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What we learned from the Spurs opening night win over the Magic

What’s in a game? A victory any other night would still smell as sweet.

NBA: Orlando Magic at San Antonio Spurs
Insert ‘It was a slam dunk’ joke here.
Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a well-known scene at the beginning of King Lear where the eponymous monarch demands that his three daughters praise him and declare the quality of their love for him in exchange for their inheritance.

Only Lear’s youngest daughter, Cordelia, refuses to participate in fluffing the old man’s ego. After each of her older sisters rain down a deluge of transparently false-hearted praise on their father, Lear turns to Cordelia, expecting an even richer declaration of admiration from his favorite (knowing full well that his youngest is the only daughter who truly loves him).

“Nothing,” Cordelia replies.

“Nothing will come of nothing,” Lear retorts, in a salvo that is equal parts droll and foreboding.

But ‘nothing’ is exactly where we must start in the final analysis of Wednesday night’s game. Like Cordelia, I am loath to lavish praise on a Spurs team that performed exactly as they should have against one of the youngest and most injured teams in the NBA.

Outside of the almost equally youthful Oklahoma City Thunder, no team was so thoroughly gutted of on-court assets last season as the Orlando Magic. Even without the injuries, this is a game that this version of the San Antonio Spurs should have won handily. That they did was wonderful — it was something last season’s squad struggled with — but it was hardly exceptional.

That being said, please don’t confuse me for a humbug. This is more of a rational reaction to the beat-down equivalent of punching a kid on crutches. It doesn’t matter how big or fast you are when your opponent can barely walk. And to extend an already cancellation-adjacent metaphor, boy did this Spurs team beat up on that poor kid last night.

Whether it was Keldon Johnson showing off a more refined version of his bull-in-a-china closet drives, or Devin Vassell and Lonnie Walker combining to replace the now absent DeRozan’s mid-range contributions, the Spurs showed none of the offensive hesitation that has plagued them in the past.

Apart from an opening first-quarter stretch in which the starting lineup appeared to still be figuring itself out, it was all-gas-no-brakes for those fast and lengthy youths.

And it was that same clustering of length and quick-twitch reactions that served them well on the defensive end. Dejounte Murray and Vassell combined to put on a steals clinic, and it was as if the whole team were competing to outdo each other on the court and in the box score.

The word ‘fun’ doesn’t even seem appropriate for a performance that ended with seven Spurs scoring more than 12 points (5 with more than 15 points), but words fail us all often enough that I suppose we’ll get over it.

Every player who saw playing time scored, with the exception of Bryn Forbes, and that certainly wasn’t for a lack of effort. Indeed, these Spurs played like a team with something to prove; hungry, relentless, and perpetually in motion. Put simply, the Magic never stood a chance.

And that’s where the fairy tale ends, for now. As much as I hate to admit it, the quality of the opponent matters. I don’t want to reel it in, believe me. I want to believe that I will be audience to these kinds of performances for most of the season. I want to look forward to a future where Jakob Poeltl flirts with a triple-double every night whilst doing his best impression of Nikola Jokic passing. I want to place my faith in a world where the Spurs third stringers look better than most team’s second teams.

But this wasn’t the sort of performance that inspires that sort of confidence. Not yet. This was a high-speed race between a Mini-Cooper and a Ford Pinto. Yeah, the Mini-Cooper is cute and flashy and quick, but it’s contending with a Ford Freaking Pinto. We’re talking about a car that tops out (theoretically) at 100 miles-per-hour and explodes if you rear-end it.

King Lear is undoubtedly one of the stage’s greatest dramas, and a personal favorite. Out of all of Shakespeare’s tragedies, it’s the one that feels most preventable to me. Cordelia responds to her father’s further demands for adoration by saying that she lacks the ability to easily put her feelings into words, but that she loves him as a child should love their father, and Lear, filled with rage and hurt, fails to see the full depths of that statement and disowns his only loving child. Their reconciliation comes too late, and results in Cordelia’s death, after which Lear descends into dementia (or madness) and dies.

Personally, I’m hoping that the reconciliation between my now somewhat inflated hopes for this team and reality proves to be much less dramatic. That nothing will come of nothing is definitely true. But a win is still a win, and that’s something too.

Takeaways:

  • Chief among the things I would like to praise when it comes to Wednesday’s contest, is the ball-movement. With DeMar Derozan now in Chicago, it was more than fair to wonder exactly where that distribution would surface in the roster (if at all). Turns out that the entire group is more than capable of making up for that loss, with four different players tallying four assists or more and the Spurs almost doubling the Magic’s assist total with 32. It’s only one game, but it looks as though a variation of ‘The Beautiful Game’ has returned to San Antonio, with a fleet-footed four-out offense aspiring to baffle loftier opponents throughout the season. It’s still coming in flashes, but the flashes are getting more frequent as this squad gains experience. Now it’s time to take the show on the road.
  • Almost as invigorating was watching San Antonio’s big men get in on the passing, as Poeltl and Drew Eubanks combined for nine assists, sharply keeping their eyes open for driving Spurs and open shooters. Poeltl has long been an underrated passer for his position, but Eubanks’ effort and continued development deserves a shout-out as well. He has quietly developed into a keen outlet passer, a skill that while hardly flashy, has been an area of need since the Big Fundamental’s retirement. It’s certainly something that I notice when it’s done well, and I hope it bodes well for when that second unit needs an inbound passer, an area that’s also been lacking since the end of the Big Three Era.
  • Nearly lost within the barrage of the usual suspects and the realization of youthful potential, were the long-range contributions of one Mr. Douglas McBuckets. In his first game with San Antonio’s Premier (read only) Professional Sports Franchise, Doug McDermott looked as if he’s been playing for Pop for years. And if this was your first time watching the Spurs play, I can’t say that I’d blame you for thinking that. So seamless was his integration into the offense that I once confused him with the much beloved but also departed Patty Mills. There’s something to be said for holding your own defensively while serving as a potent long-range (and sometimes up close) threat, but the Spurs have desperately needed the kind of off-ball wizardry that Mills offered the bench in the starting unit, at one of the forward positions, and McDermott definitely delivered. There are some who’ve said that McDermott’s contract was a little bit of an overpay, but if he can continue to offer exactly what he did last night, the Spurs will happily let him laugh his way to the bank.

Playing You Out – The Theme Song of the Evening:

Nothing Rhymed by Gilbert O’Sullivan