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San Antonio vs. Houston, Final Score: Spurs demolish Rockets in preseason finale, 126-98

The Silver and Black close out their preseason slate in style as they blow out their interstate rival.

NBA: Preseason-Houston Rockets at San Antonio Spurs Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

The San Antonio Spurs dominated their preseason finale, 126-98, as they utterly dismantled the rebuilding Houston Rockets, controlling both ends of the court from the first tip to the final buzzer.

Dejounte Murray and Derrick White led the Silver and Black with 20 points apiece, closely followed by 16 points from Doug McDermott. And Christian Wood paced the Rockets with 19 points and 19 rebounds.

Observations

  • San Antonio finished first in midrange attempts, the bottom of the league in three-point attempts, and smack dab in the middle of the pack in pace a year ago. And given their roster construction before free agency, none of those things should come as much of a surprise. However, general manager Brian Wright made a concerted effort to revamp the Spurs to fit a more modern offense this offseason, signing Doug McDermott, bringing back Bryn Forbes, and drafting Josh Primo and Joe Wieskamp. Yet despite the dramatic makeover, the Spurs have only marginally altered their shot distribution while operating at a similarly slow tempo. Tonight told a different story, but perhaps head coach Gregg Popovich’s heavy experimentation with rotations didn’t provide an accurate picture of their plans heading into what might be the most unpredictable season in franchise history. Regardless, if they can sustain their 15-of-39 showing from beyond the arc, Spurs fans are in for a few exhilarating changes.
  • There’s no denying Thaddeus Young hasn’t been the most seamless fit since arriving in San Antonio. The 14-year veteran spent most of last season splitting time between both frontcourt positions, which worked out splendidly next to sharpshooting big men Nikola Vucevic and Lauri Markkanen. However, Young has struggled to find his footing alongside the inferior spacing provided by Jakob Poeltl and Drew Eubanks. Despite the Spurs needing to trim their roster down one more player before the regular season begins, Thaddeus isn’t a waiver candidate. And since the 33-year-old figures to remain part of the team until at least the All-Star break, it makes the most sense for the Spurs to maintain his trade appeal by maximizing his skills as a post playmaking small-ball five. It’s unclear how they’ll accomplish that at the moment, though inserting him into the second unit is about their only option unless they want to clog up a starting lineup that’s already relatively devoid of three-point shooting.
  • Derrick White was a disappointment through four preseason outings, averaging 8.5 points on 26.2% shooting. With the departure of DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, and Patty Mills, the fifth-year combo guard has received a promotion as San Antonio’s undisputed third option behind Dejounte Murray and Keldon Johnson. That said, roles still seem up in the air at this point, so don’t be shocked if White ends up assuming more responsibilities once the regular season gets underway. After all, Derrick looked more than capable of carrying an offense during his vaunted six-game stretch as a breakout star in the NBA bubble. Although nagging injuries and a bout with COVID-19 plagued White last season, the Colorado alum still graded out as one of the most impactful defenders and efficient pick-and-roll ballhandlers in the league. White is fully healthy for the first time in years, and it finally translated into efficient production as he recorded 20 points, four rebounds, six assists, two steals, and a block.
  • Stingy defense has been a hallmark of the Silver and Black during the Gregg Popovich era, and it’s probably no coincidence they missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons with how poorly they’ve performed on that end over the past couple of years. But after moving on from DeMar, Rudy, and Patty, a trifecta of defensive liabilities, San Antonio has taken a step in the right direction through addition by subtraction. And between Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Devin Vassell, Lonnie Walker IV, Keldon Johnson, Jakob Poeltl, and Drew Eubanks, the good guys theoretically have the perfect blend of switchability and rim protection to keep almost any opposition in check. That personnel has helped the Spurs lay claim to the tenth-best Defensive Rating of the preseason, and they made life difficult for the Rockets on Friday night. Not only did they hold Houston scoreless for the first two-and-a-half minutes of the contest, but they forced them into eight first-quarter turnovers, which they converted into 15 points. San Antonio thoroughly stifled the Rockets, keeping them below the century mark on 34% from the field.
