Another game, another night of the Spurs playing chess with our brains. So far, this season can be divided into three different segments: the 5-2 start, subsequent 1-16 stretch (compounded by a difficult, condensed schedule and many injuries), then the seemingly out-of-nowhere three-game winning streak after a rare three nights off. At this point, we don’t know if last night’s loss to the Trail Blazers will just be a blip in another winning stretch or if it’s the start of a new losing slump, but it was hard to determine based on the game itself since we saw both versions of the Spurs in their 112-128 loss.
With Jakob Poeltl still out, Zach Collins joining him with a sore ankle, and Romeo Langford, who always seems to be “questionable” leading up every game, back on the list of injuries, the Spurs jotted yet another new starting lineup of Tre Jones, Keldon Johnson, Josh Richardson, Keita Bates-Diop, and Charles Bassey. (Devin Vassell and the suddenly unrecognizable, normal-haired Jeremy Sochan — I literally had to remember he wears #10 to find him out there — are still on minutes restrictions and coming off the bench.)
Another night of unfamiliar rotations brought out both the good and the bad of this Spurs team. The unfamiliar units struggled to stop a red-hot Blazers team led by Damian Lillard, who has now hit 18 threes over his last two games. That familiar bad defense from the 1-16 stretch was present for much of the first half, with poor rotations leaving their many shooters wide open as they quickly got out to a 19-point lead, and again in the fourth quarter as they did what superior teams do a take over, so is another losing slump on the way?
On the other hand, the offense wasn’t bad in the first half (just not good enough to overcome the bad defense and keep up), but in the second half the Spurs made a furious comeback to get within four points in late in the third quarter, which was an encouraging sign after they so often got down on themselves and didn’t make many comeback attempts during the slump. So was this a sign the Spurs have no plans to fall back on bad habits and will keep finding wins against an upcoming easier stretch of schedule? Odds are they will end up being somewhere in between the two extreme versions we have seen so far, but we’ll have to wait to find out.
- Keldon Johnson had a very efficient night (other than going 4-8 from the free throw line, where admittedly everyone not named Vassell struggled), putting up 25 points on 10-16 shooting. While he only shot 1-3 from three, for time being he seems dedicated to sticking to what’s working for him: driving to the rim while only taking threes within the flow of the offense. His touch from outside will return someday — you don’t just set a franchise record of consecutive games with a made three over someone like Danny Green and then never return to form — but it’s good to see him not trying to chuck his way out of his three-point shooting slump anymore and instead just taking what is naturally coming to him.
- Speaking of Johnson and driving to the rim, he pretty decidedly won an unexpected battle of the night. Despite giving up 70 pounds, he showed no fear of going right at big Bosnian Jusuf Nurkic multiple times, going chest-to-chest and even forcing him backwards on the way to multiple hard-earned layups. Talk about living up to the Big Body moniker.
- No Poeltl or Collins meant the Spurs were left with third-string center Gorgui Dieng and two-way player Bassey to man the paint. As a result, Bassey got the first start of his career, and he seemed a little jittery out there. While he got 6 points, 5 rebounds (only 2 defensive) and 2 blocks, he also had four fouls, seemed unsure of what to do with the ball at times and had a case of butter fingers, which led to a couple of turnovers and a rebound lost out of bounds. Even though he has shown to have some shooting range, he hesitated to take any shots, allowing Nurkic to sag off him on defense and stay in the paint. While Dieng’s stats weren’t any better, it was easy to see how much more comfortable he was than Bassey last night, and just the threat of him shooting from outside brought Nurkic out of the paint and allowed the offense to flow more. In fact, Dieng being the only rotation player to have a positive plus/minus on the night other than Richardson passes the eye test considering he played a big role in their third quarter comeback. This was likely just been a case of first-start jitters for Bassey, and on most nights he will be the better option, but at least on this night, Dieng won the battle for important minutes.