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Spurs upset by shorthanded Hornets in start of nine-game homestand

The Spurs tried to mount a comeback after a bad first half, but the Hornets held off to escape San Antonio with an unexpected win.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs came into Monday’s game against the Hornets with the hope of starting out their nine-game homestand the right way. Unfortunately, in what was a surprisingly intense game, they ended up losing a close one to the visitors, 100-97.

The playoff vibes from a game that should have not had them started early, as both coaches seemed to be ready to make adjustments. Familiarity surely played a part in it, as former Spurs assistant James Borrego immediately steered his team in the right direction when Gregg Popovich first went for a switch-heavy approach on defense and then dusted up a zone. While Charlotte was getting buckets despite a good effort from the Silver and Black, things were different on the other end. Dejounte Murray and Derrick White were surprisingly turnover-prone and the entire team seemed out of focus at times. The Hornets capitalized with some fastbreak points and three-pointers that allowed them to get ahead even through some struggles of their own.

The Spurs found themselves down 10 after one, but their well-chronicled second-quarter dominance made the deficit seem manageable. Thanks to yet another defensive adjustment that had Rudy Gay at center to allow for more ball pressure, it seems like San Antonio was going to go on a big run, like the one they had in Charlotte against this very opponent earlier in the season. But the Hornets once again adjusted and went to their featured players for offense. With Gordon Hayward feasting on DeMar DeRozan and the three-ball falling, the visitors managed to match the Spurs’ 24 points for the frame and preserve their lead, in a quarter in which neither team really shined.

San Antonio started the third period strong, making some shots and getting a couple of stops, but not much changed. All the successful adjustments made in the first half continued in the second. Despite Jakob Poeltl’s good play on both ends, Pop went small with Gay at center for long stretches. Hayward carried the offense for Charlotte when nothing else was working and the Hornets tried to take advantage of favorable matchups whenever they could find them. The biggest difference for the Spurs was that on top of the three-ball falling more often, they had huge contributions from a much more active DeRozan. The star wing played the entire quarter and had 10 points and two assists in those 12 minutes to help the home team cut the lead to five going into the final period.

Momentum seemed to be in the Spurs’s favor going into the fourth, as they regained the lead early on thanks to a remarkable two-way effort from the bench. Eventually the rhythm slowed down and when the starters checked back in, it was anyone’s game. Normally, DeRozan takes over in those situations to power the team to wins, and to his credit he tried to do just that by scoring 10 points to match Derrick White’s output in the frame. Unfortunately, a massive final few minutes from Terry Rozier and the general poise of a wounded but not eager to surrender Hornets team proved enough to hold off the comeback. The game remained close until the final seconds, but Charlotte iced it from the line to snap a three-game losing streak and win their first game without LaMelo Ball.

Game notes

  • On one of the two attempts to tie the score late in the game, the Spurs used one of the variations of the baseline hammer play they popularized years ago. The Hornets sniffed it out immediately and forced DeRozan to go for a two-pointer. Maybe if wasn’t the best idea to use that play against Borrego, who was an assistant coach in San Antonio for so long? The Spurs got another crack at it and the second time they did get Patty Mills a clean, if slightly long, open look that just missed. Bad luck on that one.
  • I can’t emphasize enough how bad DeRozan was on defense in this one. He’s never great on that end, but he was disaster on Monday. And because he’s the only guy who can create for himself consistently and has been so good in close games, it doesn’t really matter.

DeMar has his role and his fulfills it. It’s unfair to expect him to suddenly become a good defender now. Hopefully he’ll do better on that end than he did against the Hornets going forward, but as long as he keeps being a good offensive centerpiece, he’ll help more than he hurts.

  • Derrick White is in the awkward position of trying to become an offensive fulcrum on a team without many shooters, which is a tough thing to do. A lot of times, it seems like he’s trying to do too much, but the Spurs surely prefer that to passiveness. Against the Hornets the good outweighed the bad by a huge margin, as White finished with 21 points in 11 shots and made up for mediocre scoring nights by Dejounte Murray and Keldon Johnson.
  • The weird playoff vibe of the game was probably helped by the fact that both coaches stuck to an eight-man rotation, for the most part. For the Hornets, it was out of necessity, since they were missing Cody Zeller and Ball, but the Spurs had their full team. Other than Rudy Gay and Patty Mills, they only sub that got more than 10 minutes was Devin Vassell. The decision to go small explains why Drew Eubanks only got under two minutes of playing time, but it’s harder to rationalize Lonnie Walker IV getting under nine minutes. Maybe his wrist was bothering him or maybe he’s still on a very short leash, even after a fantastic game against the Bucks,
  • The two subs that did play a lot, Gay and Mills, played well, but probably got too many minutes. Gay at center is always an intriguing alternative, at least for short stretches, but with Poeltl being such a big presence inside on both ends (four offensive rebounds, four blocks), I wouldn’t have mind him getting a few of Rudy’s 25 minutes. Similarly, Mills provides shooting on offense and unmatched energy on defense, but 32 minutes for him are probably too many. Still, they did well, so we can’t complain too much.

Next game: Vs. Clippers on Wednesday

The Spurs will face the Clippers twice in a row, on their second and third games of the long homestand. If they can at least split the mini series, they’ll be back on track.