dejounte Murray set the pace, going for 11 points in the frame, and showing off some go-to scorer swagger at times. Lonnie Walker IV picked up the mantle when the second unit checked in, logging six points and three assists, looking like a perfect sixth man. Meanwhile, Orlando’s lack of depth and creators became impossible to hide, as the team struggled to keep pace with a Spurs squad that is not supposed to be particularly explosive on the offensive end. By the end of the period, the lead was 17 and it seemed like San Antonio was on its way to an easy win. Things wouldn’t turn out to be that way.

At around the 10-minute mark of the fourth quarter, Pop decided he had seen all he needed to see from his normal rotation and sent in the rookies, along with some second unit guys. Over the next few possessions the third stringers actually held their own against Orlando’s bench, but halfway through the period coach Jamahl Mosley decided to bring in his starters and mount a comeback. A few threes fell for the Magic, Terrence Ross got hot, the crowd got into it, and suddenly the win didn’t look like a given. In the end, Orlando’s final effort wasn’t enough, as a late Keita Bates-Diop three-pointer and a Bryn Forbes strip in the last possession of the game sealed the deal for San Antonio in what ended up being a surprisingly fun final period.

Game notes

  • It seems like Pop not only has a set starting lineup, but also a rotation in place. Walker checked in for White while Devin Vassell subbed in for Doug McDermott. Then Thaddeus Young and Drew Eubanks took over the big men spots. Finally, Forbes replaced Murray. It would be surprising to see the pattern changes much going forward, although Tre Jones might still get a chance to fight for Forbes’ spot, and Young will have to perform better to hold on to his minutes.
  • White had a disaster of a game on offense and is now averaging 8.5 points per game on 26 percent shooting from the floor and 15 percent from beyond the arc in preseason. Is it time to worry about White? Probably not, but it would definitely be reassuring if he could have a big game to close the preseason. He was expected to be rusty, but the sooner he returns to himself, the better off the Spurs will be, especially with a brutal opening schedule.
  • McDermott and Jakob Poeltl are starting to develop some nice chemistry. McDermott is constantly moving and Jak is looking for him on cuts and hand-offs. It’s not always resulting in an assist, but it helps keep the offense moving.
  • Al-Farouq Aminu didn’t get minutes and Luka Samanic only checked in for a few near the end of the game. Keita Bates-Diop got the power forward time and Thad Young got some center minutes with Jock Landale out due to concussion protocols. The Spurs somehow have too much depth at the big men spots and they haven’t even had Zach Collins available yet. The cuts required to bring the roster to 15 players will likely come at those positions.
  • San Antonio took just eight free throws on Sunday. They miss DeMar DeRozan’s ability to get to the line, as they currently rank 25th in the league in preseason with 15 attempts per game. The Bulls were last in the league last season with 17.5 a game. A bottom five finish in attempts seems very likely.

SVP awards

3rd place: Keldon Johnson (12 points, five rebounds, three assists)

There’s a case to be made for Johnson ranking higher here, but he mostly played like how he’s expected to. Sure, he had some nice mid-range jumpers and the three assists are huge for someone who doesn’t always shine as a facilitator, but we’ve been seeing progress on both areas this preseason. Plus, he made most of his damage in the first half and didn’t do much in the third quarter run. So we’ll let others get their flowers this time.

2nd place: Dejounte Murray (18 points in 12 shots, five rebounds)

Dejounte led all Spurs in scoring and is looking like the most reliable weapon when it comes to getting a much-needed bucket. His mid-range jumper is deadly and he legitimately looks comfortable looking for it when nothing else works on offense. The only reason he doesn’t get top billing is because he only had one assist and three turnovers. Even for a non-traditional point guard, that’s not great.

1st place: Lonnie Walker IV (16 points in 11 shots, five assists)

Every once in a while Lonnie will have a game that renews all hope that he’ll become the type of offensive fulcrum the second unit desperately needs. On Sunday, he did just that, scoring from all three levels on offense and using his drives to set up others. He still takes heat checks after nearly every good play he makes and the defense remains lacking, but let’s not focus on that for one day. Good job, Lonnie!

Preseason leaderboard

T-1st - Dejounte Murray & Keldon Johnson - 6 points each

3rd - Bryn Forbes - 4 points

T-4th - Josh Primo and Lonnie Walker IV - 3 points each

T-6th - Drew Eubanks and Jakob Poeltl - 1 point each

Next game: Vs. Rockets on Friday

The Spurs will have a few days off to practice, which is always a good thing, before closing preseason by hosting the young Rockets.