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What We Learned from the Spurs loss to the Knicks

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It hasn’t been pretty, but the Spurs deserve praise for making the playin despite dealing with so much adversity.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at New York Knicks POOL PHOTOS-USA TODAY Sports

There isn’t much to say about this game that hasn’t already been said throughout the second half of this season. The San Antonio Spurs are tired, they’re inconsistent, and they’re struggling. While even the measliest ten-point lead in any game during the first half of the season meant an automatic win, that hasn’t been the case in the second half as as they run out of gas earlier and earlier, if they even have any. They’ve had to squeeze five extra games in, never had more than one night’s rest, have dealt with three FIGASENIs, and the toughest strength of schedule in the league.

All that has culminated in games pretty typical of last night’s: the Spurs are a little slow out of the gate, somewhere in the middle two quarters they find a wind and make a run — sometimes pushing the lead well into double digits — but they often run out of energy or don’t have the killer instinct to finish it off. That was the case against the New York Knicks. After a slow start, they hit their first 13 shots of the second half to push the lead 17, then suddenly stopped being able to hit shots the rest of the way. Combined with too many mistakes down the stretch, they couldn’t stave off the inevitable comeback.

But, despite all that, the Spurs are heading to the playin tournament, thanks to the Memphis Grizzlies beating the Sacramento Kings last night. As a result, they have at least three games left: two against the Phoenix Suns, and one against either the Grizzlies or Golden State Warriors. And while playing — or watching, from a fan’s perspective — more games may not sound thrilling at the moment because this team looks like they need a vacation above all else, they’ve earned this opportunity through a very trying season.

They naturally would have preferred to get in on their own win, not another team’s loss, but they still deserve credit. They built plenty of separation behind them thanks in no small part to winning a couple of huge games against the exact teams they were trying to stave off in recent weeks, and despite appearing on the brink of folding at any time, they fought through adversity all season to stay relevant because they want to achieve something.

Amidst the craziness of a pandemic-caused condensed scheduled, and seemingly every time they’d get on a roll, something would go wrong.

  • They almost never had their complete allotment of rotation players available.
  • Derrick White would get hurt every time he appeared at or near peak form, losing a key player on both ends and throwing the rotations back out of whack.
  • COVID struck the team at the easiest stretch of the schedule, stealing a huge chance to build their first extended winning streak since 2018 and some extra cushion in the standings (knowing the second half schedule would be harder).
  • That four-game hiatus (plus another postponed game earlier) was the cause of their super condensed schedule in the second half, putting them at a rest disadvantage on a near nightly basis throughout.
  • DeMar DeRozan understandably missed a few games after losing his father while stuck in quarantine from the aforementioned COVID breakout.
  • LaMarcus Aldridge left, but even if he had stayed the Spurs still would have felt the same impact five games later due to his sudden retirement following a scary flareup of his heart issues, and the unexpectedness of that may have hurt the team’s chemistry more than the buyout everyone knew was coming. (And yes, there is an argument to be made that the Spurs were better without him, but after watching the offense struggle down the stretch, it’s not hard to imagine he would have still been useful.)

Through it all, this team has kept fighting, even on nights when the tank was empty and they were running on fumes, which was more often than not. They may not have the personnel or experience to truly be a playoff team yet, but the young talent has been able to take a big step in that direction this season just by getting consistent playing time, and even if it’s just one or two playin games, they will still get a little taste of playoff experience, and under even more pressure than usual considering it will be a sudden death situation, not a best-of-seven scenario where at least a little there’s room for error.

That experience, combined with the added bonus of still making the NBA Draft Lottery if they don’t advance to the playoffs (which feels like the most likely scenario at this point, especially without White and considering their likely opponents are each winning and building momentum at the moment), can only be a positive. And if they do somehow make the playoffs, the pro-tankers may not like it, but they will have avoided being the first Spurs team to miss the playoffs in consecutive seasons. (Believe it or not, the Spurs have never done that before, so why would they want that asterisk on their legacies?)

So whatever you think of the logic or fairness of the playin tournament, the Spurs want it, and we should want it for them. It hasn’t been an ideal season, but it’s also not too far off from what was expected. Whatever they do with their two games against the Suns this weekend — rest or try to build momentum heading into the playin — is up to them, and both have their pros and cons. All we can do as Spurs fans is continue to root them on. They’ve earned at least that much from us during what will likely end up being the strangest and hardest season of their respective careers.

Observations

  • How about some actual basketball talk? The last few games, Gregg Popovich has been subbing Jakob Poeltl out earlier than usual in the first and third quarters and putting him back in when bench starts subbing in. Perhaps this is an effort recreate that magical second unit that dominated the league early? It worked to an extent in the first half as the bench helped the Spurs overcome an early nine-point deficit, but not so much in the second half thanks in no small part to the other three catalysts from that unit — Patty Mills, Rudy Gay and Devin Vassell — having off games on offense, combining for just 16 points on 4-17 shooting and a team-worst -44 in plus-minus. The lack of scoring from the bench has been a big problem for the Spurs in the second half of the season, with Rudy Gay being the most reliable source for points but still prone to off nights. Maybe it would have been different if the schedule would have allowed the two aging vets more rest, but that just hasn’t been the case.
  • Also like much of the season, the Spurs have either been feast or famine on offense with very little in between, and that’s not always dependent on who is on the court. Whenever the Spurs do go on a scoring run, the basketball gods always seem to say “you had your fun, now you will never score again”. When those runs end, the Spurs don’t “revert” back to merely “steady” scoring; they go in the tank. That played out last night when the Spurs made their first 13 shots of the second half to help build a 17-point lead with under four minutes left in the third, only for the offense to completely abandon them the rest of the way. Just mere average scoring would have been enough against this Knicks squad, but they couldn’t even do that. If Danny Green was Icy Hot for the Spurs from game-to-game, this team is Icy Hot MAX from stretch-to-stretch. The next big step for this team heading into next season will be to find consistent offense and not be so dependent on big offensive runs to build a lead before holding on for dear life the rest of the way.