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What we learned from the Spurs loss to the Thunder

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When it comes to losing, sometimes it’s not the heat, it’s the humility.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

It would be easy to start this kind of loss off with a Yogi Berra quote. In fact, I’d prefer to do so if not for the almost cliché tradition of using one his many paradoxical statements as an article lede.

It’s not hard to understand why that’s the case. With a playing, coaching, and managing career that spanned five decades, Berra served as a kind of sports (and more specifically, baseball) Buddha; seemingly concocting a saying for every situation, even if he didn’t say everything he said.

And then there’s the issue of application; after all you can’t just use the same old rote proverbs as every other aspiring sportswriter, but you still have to find one that fits the situation.

I could, for instance, open with the suggestion that it got late out there early last night. But that suggests that Oklahoma City Thunder spent most of the contest shellacking the Silver and Black, when in reality, they went into the half with an eleven-point lead.

Collectively, the San Antonio Spurs shot 52% for the first half of the game and made just shy of 40% of their long-distance triples. It was the dreaded third quarter that once again proved to be their undoing as the Spurs pushed their lead to fourteen points and then began almost immediately making too many bad mistakes. And it’s not that the Spurs were in a slump, per se, they just weren’t hitting any of their shots, and that made them tight.

The Thunder, on the other hand, began to feast on San Antonio’s growing sense of frustration, finding, and creating a bevy of open looks and grinding out successful offensive possessions on the occasion that an easier shot failed to present itself.

That is, of course, exactly how effective offensive play is supposed to go, but the Spurs decided to make it particularly hard on themselves by giving the ball away at will. It’s a point that will likely be overemphasized, but these weren’t exactly hard-earned turnovers on the Thunder’s part, as San Antonio players seemingly decided to deliver each and every pass directly to the opposing team, tallying six turnovers in just under six minutes and seven for the quarter.

Again, and again San Antonio’s ball handlers drove into Oklahoma City’s defense only to draw a double-team and fail to make correct pass out. Certainly, the Thunder played excellent, swarming defense for their part, but many of DeMar DeRozan’s and Dejounte Murray’s drives seemed to have been made without a great deal of anticipation, and that’s the danger of tunnel vision on the offensive end. You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going, because you might not get there.

That’s not to say that these were the only issues plaguing the Silver and Black in this one. Missing four rotational players isn’t exactly an ideal scenario, even when your opponent is also missing two of theirs. But these are the somewhat expected norms of a decidedly less-than-normal season as virtually every NBA team experiences these kinds of difficulties, and sadly, for all of San Antonio’s deep depth, this game against the Thunder felt like Déjà vu all over again.

Thankfully, the San Antonio faithful were at least spared the indignity of another last-second loss, as the Thunder instead wrested the lead away from the Spurs around the six-minute mark of the fourth quarter and nursed it into a six-point lead by the final two minutes of the contest. I write ‘thankfully’ with as full a serving of sarcasm as I can muster, but I can say that San Antonio’s ability to find a way to close this one out wasn’t for a lack of effort.

It might have been a different game if the officials had decided that someone other than Jakob Poeltl was deserving of seemingly every interior foul call. It also might have been a different game if DeMar DeRozan hadn’t been shockingly inefficient on both ends of the court, or if Patty Mills had been able to convert just 1-2 more of his long-distance bombs (he went 3-10 overall). It might have been a different game for a great many reasons, because as it turns out, you can observe a great deal just by watching.

I can’t tell you what it is about the Oklahoma City Thunder that has given San Antonio such trouble against them historically, much less this season; they’re a well-coached squad that’s committed to playing with hustle and verve.

I also can’t tell you (outside of the officials confusing him for LeBron James) why Shai Gilgeous-Alexander seems to have these kinds of explosive performances against the Spurs specifically. Heck, if you ask me anything I don’t know, I’m not going to answer. All I know is that San Antonio would have won the game if the Thunder hadn’t beaten them, and that winning isn’t everything, but it beats coming in second.

For now, we all have a week to take breath, relax, and hope that the rest of the Spurs are back for the start of a brutal second-half schedule. Hopefully, I’ll have come up with Yogi Berra quote to use by then.

Takeaways:

  • As bad a night as DeRozan had, it’s hard to take him to task too badly for this one. He’s been an absolute stud for the Spurs this season, looking to distribute whenever possible, giving solid defensive effort, shooting threes when the opportunity arises, and forcing very little when his shots aren’t falling. Combined with his willingness to defer some of his scoring in favor of more efficient opportunities for San Antonio’s youthful core, he’s been worth every penny and deserves a pass for the occasional bad game. As long as this kind of performance doesn’t become a pattern (11 assists in each of his last two games suggest otherwise), he should be due for a rebound in the next contest, even if he’s getting more rest during the All-Star week than he deserves.
  • The same might be said of Murray, who’s been carrying much more of the defensive and offensive load in the absence of Rudy Gay, Devin Vassell, and Derrick White. As problematic as Poeltl’s foul trouble proved to be, the bigger issue was Oklahoma City’s ease in penetrating the perimeter on the lead-up to so many of their successful drives. Fond though I am of them, it’s not exactly ideal to have DeMar and Patty sharing the court in clutch defensive situations, or really any situations for that matter. It’s no coincidence that most of San Antonio’s best 5-man groupings involve DeRozan or Mills but not both.
  • On the other hand, both Luka Samanic and Keita Bates-Diop have continued to prove themselves as contributing members of the rotation, each playing sound defense and playing within the confines of the offense. Samanic has been particularly impressive, though I’m trying to be careful with expectations based on such a small sample size. Even though his long distance shots weren’t falling tonight, ‘Tall Luka’ made a concerted effort to do work on the interior and scored half of his points on second-chance opportunities provided by his own rebounding, pulling down 7 rebounds in just 19 minutes of court time while tallying two steals and a block. I’m not exactly bullish on his potential for playing the five, and I doubt he would have seen any time there if not for a combination of his defensive play, Poeltl’s foul trouble, and Aldridge’s absence, but his fit at power-forward has the potential to be absolutely lethal in the modern NBA, and that potential is starting to come to fruition.
  • It’s worth noting the Keldon Johnson’s minutes limit certainly came into play in this one. San Antonio was noticeably better on both ends whenever Keldon was in the game, and it’s possible that DeMar was feeling a bit worn down from the minutes that he’s had to absorb at the 3 and 4 in Gay’s and Johnson’s absence. Twenty-two minutes certainly didn’t feel like enough court time for such a important contributor, but I suppose it’s for the best in the long run.
  • Oh, also, the Spurs Coyote wore pants(?) last night, so it was just a weird game all-around.

Playing You Out – The Theme Song of the Evening:

In A Big Country by Big Country