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What we learned from the Spurs’ loss to the Nuggets

The bench guys outscored the starters, but the Nuggets outscored the Spurs.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at San Antonio Spurs Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

There are some things in life I find so very interesting that being disinterested in them appears completely unimaginable – until I am. Case in point: movies and TV series. I was a film buff from a very early age, and I continued to be one throughout my twenties. It went downhill once I started to question what I saw. For example, what’s the point of some of Brad Pitt’s interminably insipid scenes in Once upon a Time in Hollywood? Answer: he needed to have just as much screen time as Leonardo DiCaprio. What’s the movie about if not to give Pitt and DiCaprio showing off.

Or, what’s the point of season five of The Sopranos? Answer: to have an additional season. I really don’t want to break into a discussion about the works of Quentin Tarantino and David Chase. I only referenced them to make clear how even consensus high-caliber guys like them manage to bore me. No need to even talk about “painting by numbers” that mainstream cinema is currently stuck in.

Compared to 10 or 15 years ago, my interest in soccer has also declined. Not in supporting my favorite club, but in the game itself. Frankly, these days I think I can see why football had been unpopular in the USA for so long. Sometimes I even think the reasons why it wasn’t a big thing in America are the reasons why it’s so popular in Europe. Apart from maybe the offside rule, it’s extremely easy to follow. And even when it’s played with pace, the massive dimensions of the pitch make it appear comparably slow. And you don’t really need to concentrate to follow the game. You can just watch and hope there’s something to cheer for. And there are so many ridiculous ways to manipulate the game – feigning injury, running out the clock in set pieces, other stuff. If I wasn’t emotionally attached to a club and a national team, I wouldn’t have watched soccer for years.

As for basketball, no such issues. After almost 30 years of watching, I’m still trying to make more sense of what I see. There’s only one thing I’m increasingly oblivious about when it comes to hoops. Remarkably, it’s what I was most interested about when I started watching basketball as a kid, the classic individual box score stats – points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. Alas, total points scored say nothing about efficiency; simply giving the ball to a team mate without even the intention to make a play can easily result in an assist; rebounds are often pure luck; elite rim protectors might not even block that many shots; and the number of steals say little about how good a player is on defense. Hell, the best scorer on a poor team might even be one of the primary reasons why the team he plays for sucks.

And considering the frequency in which the term “triple double” is used (even when a player is only close to a triple double, it will almost certainly appear in post-game reports) you might be led to believe a triple double is something that greatly influences winning or is at least proof of a great individual performance. But neither is necessarily the case. I would argue that it accounts for activity rather than achievement. A 27-3-3 stat line can be more impactful than, say, 15-11-12.

I approached Saturday night’s game on the lookout for box score stats that actually mean something. Not a very good idea as it turned out.


  • I admit a 36-12-14 triple double would be testament to a very good individual performance. However, when that’s not an individual stat line, but instead the accumulated stat line of your starting five, then it’s curtains. The Spurs starters had a miserable night. Look no further for reasons San Antonio lost the game.
  • It’s clear just how poor the starting five played when you look at the contributions the bench guys made: Tre Jones, Devin Vassel, Lonnie Walker, Bryn Forbes, and Keita Bates-Diop went off for a total 67 points, with all but Forbes posting an individual true shooting percentage over 60 percent, Lonnie even had 71 percent. A total of 76 points from the bench should normally guarantee a win, but not this time. 38 points came in the garbage quarter – none of the Spurs’ starters saw the court in the final 12 minutes. Garbage time effectively started in the third quarter.
  • The only somewhat bright spot in the starting five was Keldon Johnson. Not that he had a particularly good game, but it’s becoming a very welcome habit that the guy makes the first two of his three-point attempts in the first quarter. Since his overall impact on the team is still questionable, upping his outside shooting volume is something that could turn him into a more valuable contributor.
  • Dejounte Murray has been the Spurs most consistent performer over the first quarter of the season, no question about that. But he followed up Thursday’s below-average performance with his worst game so far this season. I don’t expect him to have successive five-turnover outings going forward, but the way last night’s turnovers came about further suggests that 8.3 assists per game might overstate his playmaking abilities. I’m often surprised by the number of assists he gets in individual games.