After a grueling few weeks, the Spurs caught a break in the schedule with the visit of the East-worst, shorthanded Pistons to the AT&T Center. Despite not looking particularly sharp while resting a few players of their own, the Silver and Black got an easy 106-91 win to get back to .500.
No Dejounte Murray, DeMar DeRozan and Patty Mills for the Spurs and basically their entire veteran stable for the Pistons meant that this one was going to be ugly. For San Antonio, the start was particularly tricky, as Derrick White seemed a little rusty at the role of main facilitator. One of the fun things about these kind of games, however, is that they give players who are not used to a lot of touches all the shots they can handle, and both Lonnie Walker IV and Josh Jackson took advantage. Walker did what White couldn’t early and gave the Spurs a reliable scorer, showing off his array of offensive skills. Jackson, meanwhile, looked like the player the Suns were hoping he’d be when they drafted him fourth overall a few years ago, and aided by some Killian Hayes drives, kept the Pistons’ offense running.
Despite the game being close after one, it was hard to be too concerned about Detroit stealing the win with this roster, so the Spurs’ tendency to play down to opponents was not too upsetting. It seemed like inevitably a run would come, and it did. The bench mostly held its own but once the starters returned, things started clicking for San Antonio. White remembered what it was like to orchestrate an offense, Jakob Poeltl made his presence felt on both ends, and the team started to push the pace, which always helps when the half court options are limited. The Spurs got up by nine a few times and failed to crack the game fully open against the feisty Pistons, but closed well and led by 10 at the half.
Anyone who has watched enough of these Spurs games at home against weaker opponents knows what happened next. San Antonio started the second half strong, looking much more energetic on defense and containing a Pistons offense that didn’t have Josh Jackson on fire to carry it. The lead quickly ballooned to 16 and a full fourth quarter of garbage time seemed in the horizon until the Spurs, like they too often do, stopped playing with urgency. The offense went dry and the defense allowed a six-point possession, as Rudy Gay committed a flagrant foul on a frankly dangerous closeout on a made three-pointer by Saddiq Bey, who missed one of his two free throws, and the Pistons scored after getting the ball back.
Against a better opponent, that stretch could have come back to haunt the Spurs. Not against the Pistons B team. The bench closed the third quarter strong to get the lead back to 12 and while Detroit kept chipping away at the deficit for most of the fourth quarter, eventually San Antonio pulled away. Whether the game being as close as it was for as long as it was is a testament to Dwane Casey’s ability to motivate his team, an indictment of Gregg Popovich’s ability to keep his engaged for the full 48 minutes, or both is unclear. It shouldn’t have been this hard for the Spurs to blow out one of the worst teams in the league, but they won, and that’s all that matters this late in the season.
- With no DeRozan and no Murray, Walker and White had to take on bigger roles and both delivered in spades. Walker had 18 points and four made three-pointers and looked comfortable looking for his shot, as he always seems to be when DeRozan is out. It took White a quarter to find his bearings as primary creator, but he eventually did and finished with 26 points, eight assists and eight free throws. It’s great to see that White can still do well as a ball handler when necessary.
- Mills being out meant minutes for Tre Jones, who had five points and five assists and looked poised, as always, in his almost 20 minutes. The other rookie, Devin Vassell, also got to stretch his legs, logging almost 24 minutes, but didn’t have it on offense on Thursday. Not a flashy performance from either, but it’s always good when they get on the court for meaningful minutes.
- Speaking of meaningful minutes, Luka Samanic didn’t get many. He had his moments, but in general Luka was a little out of place guarding smaller players in the perimeter and didn’t have a high enough energy level to make up for it.
- Keldon Johnson struggled to finish in the paint, but fortunately had his outside stroke going (2-for-3 from beyond the arc) and did a little of everything to put together a solid performance despite going 4-for-12 from the field. Oh, he also did this.
- Jakob Poeltl had 17 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and four blocks, and at times dominated inside. But more importantly, he went 5-for-6 from the free throw line. The Pistons went for a Hack-a-Jak down 15 with three minutes to go and Poeltl went 3-for-4 in the two possessions they did it. Huge for his confidence.
- Rudy Gay had a perfectly average night for him, finishing with 14 points on 13 shots and four rebounds. Similarly, Drew Eubanks mostly did his job, getting the better of Jahlil Okafor in the first half and struggling with him a little in the second, but still finishing with eight points, four rebounds and three assists.
- Killian Hayes is going to be good. Yes, he had 12 points on 15 shots and five assists to four turnovers, but the tools are there. Bey can play, too, and Isaiah Stewart is a monster on the boards who could blossom into starting center material. There’s some young talent in Detroit and with a high pick coming, maybe things will finally start to look up next season.
Next game: @Pelicans on Saturday
It’s a big one. The Pelicans need to start the push soon if they want to sneak into the play-in and there would be no better way for them to do it than by beating the team currently occupying that 10th spot. Should be fun.