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Spurs show the hard work still ahead in play-in loss to Grizzlies

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Despite overcoming a terrible start to give themselves a chance to win late, the Spurs couldn’t make it past the Grizzlies.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs’ playoff hopes ended in the first play-in game in Memphis. With standout performances from Jonas Valanciunas and Dillon Brooks, the Grizzlies punched their ticket to the second round of the playin after a close 100-96 win.

The fact that there was some suspense as to the outcome of the game would have been hard to believe after the first quarter. The very first possession was auspicious for the Silver and Black, as Dejounte Murray picked Ja Morant’s pocket and dunked on the break, but that would be the only moment in which San Antonio looked in control. The Grizzlies were hitting threes and destroying the Spurs on the boards while packing the paint and daring them to shoot on the other end. All the issues the Spurs have had over the season with lack of spacing, undisciplined defense, and a lack of effort at times were exposed by a hungrier Memphis team that seemed to understand what was at stake.

There was a throwback moment to start the second quarter, as the bench got the Spurs back in the game, like it has multiple times for the past few years. Rudy Gay and Patty Mills were hitting shots and Murray was wreaking havoc on both ends as the Spurs went on a 20-3 run that left them trailing by only two points. The stretch came about in part because the Grizzlies rested too many of their starters at the same time while the Spurs staggered theirs and shortened the rotation, but it was an encouraging moment after the massacre that was the first quarter. Eventually Memphis regained control once their best players checked back in, but being down just seven at the break after a being down by as much as 21 during the disastrous start felt like a minor miracle.

Which among DeRozan or Morant is going to break out of their mini slump and give their team a huge boost? That seemed to be the pressing question at the start of the second half, but the answer was neither. Instead of the stars taking over, the defenses locked down, the offenses crumbled under a lack of shot creation, and neither team looked all that sharp in general. Both the Spurs and the Grizzlies had good moments, but they were few and far between in what was unquestionably the ugliest period of the game. The two squads combined to score just 32 points, as they traded bad shots and missed all of their three-pointers. The seven-point Memphis lead remained after the frame, setting up a tense final period.

Just as it happened in the beginning of the second quarter, the Spurs won the bench minutes, and a comeback seemed possible. The subs got them within one and DeRozan gave them their first lead since the early minute of the first quarter when the starters checked back in. Morant was still struggling, and it seemed like the perfect moment for the Spurs’ star wing to take over. Alas, it was his counterpart that shined. Dillon Brooks scored eight straight to keep Memphis afloat and swing the momentum back their way. From then on, the Grizzlies just made plays when they needed to, as their core guys stepped up, while the Spurs’ floundered. If not for a couple of Rudy Gay long bombs, the result wouldn’t have been as close.

There will be time to reflect on the season before a crucial offseason begins, but this game feels like such a perfect encapsulation about what made the second half of the year so frustrating that it’s hard to overlook it. The Spurs can battle with most teams, but they also need to address some fundamental issues, and doing so might require embracing change. Hopefully they’ll be up for it.

Game notes

  • If DeRozan has a normal game — not great, just normal — the Spurs probably win. Unfortunately he went 5-for-21 with three assists and two turnovers and missed the type of shots he normally makes. Murray also shot terribly from the floor, but he contributed with great defense and had a fantastic stretch in the second quarter. Murray was a little underwhelming. DeRozan was just an all-around disaster.
  • When DeRozan struggles, someone else needs to step up as a scorer, and Lonnie Walker IV feels like a natural fit for that role. Well, Lonnie only played 17 minutes in which he barely did anything positive, with only five of them coming in the second half. Devin Vassell wasn’t an answer either in limited minutes. The Spurs really missed Derrick White in this one.
  • The bench vets ended up carrying some of the scoring load, but any time Rudy Gay takes 21 shots it means something went terribly wrong. Gay and Mills combined for six of the Spurs’ eight made threes and in general were good on both ends, but at this point in their careers, they just can’t be true difference-makers.
  • Keldon Johnson had a double-double and as always played hard, but he struggled with staying in front of Brooks. Again, he still had a decent game, but he’ll need to learn how to use angles to make up for a lack of elite lateral quickness if he wants to make a leap as a defender, which he definitely needs to reach his full potential.
  • Jakob Poeltl finished with 10 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks and it’s still hard to say if he had a good game because of how much he struggled guarding Valanciunas and keeping him off the glass. Jak was a revelation this year, so one middling night against a good opponent shouldn’t taint anyone’s opinion of him, but the Spurs need to have options behind him.
  • Speaking of which, Drew Eubanks was a disaster in his first stint, which meant playing time for Gorgui Dieng. Dieng did very well on both ends, to the point that it makes the decision to keep him behind Eubanks in the first place questionable. At the same time, in most matchups Eubanks can be productive, and he earned his chance. It’s just a shame that the Spurs didn’t figure out what to do with the backup center spot earlier, I guess.
  • The Grizzlies are fun. They don’t have the shooters to make noise this year, but if they build a better bench, they are going to be really good next season, especially if Jaren Jackson Jr. stays healthy and starts to live up to his otherworldly potential.

That is it for another season of Spurs basketball. From the entire PtR staff, thanks for sticking with us throughout this crazy season, and remember that there will be plenty of content coming your way in the next few weeks and throughout the offseason, so stick around.