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What we learned from the Spurs loss to the Cavaliers

Has my brain suddenly accepted that this is a rebuilding team?

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Cleveland Cavaliers David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs didn’t play bad in their Rodeo Road Trip-opening loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, they just shot poorly. Does that make sense? Writing the Final Score for a game means it has much more of my undivided attention (with stiff competition from my miniature dachshund, Daisy) than when I’m just casually watching a game. It presents its own challenge since the goal is to make observations about the game while saving actually recapping the game itself for — wait for it — the Recap.

While watching the Spurs loss to the Cavs last night, my mind wandered about how to describe this game. First, it was “wow, the Spurs look like they’ve hardly missed a beat after having four days off” as they built an early eight-point lead on the back of some hot shooting from Keldon Johnson. Then, as the second quarter came around, they suddenly looked a team that had just had four days off. Easy shots they usually make rolled off the rim time and again, players were just a step off as passes went right to Cavs players or just out of reach and out of bounds, and the Spurs defense — known for not giving up many free throws — couldn’t stop sending Cleveland to the foul line.

It continued this way in the third quarter as the Cavs’ lead rose up to 23, and considering the Spurs have won one game this season when getting down by 20 or more points, I was ready to throw in the towel, typing out the Final Score headline centered around the Spurs looking rusty after their hiatus. But right as I did, the tide changed, and they started mounting a comeback thanks to an 11-point burst in the final minutes of the third quarter from Devin Vassell, and Derrick White and Dejounte Murray briefly finding their touch.

I’m not usually superstitious — although I do believe predicting the outcome in the headline before the game has even started is a jinx — but did I just positively reverse-jinx the Spurs by typing my headline in the third quarter? Sure, the odds of them coming all the way back against one of the best teams in the league are slim, but they had gotten the lead down to 7 in the fourth, and the Cavs looked stunned in the moment. Unfortunately, as good (and dare I say, contending) teams are expected to do, they recovered and took control of the game again, and that was the end of the Spurs comeback attempt.

Still, despite all the ups and downs (something that is admittedly part of nearly every Spurs game these days), I found myself oddly at peace with the outcome, which is rare for me and losses. I already predicted this game would be a loss, and as the game went on I realized that despite the outcome, I liked a lot of what I saw. The defense was solid outside of failing to hold Darius Garland in check, with the Spurs holding Cleveland to a point under its season average. The Spurs also were not thoroughly outrebounded (51-46, Cavs) or dominated in the paint (54-50 points, Cavs) like they should have been against a team that plays Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley together.

Ultimately the Spurs played a decent ballgame against a very good team to open the Rodeo Road Trip, and if their usual shots just rolled inside the rim instead of outside (I swear they had like 20 of those last night) or a few more than 4 of their 19 wide open threes fall, maybe we’re talking about a different outcome. Usually a game in which the Spurs had their lowest true shooting percentage of the season would be frustrating to me, but for some reason it just wasn’t.

Is this me just accepting that they are a rebuilding team, and nights like this happen, or was it because I was doing the Final Score and therefore paying enough attention (aided by the fact that the early tipoff meant most of the game fell within Daisy’s post-dinner nap) to see what they were doing well (outside of shooting)? There’s no telling when it comes to me and my sports feelings, but at least I didn’t lose any sleep over it and am not upset about it this morning. Positives!

Takeaways

  • The addition of Zach Collins to bench unit has brought some peace of mind. In only two games, I have found myself not going into a state of panic whenever Jakob Poeltl checks out of the game. As much energy as Drew Eubanks brings (be it controlled or otherwise), and Jock Landale’s ability to stretch the floor is intriguing, they are too small to create any kind of defensive presence in the paint against most serviceable NBA bigs. Add to the fact that Gregg Popovich tends to sub earlier than many teams, and that little stretch of Eubanks or Landale vs. starting centers has often been when teams go on their runs against the Spurs. This is not to say Collins is on Poeltl’s level as a defender, but he’s several tiers above the other two on defense, and it’s nice not having to pray as hard that the bench has a hot shooting night to compensate for its defensive inefficiencies (outside of Vassell).
  • I said this in the Final Score, and I’ll say it again for anyone who missed it: Murray was not in his All-Star form last night with “only” 16 points, 6 rebounds and 9 assists on a meh 7-17 shooting. The thing is, even a year ago this would have been a more-than-acceptable night for him, so the fact that this feels like an off game for him tells you how far he has come. He still has a lot of work to do in the three-point shooting category, but the fact that he is still willing to take them is a good first step. Considering how hard he works in the offseason and his determination to always be better, it’s not hard to imagine we’ll see even more improvement from him next season, and who knows? Maybe he takes the leap from injury replacement to a true All Star.