What to expect when a sub-400 Spurs team travels to take on, as they’ve often been called, “a regular-season win machine” like the Utah Jazz in December, at altitude in front of that notoriously noisy Salt Lake City crowd where visitors get blown out and hopes for pulling out a close win go to die? Well, not that much, to be honest.
Going into the game, what I was most interested in was: How will the Spurs’ starters do against the Jazz’ starters? Because, with a bit of fantasy, the Spurs’ starting five is a bit like the Jazz’ starting five — at least in an embryonic state.
Their best players play the 1, 2, and 5 positions. And while Jakob Pöltl is one of the better rim protectors in the league, Rudy Gobert is the very best rim protector in the league. Mike Conley is the sort of player Dejounte Murray will hopefully turn into. Granted, Mitchell and White are rather different. White will probably never be the offensive force that Mitchell is. And Mitchell will probably never be the defender that White is. But as for the 3 and 4 positions, again, the Spurs and Jazz personnel are somewhat similar – a stretch 4 and an undersized 3. The question is: Are the Jazz what this Spurs team could be a couple of years down the road?
The fact that the Jazz – mostly due to Gobert’s struggles in the playoffs – are often not considered true contenders (I guess that’s where the term “regular-season win machine” comes from), shouldn’t put anyone off. First of all, a “regular-season win machine” is nothing to be frowned upon. I can’t see that many empty seats in the AT&T if the Spurs were one – and if it wasn’t for the 5,357 miles between Mainz and San Antonio, I’d certainly be in one this season. Second, who’s to say the Jazz won’t truly compete this season? Everything in any competition is always based on context. Third, I’m only guessing. Let’s focus on what to take away from the fantastic all-round effort the Spurs put up Friday night.
- The Mustang is turning into dead-eye. I guess we all expect Keldon’s three-point shooting to come back to earth sooner or later. But I’m fine with the young man keeping us waiting. According to Cleaning the Glass, which removes garbage time, Keldon is making 47.6% of his attempts beyond the arc. Which means he’s in the 100th percentile among forwards. That high-arching shot of his has turned into a high-efficiency shot. And there’s more. Last night, he was excellent powering his way to the rim and making lay-ups.
- In the absence of a true number one option, Derrick has an argument to be the guy for the time being. His three-point shot is still not falling, and yet he continues to top 20 points per game. The reason is simple: No Spur is better getting to the line; and no Spur is better at the line. He’s 25 for 25 over the last four games. Impressive.
- Dejounte, despite going 6-16, had a good game. It’s highly subjective, of course, but I’ve been wondering where all his assists came from. He made some nice reads – on both ends of the floor, by the way. And he came up big in crunch time.
- When Donovan Mitchell went for an and-one around the 5:30 mark in the second quarter, the Jazz’ announcers rightfully said: “What a move! What a move!” That’s what I thought. But I wasn’t only thinking about Mitchell, but also about the guy who Mitchell couldn’t shake off: Tre Jones played excellent D on him in that situation — forcing him to come up with a “what a move” move in order to score. In general, Tre continues to look impressive in his limited minutes. What a draft steal he could turn out to be!
- Great to see Lonnie putting in another efficient scoring performance off the bench! His last single-digit outing is now more than two weeks away, and we’re starting to see what we have wanted to see so desperately from him — consistency. Two instances made me extremely happy for him. Often when he makes a shot, the camera catches him as he makes his way back to the defensive end. Usually, his face looks extremely focused in these situations, almost stripped of all emotion. A bit like he doesn’t allow himself to be happy about his make. I don’t remember exactly which made basket it was in last night’s game, but the camera caught him in his usual backward motion. And just before they cut away from him, you could see him shout in confidence. I so hope this was a moment for him that made him realize just how good he actually is. Maybe it helped him make that tremendous basket that put the game away. I must admit I’ve been thinking about what the Spurs could do with the money when his contract comes off the books in the off-season. But my preferred scenario is and will remain this: I hope he gives the front office no other choice but to make him a good offer. I want any drafted Spur to stay a Spur. And I truly hope that next season I see a guy in Silver & Black that wears the jersey with the number 1 on it — and on the back it says “Walker IV”.
- Multiple times throughout the game, the Jazz’ announcers said that “This is a Popovich-cached team”: when the Jazz couldn’t shake off the Spurs in the first quarter, when the Spurs came back and took the lead in the third quarter, when the Spurs refused to give away the game in crunch time — and after the Spurs had won the game. I often give the home announcers a listen when the Spurs are playing away from home. Because I like to find out how they think about our guys. Last night was a great experience. I guess many of us Pounders felt throughout the game that this was one of the games that the Spurs normally lose. Even after that dagger Derrick put in the Jazz to end the third quarter. Unsurprisingly, the “regular-season win machine” named Utah Jazz were coming hard at the Spurs in crunch: Mike Conley making two threes in a row, Donovan Mitchell being unstoppable driving to the rim. But the Spurs always had an answer. Everyone on the court in crunch time hit back and hit back hard. This was incredible. The most satisfying watching basketball experience this season. Or, from an outside perspective, it was what “a Popovich-coached team” can do. Bring on the Kings!