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What We Learned from the Spurs loss to the Nuggets

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San Antonio falls just short as they extend their losing streak to a season-high five games.

San Antonio Spurs v Denver Nuggets Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

The San Antonio Spurs extended their season-high losing streak to five games after falling to the white-hot Nuggets on the second leg of their midseason miniseries with Denver. Although the good guys nearly eeked out a victory to put their recent skid to an end, a sluggish start and an 18-point first-half deficit put them in a sizeable hole they just weren’t able to overcome.

After sitting six games above .500 in mid-March, the Silver and Black now find themselves two games below .500 for the first time since January 3 and clinging to the ninth seed in the Western Conference. And while San Antonio didn’t suffer an embarrassing loss by any means, their flaws were on full display on Friday night despite a commendable effort down the stretch.

Observations

  • Don’t let this near-win fool you into believing San Antonio is close to turning things around anytime soon. A one-possession loss to the fourth place Nuggets is admirable, but don’t forget that Denver was without their second-leading scorer Jamal Murray. The Spurs were sans Keita Bates-Diop, Gorgui Dieng, and Trey Lyles, though it’s doubtful any one of that trio would have matched Murray’s impact had the injury reports been empty for both squads. And San Antonio’s downward spiral isn’t all their fault. Between injuries, COVID, and a backloaded schedule in an already condensed season, there was little chance the Silver and Black could continue exceeding expectations. Popovich and company still have meetings with the Nets, Mavericks, Heat (x2), Bucks, Sixers, Suns (x3), Blazers (x2), and Jazz (x2) scattered among their final 22 contests.
  • After dealing with multiple injuries to the same toe and a month-long hoops hiatus because of coronavirus protocols, Derrick White is finally starting to look like himself again. Not only has he brought his field goal percentage above 40% for the first time this season, but he has played some of his best basketball since joining the Spurs. The fourth-year combo guard is averaging 20.0 points, 3.0 rebounds, and 3.0 assists per game over his last seven appearances and chipping in a block and steal per game on the other end. While his 44/31/81 shooting splits over this stretch haven’t exactly been a picture of efficiency, it’s encouraging to see Derrick staying aggressive from beyond the arc for a ball club in desperate need of three-point firepower. His 6.6 long-range attempts per game more than double his previous career-high from a year ago, and if he can recapture some of his magic from the NBA Bubble, White could help keep San Antonio from slipping outside of the play-in range.
  • Patty Mills and Rudy Gay combined for 17 points on 6-of-18 shooting in 42 minutes against the Nuggets. Meanwhile, Luka Samanic and Tre Jones racked up another DNP, and Devin Vassell saw a season-low three minutes of action. There’s nothing wrong with playing your veterans, and every Spurs fan knows head coach Gregg Popovich values knowledge of San Antonio’s system above almost anything else. Seeing as a compacted calendar has wiped out the majority of routine practices, it makes sense that rookies and inexperienced second-year players might not have a comprehensive grasp on the systems in place on both ends of the court. With that said, there’s little harm in finding minutes for Luka, Tre, and Vassell when the vets aren’t playing well. And with so many games and so little rest, it shouldn’t come as a shock that older players are struggling to maintain consistent nightly production. Patty and Rudy deserve a day off now and then to get their legs back under them, and the young guys could use the sort of seasoning that only non-garbage-time minutes can provide. Even if the Spurs weren’t in the middle of one of the weirdest seasons in NBA history, it wouldn’t hurt to mix things up. Especially with San Antonio still hanging onto a shot at securing a playoff berth.
  • There’s a particular faction of fans who would prefer San Antonio avoid the lottery at all costs and push for the playoffs. I can certainly respect that opinion, though I can’t agree. While a trip to the postseason would undoubtedly be exciting, not all playoff experience is identical. For teams who have their clear-cut franchise cornerstone and a genuine direction like the Mavericks, Hawks, Celtics, Nuggets, and Grizzlies, that exposure is invaluable to taking the next step towards title contention, even if it results in an early exit. For San Antonio, who ostensibly has neither, a first-round departure doesn’t instill much hope in making a proverbial leap as an organization. DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, and Patty Mills are coming off the books this summer, and while it wouldn’t be shocking to see Patty re-up with the Silver and Black, it would be equally unsurprising if DeMar and Rudy walked. Instead of fruitlessly pursuing an inevitable beatdown at the hands of the Jazz, Suns, or Clippers, why not aim to add the best possible player in a top-heavy draft class? Scottie Barnes, Kai Jones, Franz Wagner, Usman Garuba, Corey Kispert, or Alperen Segun would be promising additions to San Antonio’s young core. It’s doubtful any of them become the next Tim Duncan, David Robinson, or Kawhi Leonard, but there’s almost always a better chance of that happening in the lottery than in the later stages of the first round. And the Spurs could drastically alter their trajectory if PATFO can find a way to move up and get their hands on any one of Evan Mobley, Jalen Green, or Jonathan Kuminga. And San Antonio could cut any multi-year title-contention plan in half if they somehow lucked into Cade Cunningham. Imagine a legitimate top-end talent surrounded by a versatile two-way supporting cast of Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV, Luka Samanic, Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell, Tre Jones, and a few veterans sprinkled in?