After building up a 22-point third-quarter lead, the Spurs appeared to be well-positioned to cruise to victory while affording their third-stringers a chance to stretch their legs a bit in garbage time. Despite the substantial deficit, the Cavaliers staged a furious fourth-quarter comeback to make it a two-possession game by the time the final buzzer blared.
Although San Antonio was dragged into a closer-than-it-should-have-been contest, the good guys showed the resiliency to avoid a complete implosion like the one they forced on the Chicago Bulls a few nights ago. It wasn’t the prettiest win, but the victory pushed the Silver and Black six games above .500 for the first time in two seasons.
And for a franchise that many, including myself, proclaimed as nothing more than a fringe playoff team, the Spurs continue to show they are light years ahead of where they were a year ago. While their offense remains a work in progress, their defense is borderline elite, and San Antonio is finally healthy as they approach a nine-game homestand.
- The Spurs have done a significantly better job of taking care of business against lesser opponents this season. After defeating Cleveland on Friday night, San Antonio has improved to 12-4 versus teams with sub .500 records, a far cry away from their 16-14 display when faced with those same favorable circumstances a year ago. Perhaps moving on from one-dimensional defensive liabilities like Bryn Forbes and Marco Belinelli in favor of versatile two-way wings like Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell, and Lonnie Walker IV was a the decision that moved the needle. And it seems PATFO are intent upon continuing their progress in that area. Soon Jakob Poeltl, Drew Eubanks, and Luka Samanic will be the only big men left in the rotation once the Silver and Black move or buyout LaMarcus Aldridge before the trade deadline. Regardless of ongoing roster optimization to fit a defensive-minded brand of basketball, this group has shown a certain level of perseverance when faced with adversity that wasn’t always there last season.
- Life is a lot easier when you have the services of your best player. And we can argue on technicalities who provides the most two-way impact for the Spurs, but there’s a reason DeMar DeRozan was the only player up for All-Star consideration a few weeks ago. While San Antonio went 3-1 in the absence of their leading-scorer, it’s no coincidence that all their wins came at the hands of some of the worst teams in the Eastern Conference. It’s also no fluke that their only loss came against the title-contending Philadelphia 76ers, who likewise were without their top option. DeMar might not lead the Silver and Black to the promised land any time soon, though it is apparent that they play their best basketball when he sets foot on the court. And while the on-off numbers suggest he does more harm than help for San Antonio, advanced stats should never come without context. Turn on the tape from the Cavs game, and you’ll see how valuable the four-time All-Star is for a rather pedestrian offense. Yes, DeRozan remains among the weakest defenders on the roster. And yes, there’s a chance he doesn’t end his career with the Spurs. With that said, his leadership has played a monumental role in the development of this young core. And regardless if he re-signs this offseason or not, the knowledge he has imparted to guys like Lonnie, Keldon, and Dejounte will live on through their continual growth.
- Keldon Johnson put together one of the most impressive performances from a Spur this season, recording 22 points and 21 rebounds on the first night of a back-to-back. While that sort of stat line pops off the boxscore, it is well worth noting that only seven players have logged a 20-20 game before their 22nd birthday over the last five years. Keldon now joins an exclusive list that includes Karl-Anthony Towns, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jarrett Allen, John Collins, Deandre Ayton, and Luka Doncic. And if you go back 60 years, that group expands to Hall-of-Famers like Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Chris Webber, Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, Moses Malone, Bill Walton, and Rick Barry. That’s some exceptional company to keep. And it gives Spurs fans everywhere hope that the second-year forward can keep San Antonio’s longstanding tradition of unearthing future All-Stars late in the first round of the NBA Draft alive. Believe it or not, DeJuan Blair sits among those to achieve that remarkable feat. But don’t expect a dramatic dropoff from Keldon because it looks like the rising star is just getting started.
- I found it particularly surprising that DeMar DeRozan played almost 37 minutes after a ten-day hiatus. I also found it odd that Lonnie Walker IV registered his first DNP of the season despite arguably playing his best basketball over the last nine or so games. Derrick White, Dejounte Murray, and Keldon Johnson each logged at least 35 minutes, which wouldn’t be strange if not for Milwaukee awaiting them on the second night of a back-to-back in less than 24 hours. All this appears weird at the outset until you consider Pop might be working some brilliant strategery. The Bucks are maybe San Antonio’s strongest opponent to date, and the Cavs have all but waved the white flag on their back to the draft lottery. Why rest your best players and risk losing your most winnable contest when your most losable game directly follows? It doesn’t account for everything that transpired, so maybe I’m overthinking it. All I know is the Spurs need as many wins as they can get if they want to stay relevant in the Western Conference playoff picture, and my theory makes sense from that perspective.