  • The Spurs somehow managed to make the third-fewest passes in the NBA last season despite running the eighth-fewest isolation plays. That’s a bit of a mind-boggling stat until you consider how often they leaned on high-usage self-creators like DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Dejounte Murray. With only Dejounte returning, San Antonio is devoid of a bonafide go-to option. While that will likely make scoring a more arduous task, it should also cultivate increased ball movement. And so far, this new-look squad has quite clearly had no problem swinging the rock around the horn, even if they occasionally over-pass to a fault. With that in mind, the Silver and Black looked in synch tonight as passes with more precision, purpose, and decisiveness than previously seen this preseason. All that beautiful basketball led to a preseason-high 30 assists on 45 made baskets.
  • Head coach Gregg Popovich trotted out a starting five of Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Keldon Johnson, Doug McDermott, and Jakob Poeltl for the third time this preseason. And while he explicitly stated the rotations aren’t locked in heading into the season, this opening lineup gives San Antonio makes the most sense on paper for San Antonio. Keldon, although not elite in any area, is too talented to come off the bench. Derrick and Dejounte might legitimately set themselves apart as the best defensive backcourt in the NBA, but their fit offensively is still a question. That’s where McDermott comes into play, as he provides the premium cutting and versatile three-point shooting neither of the previously mentioned guards has consistently exhibited but undoubtedly need around them to succeed. As for Poeltl, he’s among the top short-roll passing, rim-protecting, screen-setting centers in the world, which is enough to make up for his minimal range and free-throw woes. Most of San Antonio’s starters played at least 25 minutes, and they punctuated their preseason finale by posting a positive +/- across the board.
  • Dejounte Murray continued his emergence as San Antonio’s go-to scorer and lead play initiator, directing traffic on both ends of the court while commanding the bulk of their newfound shot opportunities. As the team’s longest-tenured player, it’s encouraging to see his vocal leadership and willingness to hold himself accountable, two qualities the Spurs certainly admire out of the face of their franchise. Many analysts, including myself, have doubted Dejounte’s ability to develop into a genuine organizational building block. Murray is a nearly unparalleled perimeter stopper, superb midrange shooter, and capable playmaker. But his at-the-rim finishing and three-point accuracy must drastically upgrade for him to leap into All-Stardom, two areas that aren’t easily improved. Dejounte made monumental strides to bring himself around league-average in the restricted area. And though preseason stats say his long-range efficiency hasn’t budged, the spindly guard has shown increased comfortability from beyond the arc, stepping into several long-distance jumpers. The Seattle native nailed three triples on his way to 20 points, seven rebounds, seven assists, one steal, and a block.
  • Josh Primo has almost exclusively played garbage time minutes this preseason. His poise and confidence are miles ahead of his peers, and his flashes of skill are a mouthwatering delight, but it’s easy to get carried away when making projections about his ceiling. After all, most of his competition in the NBA has come against third-stringers and Exhibit 10 contact signees. That’s not to say he hasn’t looked impressive, but it’s always best to take a grounded approach when talking about rookies, especially when they are merely 18-years-old. And look, Primo has rightfully turned heads between exhibition action and the Silver & Black Scrimmage. For those hoping to see the Canadian combo guard escape the Austin Spurs treatment, it’s crucial to recognize how beneficial the G League could be for his long-term development. Dejounte, Derrick, and Lonnie are all ahead of Primo on the depth chart, and though the teenager has the skills to thrive off-ball and hold his own as a creator, Austin will afford him the shots and on-ball reps needed to help him realize his immense potential.

For the Rockets fans’ perspective, visit The Dream Shake.

The San Antonio Spurs kick off their regular season schedule on Wednesday as they host Jalen Suggs and the Orlando Magic at the AT&T Center.