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Spurs get experimental in loss to Pistons

The Spurs tried different rotations and gave minutes to 14 players against Detroit, contributing to a lack of consistency in their second preseason game.

NBA: Preseason-San Antonio Spurs at Detroit Pistons Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

After starting preseason with an impressive win against a the Jazz, the Spurs showed that they are still very much a work in progress in their visit to Detroit. Despite good performances by Keldon Johnson and Bryn Forbes, San Antonio was outplayed by the Pistons en route to a 115-105 loss.

The Spurs didn’t have Dejounte Murray suiting up for this one, which meant Lonnie Walker IV got the start alongside Derrick White in the backcourt. Walker was extremely aggressive to start the game and helped fuel an offense that couldn’t play with much pace and didn’t look all that fluid in the half court. The defense was stout early on, so San Antonio kept pace, but it all changed when the subs checked in, as the Thaddeus Young - Drew Eubanks tandem struggled mightily to keep the Pistons from scoring and the Silver and Black allowed a big run.

With White resting and Tre Jones out with an ankle injury, the Spurs decided to go without a real point guard to start the second period. Bryn Forbes took the minutes while Lonnie Walker IV and the bigs mostly handled the ball. Forbes was hot from outside, which once again made up for the offense struggling at a team level when there wasn’t enough movement. The defense had it’s issues but once the starters checked back in it improved, allowing the Spurs to make it a game again.

Gregg Popovich decided to experiment to start the second half, as if to remind us all that these games don’t matter. Devin Vassell and Forbes started in place of Walker and Johnson, who then had minutes off the bench. The unconventional unit worked well enough, but the Pistons found some success hunting Doug McDermott on defense and exploiting little mistakes San Antonio made on rotations, which only got worse when Jakob Poeltl sat. Keldon Johnson had some good drives in the frame, but Detroit was just a little more solid thanks to the play of their veterans.

The Pistons slowly built on their lead in the fourth, despite the best efforts of Johnson, who carried the offense with his drives. The energy level wasn’t great after a few minutes in the final period, which is to be expected for a preseason game, so both coaches went deep into their benches. Luka Samanic, Josh Primo and Jock Landale had some nice moments for the Spurs, but there was no comeback. Detroit took the win despite not having Killian Hayes and Cade Cunningham available but San Antonio got to give minutes to 14 players in different configurations, so I’m sure Pop is not too upset about the final score.

Game notes

  • The defense was not great on this one. Part of it was just due to a lack of chemistry, since some of these guys have never played together. Young, in particular, looked lost, and the team struggled greatly when Poeltl sat. The rotations were a little late as well, so the Pistons at times got quality looks from outside. The potential for a great defense is there, so it’s mostly a matter of consistency.
  • The Pistons were careful with the ball, logging only 10 turnovers, which made it hard for the Spurs to push the pace. Creating turnovers is going to be key for San Antonio this season, and on Wednesday, that didn’t happen. Having Dejounte Murray back will surely help there.
  • The lack of three-point shooting was a problem. The Spurs tried to drive but the Pistons realized early that they could send help and not pay for it. Asides from Bryn Forbes, no one really had it going. Derrick White missed all his five attempts, while Lonnie Walker IV hit one of his eight. Keldon Johnson only attempted two and missed both. Some of those will fall eventually, but the starters can’t solely rely on Doug McDermott to hit outside shots.
  • Young and Aminu got their first minutes as Spurs. As mentioned, Young struggled to find his footing. Aminu looked a little more comfortable in a short stint, but with the depth San Antonio now has at forward, it’s unlikely he earns rotation minutes.

SVP awards

Every game, we’ll pick the three best performers, or Spurs Valuable Players, to keep tabs on who’s doing well consistently. First place gets threes points, second place two and third place one. Here are tonight's winners:

Third place: Jakob Poeltl (four points, five assists, two blocks)

Lonnie Walker IV has a case for this spot, since he finished with 13 points and two assists, but he made his mark early on offense and then disappeared for the rest of the game. Poeltl, meanwhile, played just 20 minutes, but he was everywhere on defense in his time on the court and dished out five assists to lead the team.

Second place: Keldon Johnson (18 points, three rebounds, two assists)

Johnson had 18 points, but it took him 18 shots to get there, and he did most of his damage in the second half. It’s clear that adjusting to a bigger role in which he has to create for himself will be challenging for him, at least early on. But it’s comforting to know that despite a bad first half and a surprising benching at the break, he’s strong enough mentally to always remain aggressive.

First place: Bryn Forbes (20 points on 6-for-8 shooting from beyond the arc)

Forbes led the Spurs in scoring, but that’s not why he gets the nod here. It’s because he played his role perfectly. He came off the bench, moved a lot, aggressively looked for his shots, and hit them. He also competed on defense. Forbes could earn a rotation spot playing like this, although it’s unclear if he’ll beat out Jones, who still hasn’t had a chance to play in the preseason, for the scarce backup point guard minutes once Murray returns.

Leaderboard:

1 - Josh Primo and Bryn Forbes - 3 points each

2 - Dejounte Murray and Keldon Johnson - 2 points each

3 - Drew Eubanks and Jakob Poeltl - 1 point each

Next game: Vs. the Heat on Friday

Hopefully Murray will be back for that one, but if he misses it, it would be great to have Jones available, to see what he can do. No matter who suits up, expect a lot of experimentation, since Pop is clearly more interested in finding out what works than settling for a rotation yet.