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Spurs lose to Pistons in battle of shorthanded teams

Both Detroit and San Antonio were missing key pieces, but the Pistons made up for it with a level of energy the Spurs simply couldn’t match.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Detroit Pistons Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs, missing several rotation players and on the second game of a back-to-back, rolled into Detroit on New Year’s day to play the worst team in the league, which was dealing with absences of their own. A win didn’t seemed guaranteed but it was looking likely. Unfortunately, the Pistons made up for their lack of talent with energy, size and physicality and squeaked out an overtime win against the Silver and Black.

The Spurs have been lucky by normally being healthier than their opponents this season, and that was the case on Saturday. Even with rotation players Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker IV, Keita Bates-Diop and Doug McDermott out, they faced a Pistons team that was even more ravaged by absences than they were. Unsurprisingly, the home team seemed outmatched early on, despite showing heart from the start. Whenever the Spurs executed on offense and played with focus on defense, they were fully in control of the game, whether the starters or the bench was in. After the first quarter it was clear than even these wounded Spurs should be able to put the feisty Pistons away unless they succumbed self-inflicted wounds.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened. Once again, the Pistons deserve plenty of credit for upping the pressure on defense to disrupt a Spurs’ team that was lacking ball handlers and passers and for getting enough buckets on individual forays to make up for a lack of cohesion as a team, but San Antonio’s complacency made it easier for them to claw their way back from a 17-point lead to end the half only down seven. Other factors, like the Spurs having to go deeper into their bench than ever in the season (first half Joe Wieskamp minutes!) played a part in the mini collapse that took place in the final stretch of the second quarter, but for the most part, it was just the inability to match Detroit’s effort that caused it. It was hard to be too worried at the time, considering the discrepancy in talent, but the second quarter turned out to be a sign of things to come.

The Pistons started the second half with full confidence and set the tone physically. They were getting past the perimeter defenders with ease and driving to the bucket with reckless abandon, where they’d score, get fouled or see their misses get recovered by Luka Garza. Detroit not only kept pace but actually took the lead and would go on to score 33 points in the third period, with Hamidou Diallo getting 11 of them by mostly getting to the line. Things got so bad inside for the Spurs that Gregg Popovich decide to deploy a two-center lineup with Poeltl and Jock Landale. Offensively San Antonio was struggling as well, missing 10 of their 11 three-point attempts in the frame, which give the Pistons the opportunity to take a four-point lead into the fourth quarter.

It seemed like after being outhustled the Spurs were finally ready to respond. The execution was better in the starting minutes of the fourth and a comeback seemed likely. But by this point the Pistons were just not going to crumble and allow a big run. They kept their lead until there were two minutes left, when a Bryn Forbes three evened things out. The table was set for a close game, in which the Spurs were supposed to have the advantage, but missed free throws by Jakob Poeltl and Keldon Johnson prevented San Antonio from having a lead late. The Silver and Black would get one last chance after a risky but clutch drawn foul by Derrick White on what would have been the last shot of the game, but their beautifully designed alley-oop attempt to Keldon Johnson with two seconds left and a tied game didn’t go in.

The Spurs would have their opportunities again in overtime, but this was clearly not their night. Another missed free throw, this time by White, kept their lead at just two with 10 seconds to go. Saddiq Bey hit a three to give Detroit the lead with two seconds, and Keldon Johnson once again failed to hit the game-winner. Another winnable game got away, which has unfortunately been a theme this season.

Game notes

  • Two of the core tenets of the Spurs’ way of playing are avoiding fouls and not allowing second chances. They sent the Pistons to the line 33 times and conceded 22 offensive rebounds. The officials called the game tight, so at least some of the fouls can be attributed to that, but the effort on the boards is concerning. When the center helps, the Spurs are often too small to box out. It happened against the Kings recently and it happened again on Saturday in Detroit.
  • Both rookies got playing time due to the many absences the Spurs had. Joshua Primo struggled on this one, missing six of his seven attempts, including all five of his three-pointers, while also being stripped when trying to walk the ball up court once. Joe Wieskamp was basically invisible in his four mintues, except for missing his only three-pointer. Both guys clearly need some more seasoning, which is understandable.
  • Tre Jones did well in his second career start, playing more the role of a scorer than a creator, hitting a few nice floaters but logging just three assists. He also did a good Dejounte Murray impression on the boards, pulling down seven rebounds. Jones clearly has a future in the league, as games like these show.

Play of the night

Even when he’s doesn’t have a great game, Primo manages to flash enormous potential. He had a nice finger roll finish, but this dime is probably a better play.

SVP Awards

3rd place (1 point) - Devin Vassell | 19 points, four rebounds, four assists, three steals

Vassell got the start with both McDermott and Keita Bates-Diop out and provided just what was needed of him. He was the one starter that had it going from outside and he did a little bit of everything, including dishing out assists and staying active on defense. Jakob Poeltl (15 points, 12 rebounds, five assists) definitely has a case for this spot, but his turnovers and crucial misses from the line ultimately keep him off the podium this time.

2nd place (2 points) - Bryn Forbes | 27 points, seven rebounds

Forbes was huge for the Spurs on Saturday, leading them in scoring and hitting big shots when they needed them. He also mixed it up on the boards, getting seven. Forbes has a very defined role but when he fills it well, like he did against the Pistons by scoring five of the Spurs’ 12 three-pointers and simply competing without making huge mistakes in other areas, he has value.

1st place (3 points) - Derrick White | 18 points, 14 assists, 10 free throw attempts

The Spurs desperately needed White to be aggressive with so many perimeter players out, and he delivered. Despite missing his four three-pointers he managed to have an efficient shooting night thanks to his trips to the line. The missed one in overtime hurt, but it’s cancelled out by that gutsy charge he drew to give the Spurs a chance to win it in regulation. There’s not much to take away from this game, but the past two nights are a good reminder that White can create at a high level when required.

Season leaderboard

1st - Dejounte Murray - 49pts

2nd - Derrick White - 40pts

3rd - Keldon Johnson & Devin Vassell- 23pts

4th - Jakob Poeltl - 21pts

5th - Lonnie Walker IV - 13pts

6th - Bryn Forbes - 11pts

7th - Thaddeus Young & Doug McDermott - 9pts

8th - Keita Bates-Diop - 5pts

9th - Jock Landale - 3pts

10th - Drew Eubanks - 2pts

11th - Josh Primo & Tre Jones - 1pt

Next game: at Raptors on Tuesday

The Spurs will get a couple of days off, which should hopefully be enough for Dejounte Murray to return to action. After a couple of losses to start a long road trip and with some tough games in the horizon, a win in Toronto would be huge.