San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich likes to say, “Basketball is a pretty simple game. What wins is consistency and competitiveness,” as well as “basketball was a game of mistakes.”Both of these truths were on full display as the Spurs attempted to rebound from Friday’s tough loss to the Clippers on very little turn-around time. According to the Spurs broadcasters, the team plane landed at 1 am local time in Denver on Saturday morning, and tip-off was at 7 pm local time that evening. Couple that with a Denver team shooting at a hoop that at times seemed bigger than the Pacific Ocean and Spurs fans had the makings of a long night.
Pop’s right. Basketball is a pretty simple game. When you let your opponent shoot 61% from the floor (75% in the first quarter) and get out-rebounded by almost 20, you complicate it for yourself. When you run into a wall midway through the 3rd quarter and stop rotating to Denver shooters on defense, you lose that competitive edge. When you give up 15 turnovers and 17 second-half points to Nah’Shon Hyland, you demonstrate playing a game of mistakes.
Around the start of the season, I read a statistic that the Spurs were the third-youngest team in the NBA this year (behind the Thunder and Rockets). Their average age is just under 24 years, with elder statesman Gorgui Dieng skewing the stats some at his advanced 32.8 Sol rotations. Put it simply, this is a young team. Their hot start served to obfuscate the truth, which is that the 2022-23 Spurs are still searching for identity, team cohesion and that high-IQ basketball knowledge that was lost when Duncan, Parker and Manu decided to hang it up.
On a night when the Spurs were run out of the building by 25 points and notched their third straight loss, it can be tempting to overreact. They started out the season so hot. They were surpassing expectations. Now, reality sets in. Sure, there was the close loss to the Clippers on Thursday, but the Spurs lost by FORTY to the Raptors the game prior game. And this is exactly what we should expect from this year’s Spurs: inconstancy. We are basically watching this young team as they take Basketball 101 from arguably the greatest professor in NBA History. They are going to earn some failing grades against the best teams in the league, but they are also going to learn to play the right way. And some nights it’ll be ugly.
So what did we learn? We learned this year’s Spurs team is probably exactly what they were advertised to be: a dynamic, young and explosive team that’s equal parts exciting and frustrating— tantalizing and self-destructive. They are not a championship team, and likely not even a playoff team. So maybe, after their third straight loss on a SEGABABA against one of the best teams in the Conference, we learned not to expect more from them than they are: a bunch of talent and potential still figuring out how to be consistent and competitive on a nightly basis. Some nights the mistakes will become insurmountable and lead to losses, but also (more importantly) to growth. And that’s life at Spurs U under Professor Pop.
- Jakob Poeltl continues to play at a high level in a contract year. He was a bright spot in the first half for the Spurs, dropping 14 points, five rebounds and a block on 70% shooting from the floor. Unfortunately, he also disappeared in the second half, contributing only three rebounds to go with a pair of turnovers. That being said, he is setting himself up well if he’s going to be a key trade chip at midseason for the Spurs to deal to a team looking to make a deep playoff run.
- Turnovers have been a big issue in Spurs losses. While the box score says that both teams turned the ball over at basically the same amount (15 for the Spurs vs 16 for the Nuggets), the eye test showed that most of the Spurs turnovers came in a key late Third Quarter/early Fourth Quarter stretch that allowed Denver to capitalize over and over on each mistake. Many of Denver’s turnovers came from careless play from a few over-excited players when the game was already out of reach. The Spurs will have to learn to take better care of the ball since they don’t have that dominate scorer to dig them back out of holes. Against the best of the league, they cannot afford to make such mistakes.
- Speaking of the over-excited Denver roater, that Nah’Shon “Bones” Hyland is quite the player. He finished with 24 points, including six three pointers, and spent most of the game putting together a highlight reel for the Globetrotters with his antics. At one point in the third, he stopped to dab up a few fans (during which the Spurs players got back and scored on the four remaining Nuggets). After he heated up, he took a number of ill-advised heat check shots and 1-on-5 drives ending in missed baskets. He’s definitely a fun and dynamic player, but I can’t help but think of the headaches he’d give our coaches if he tried some of the stunts he pulled in a Spurs jersey.
- Spurs rookies Jeremy Sochan and Malakai Branham each started and played 20+ minutes this game. Sochan finished two for two from the floor, including an open three pointer, but he missed a number of defensive rotations and didn’t seem to make much of an impact on the game at all. Branham shot two for seven, including zero for four from deep. He did have one or two really solid passes leading to assists that flashed his playmaking potential, but in a game when the Spurs badly needed defensive stops and additional scoring punch, neither draft pick was able to contribute much. It will be interesting how long Pop continues to start both of them in future games (my prediction is that Vassell reclaims his starting spot in the next few games) but I think at this stage in their development it might be better to bring one of them off the bench. However, the minutes are a great sign from a coach who is notorious for resisting giving rookies meaningful game time. Clearly, this is a different Spurs team, but the additional court time will expedite their growth curves.
- To end on a high note, the one-two punch of Keldon and Devin continues to grow as the “elder” statesmen of this young team. After a quiet 10 points in the first half, Keldon ended up with 25 points, shooting four of seven from the 3. Devin played a stat-filled 25 minutes off the bench, finishing with 20 points and four of his own 3’s to go with four rebounds, four assists, a steal and a block. It’s going to be fun watching these two all year long.
Today’s educational game film viewing (fitting in with the Spurs U theme and their search for team identity) is the 1989 comedy Big Man On Campus: