It’s a strange time in the NBA right now, as teams are ravished by COVID-related absences. In that context, the almost-full-strength Spurs, fresh off a huge win against the Jazz, should be taking advantage of their fortune to climb up the standings. Unfortunately, they missed an opportunity to do so on Sunday, as their inconsistency was on full display once again in a 121-114 loss against a Kings team missing several rotation players.
There are two potential problems that come with games in which an opponent is as shorthanded as the Kings were: complacency by the Spurs and unpredictability by their rival. Both were in effect early on. The Silver and Black were uncharacteristically sloppy with the ball and quick to foul to bail themselves out of defensive breakdowns. The Kings, meanwhile, were getting points from unlikely sources like the big man trio of Tristan Thompson, Chimezie Metu and Damian Jones, who dominated the paint. San Antonio’s offense improved once the bench checked in, mostly due to a red-hot Lonnie Walker IV, but it wasn’t enough to keep up with a Sacramento team that was getting high quality shots inside, from beyond the arc, and at the line.
The Spurs trailed by 10 entering the second quarter, which didn’t seem all that bad considering the huge advantage they had in terms of depth. At times, that edge definitely worked in their favor, as Walker, Keita Bates-Diop, Bryn Forbes and Jock Landale provided good minutes, but unfortunately, the issues with San Antonio in the first half were collective. The individual effort was there, but the execution wasn’t. From inexplicably jumping at Metu’s pump fakes from beyond the arc and rotating late, to making lazy passes and not moving the ball enough, the mistakes kept piling on. Luckily Walker remained hot and some mid-range jumpers fell, or the Kings could have run away with it. The Spurs were truly fortunate to only be down seven at the break.
For a while in the third quarter, it looked like San Antonio had flipped the switch after a disappointing first half. The defense was energetic and disruptive enough to fuel their transition attack and the guards started to drive to the rim against an opponent that seemed mostly focused on stopping the roll man. After an exhilarating four and a half minutes, they took the lead and forced the Kings to call a timeout. It would have been the perfect time to keep the defensive intensity up and create some separation, but it proved to be impossible. Instead, the two teams traded buckets for the rest of the quarter, even as Harrison Barnes ran point for the depleted Kings. By failing to seize the moment, the Spurs let Sacramento stay in it just as Buddy Hield was waking up, which they would regret immensely.
The last chance to really pounce on the Kings was at the start of the fourth, when they had some of their reserves in. Unfortunately, the second unit didn’t deliver the run that was needed to do so in the first few minutes. The Silver and Black wouldn’t get another opportunity. Sacramento’s starters checked back in, and with Tyrese Haliburton complementing the red-hot Hield in the scoring department, the Spurs were left in a precarious position. Dejounte Murray and Keldon Johnson tried to get them back in it, but the defense simply couldn’t get enough stops to make it happen. With three minutes to go, and knowing that they’re playing a SEGABABA on Monday, Gregg Popovich emptied his bench, as a game that looked eminently winnable slipped away.
- The Kings deserve credit for doing a good job of keeping the Spurs out of the paint or only allowing tough looks in the half court. They focused on stopping Jakob Poeltl inside in the pick and roll, knowing that the guards are not always aggressive, which paid off for them, as some of the short jumpers and floaters the Spurs normally make rimmed out. It also helped them that they could play two bigs for long stretches and not get punished for it.
- Devin Vassell got the start in place of Doug McDermott, who was out with a tooth infection. He did a good job of moving without the ball and hitting his shots, which was mostly what was asked of him. Not a bad game at all, but not the type of performance that will make Pop think about making him a permanent starter, either.
- Keldon Johnson keeps hitting outside shots. This time he went 2-for-5 after missing his first three attempts. His form looks good, too, so maybe I should stop expecting a massive regression. Big Body also made some plays in transition and really helped out on the defensive boards on a night in which the Spurs needed it.
- Derrick White had his worst game in a while, finishing the night with five points in eight shots and the same amount of assists as turnovers. Normally he makes up for bad offensive nights by playing great defense, but outside of that initial stretch in the third quarter, no one on the team really excelled on that end on Sunday.
- Jock Landale really gives the Spurs a different look on offense with his shooting ability, so it would probably be a good idea to keep giving him some minutes to see how much it helps. The concern is that he might struggle on the other end, but San Antonio’s defense has been a mess for a while now anyway, so potentially supercharging the offense with a stretch five might be worth the risk.
Play of the night
The first few minutes of the third quarter truly were special. The Spurs were everywhere on defense and feasting on the break. Too bad it didn’t last.
THIS. SEQUENCE. #PorVida pic.twitter.com/glpLM4DaUO— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) December 20, 2021
3rd place (1 point) - Bryn Forbes | 18 points, four made three-pointers
With the Kings controlling the paint, the Spurs needed some outside shooting, and Bryn Forbes provided it. When he’s asked to just hit threes, Forbes is valuable. Sometimes he tries to do too much and ends up with three turnovers, like he did on Sunday, but his off-the-bounce adventures are probably more indicative of San Antonio’s struggles to create in the half court than Forbes’ desires to be a playmaker.
2nd place - (2 points) | Lonnie Walker IV | 19 points, three rebounds, four assists
When Lonnie has it going, he’s mesmerizing. Not only is his game aesthetically pleasing in those stretches, but he typically also flashes the type of takeover potential that no one else on the roster seems to have. Then he forces a drive and launches a wild shot or misses a wide open teammate and we are reminded that he’s as talented as he’s flawed at this point. Still, on a night in which Derrick White was mostly invisible, Walker stepped up and carried the Spurs, especially in the first half.
1st place (3 points) - Dejounte Murray | 25 points, seven rebounds, nine assists
Murray wasn’t as sharp on defense as he normally is and played a part on the team’s slow star due to some lazy passes that got picked off or deflected, but you can’t argue with that stat line. The numbers can seem hollow on losses and even Murray himself has said that all he cares is about wins, but production should be rewarded, especially on a team in which getting it consistently from any single player is rare.
1st - Dejounte Murray - 46pts
2nd - Derrick White - 27pts
3rd - Devin Vassell - 21pts
4th - Keldon Johnson - 20pts
5th - Jakob Poeltl - 17pts
6th - Lonnie Walker IV - 12pts
7th - Thaddeus Young & Bryn Forbes - 9pts
8th - Doug McDermott - 7pts
9th - Drew Eubanks - 2pts
10th - Jock Landale, Josh Primo, Keita Bates-Diop & Tre Jones - 1pt each
Next game: at Clippers on Monday
The Spurs will visit the Clippers on the second game of a back-to-back. Hopefully the loss will motivate San Antonio to take the game seriously, even if Paul George misses the matchup with an elbow injury.