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What We Learned from the Spurs win over the Knicks

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The Spurs are fun again.

New York Knicks v San Antonio Spurs Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

This San Antonio Spurs team is fun. That’s it. The end. Have a good day!

Just kidding, I would never short change you guys like that, but it’s still a simple statement that cannot be denied anymore. The Spurs have spent decades fighting the “boring” label, and honestly they finally lived up to it last season. That squad played a predictable, methodical, iso-centric offense, was severely lacking in three-point shooters, horrible on defense, and could never be counted on to close games strong or overwhelm inferior opponents.

I’ll admit, for probably the first time ever I was reaching a point where I didn’t even want to watch them if I didn’t have to, and between their unwatchability and missing the playoffs for the first time in 23 years, the disrespect that team generated was so bad that this season’s squad hasn’t even been scheduled for a single game on national television (not counting NBA TV and the one game against Houston where they were filler on TNT for a postponed game). This season’s squad is different, even if the NBA’s broadcast schedulers refuses to acknowledge it.

Everyone is genuinely happy and enjoying themselves. They all have each other’s backs, and it’s a joy to watch. Take Keldon Johnson for instance. Just returning from COVID-19 protocol in last night’s second half shellacking of the New York Knicks and playing a mere 10 minutes in the first half, here he is air-guitaring in the background after a Luka Samanic three, and no ice chest is going to keep him from being the first to greet his teammates, (despite having Patty Mills to compete with).

New York Knicks v San Antonio Spurs Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

But KJ’s bubbly personality isn’t the only thing that makes this a fun Spurs team. It’s the product on the court. For starters, win or lose, this team doesn’t give up. Last season’s team couldn’t put together consecutive good quarters if it tried, to the point that a 20-point third quarter lead didn’t even feel safe (and at times it wasn’t). Consistency is still a bit of an issue for this team, but they have a level of resiliency that makes them much more likely to recover and less likely to blow a big lead. (They’ve only lost one game this season after leading by double digits.)

Beyond the improved mental fortitude of this team, they are actually playing an enjoyable brand of basketball. They aren’t the best three-point shooting team in the league, but for the most part they find and take the open looks. With plenty of players who are capable of slashing to the rim to create their own shots or for others, the Spurs have moved away from the iso-centric style that defined the previous few seasons to a system more oriented around ball movement. DeMar DeRozan has simultaneously become one of the better playmakers and top clutch players in the league, and the defense no longer leaks like a sieve with Jakob Poeltl now — and possibly permanently — starting at center and rated as one of the top defensive players in the league.

And of course, there’s the rest of the young guys. Dejounte Murray is becoming the leader and two-way force the Spurs have always known he could be. (How he and Johnson remain under the radar for Most Improved Player this season is beyond me.) If Derrick White can just stay on the court for more than a game or two at a time, he and Murray will finally become their next dynamic backcourt duo after spending so much time playing in separate units. Lonnie Walker IV has an exciting style but needs to work on consistency, Devin Vassell (remember him?) may have the highest potential ceiling of any player they’ve drafted since Kawhi Leonard, and the Spurs may actually have a future four-player rotation at the two big man spots that is at least passable in Poeltl, Trey Lyles, Samanic, and even Drew Eubanks. (Of course you want more than that, but you get the idea.)

Before this season began, the Spurs appeared to be facing a fork in the road. With LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay and Patty Mills all hitting unrestricted free agency this summer and some of the youngsters yet to show their full potential, the Spurs’ future seemed murky and uncertain. Not anymore, and while some of those veterans may be back next season, it no longer feels like the team’s future success hinges on free agency. The Spurs have the young core they need in-house to start a new era with a positive outlook.

For the first time in a couple of years, I find myself excited every day there’s a Spurs game on, whether I think they will win or not. Every game has been a new adventure with something new to learn about this team, and usually it’s a positive. This team is just a joy to watch, which has been a big factor in making 2021 better than 2020.

Takeaways

  • How about we talk about the actual game some? I couldn’t stop smiling during the second half beatdown of the Knicks last night. I was completely resigned to the idea that they would be too tired to compete all game after they fought so hard to force OT against the Nets the night before, but they somehow found another wind in the second half to blow the game wide open despite still being down four main rotation players. That, combined with Lyles becoming the NINTH player to lead the team in scoring this season, shows just how important depth is, especially during the pandemic. Performances like this add a bit of comfort, knowing that just about anyone can step in and help as the Spurs face a daunting 40 games in 68 days after the All Star break, including 11 back-to-backs and the fourth hardest strength of schedule.
  • I already covered this in last night’s Final Score, but I can’t help but repeat it because it makes me so excited: Luka is NBA ready. His defense is vastly improved, he’s no longer hesitant to shoot, and he will be a walking mismatch wherever he is placed on the court with the length of a big man, speed of a wing, and ability to guard at least the 1-4 positions. His sample of meaningful NBA minutes is still small, but the change in body language (among other things) says this is no fluke. I know there’s still a lot more to see from him to make him “worthy” of his draft selection place of 19th in the eyes of some fans, but this is just another reminder not to doubt PATFO. It’s easy to complain that the Spurs drafted him too high, but they had reason to believe he would be gone before they picked again at 29th, while KJ would still be available. It really doesn’t matter if you’d rather switch them in the draft slots to make everything feel more justifiable; the point is they got them both in what could turn out to be one of their top draft hauls in franchise history, and that’s all that really matters.
  • Closing on a little silliness, I found my self laughing last night after Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau used his Coach’s Challenge on a relatively innocuous foul call in the second quarter while the Spurs were struggling to find momentum. While he was successful, it felt so unnecessary at the time, and from then on most of the whistles seemed to be going the Spurs way. While Thibs has always been one of the more “vocal” coaches with the refs (right up there with Gregg Popovich and Doc Rivers), he seemed completely exacerbated at every whistle after that, raising his arms and looking on in disbelief. While saving his Challenge for later likely would not have made any difference in the outcome, it still left one to ponder if he regretted using it when he did. (That being said, I do respect coaches who aren’t afraid to use their Challenge. Sometimes it feels like Pop is, an example being two wrong out-of-bounds calls in the final minutes against the Nets that went unchallenged — although he tried on the second one but was two late — and netted them five extra points, possibly costing the Spurs the game.)