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What We Learned from the Spurs win over the Rockets

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Although it isn’t always pretty, San Antonio continues to execute down the stretch while picking up victories in winnable games.

San Antonio Spurs v Houston Rockets Photo by Cato Cataldo/NBAE via Getty Images

San Antonio edged out the shorthanded Rockets, surviving a late charge that saw Houston overcome a 13 point second-half deficit to claim their first lead of the night with just over three minutes remaining in regulation. Despite stumbling at the outset of the fourth quarter, the Spurs executed when it mattered most as DeMar DeRozan stepped up, and the defense hunkered down to pull out the dub.

The Silver and Black improved to 13-10, climbing three games above .500 and back into fifth place in the unforgiving Western Conference for the second time this season. And though it wasn’t the most aesthetically-pleasing outing, the good guys put their depth, defense, and never-say-die attitude on full display as two significant starters, Lonnie Walker IV and LaMarcus Aldridge, didn’t play.

Observations

  • DeMar DeRozan once again came to San Antonio’s rescue when their offense sputtered to a standstill, delivering seven of his 30 points in crunch time when the Rockets were threatening to run away with their first lead of the contest. The four-time All-Star ranks eighth in the NBA in clutch points this season (50), and the Spurs have relied on him to fill the role of closer. Although the twelve-year pro has become something of a late-game savior, the Silver and Black have won and lost in close correlation with his nightly scoring output. Gregg Popovich and crew are 9-3 when DeMar drops at least 20 points and 4-7 when he doesn’t dress or fails to reach that mark. I’m not sure any of the young core is capable of efficiently shouldering as much responsibility as DeMar carries on a nightly basis, and it should be fascinating to see how PATFO handles his contract situation during free agency.
  • Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, and Jakob Poeltl finally started together for the first time since San Antonio’s penultimate matchup of the NBA Restart. And all they did was post the best single-game net rating (+27.8) of any starting five the Spurs have trotted out this season. That trio shared the court for 17 minutes on Saturday night, and alongside Keldon Johnson, they just might the ideal stoppers to negate DeMar’s defensive shortcomings. Of course, this combination of players only came about because Lonnie Walker IV and LaMarcus Aldridge found themselves sidelined with various ailments. However, I’d like to see Gregg Popovich keep this group intact in some fashion once Lonnie and LaMarcus return. I’m not necessarily suggesting Jakob should supplant Aldridge in the starting five, though I will continue to prefer Walker off the bench as long as White is healthy.
  • The Silver and Black may own the tenth-worst Offensive Rating in the league (109.5), but that hasn’t stopped them from posting a winning record amid the most scoring-friendly era basketball has ever seen. While part of their success stems from a much-improved defense from a year ago, San Antonio has used a historic assist-to-turnover ratio to keep their opponents at a league-low in points off giveaways (13.7). In other words, the Spurs are cutting down on mistakes and forcing their competition to beat them straight up, and that was on display against Houston. Unfortunately, the rest of their offense isn’t especially impressive. A borderline great defense coupled with a meager attack is only as good as the inverse of that scenario, and that’s what the Spurs were in 2020-2021 when they narrowly missed out on what would have been a record-setting 23rd consecutive playoff appearance. I still believe there’s room for improvement this season from this overachieving bunch. That said, I haven’t changed my opinion about them being anything more than a play-in team. The Western Conference is ridiculously deep, and there several teams currently trailing San Antonio in the standings that are capable of displacing the Spurs from the postseason picture. And a couple of losses could be the difference between the sixth seed and landing in the lottery for a second straight season.
  • In my last WWL, I expressed my excitement about a fully healthy roster and the Spurs shaking their frustrating tendency to play down to their competition. Perhaps I celebrated a bit too soon as San Antonio responded with two blowout losses to the Grizzlies, a pair of closer-than-they-should-have-been victories against the shorthanded Rockets and Timberwolves, and seen a few players join the injury report. Regardless, the Silver and Black have risen to fifth-place out west, and fans probably won’t complain much as long as they’re winning. My desire to witness the Spurs at full strength for an extended period hasn’t wavered, and we should have a better idea of what this team is or isn’t by the time we reach the understandably scrutinized All-Star break.