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What we learned from the Spurs win over the Pelicans

San Antonio is picking up momentum at the perfect time as they enter the heart of the Rodeo Road Trip.

San Antonio Spurs v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

The San Antonio Spurs controlled the contest from the first tip to the final buzzer as they defeated the New Orleans Pelicans in a divisional matchup in which they never trailed. Although CJ McCollum put forth an admirable effort to will his new ball club back into the game, the good guys survived every run and responded with a run of their own.

Dejounte Murray flexed his All-Star muscle, dominating the contest to the tune of 31 points, seven boards, 12 assists, and two steals. Lonnie Walker IV added 17 points off the pine, while Keldon Johnson, Doug McDermott, and Devin Vassell combined for 45 points. While Jakob Poeltl didn’t reach double figures, he protected the paint with four blocks.

Head coach Gregg Popovich resumed his climb towards the all-time NBA regular-season wins record, and San Antonio closed within a half-game of New Orleans for 11th place in the Western Conference standings. With 25 games left on their schedule, the Spurs might have enough left in the tank to sneak into the play-in once Josh Richardson joins the mix.

Observations

  • There are several ways to play defense in the NBA and many nuances within those schemes. The excruciating attention to detail and constant communication necessary to stop another team from scoring can often go underappreciated. But when fives guys routinely aren’t on the same page, and that was the case for the Pelicans on Saturday night, they can make a mediocre offense look more like a title contender. The Silver and Black dropped 124 points on 50.5% shooting, and everything started with how Dejounte Murray was able to pick apart the opposition. New Orleans committed two cardinal sins while attempting to contain Dejounte. Their first mistake was blitzing Murray in the pick-and-roll to try and get the ball out of his hands, mainly because that strategy only works against weaker ball handlers and smaller guards. Dejounte is neither of those things, and he found open teammates or waited for ill-advised switches before attacking the backpedaling big man for a midrange jumper. Their second error was thinking Devonte’ Graham or Jose Alverado had even a sliver of a chance of stopping San Antonio’s first-time All-Star. You cannot leave a six-footer on Murray, and he made the Pelicans pay by utilizing his length to shoot over them or stride past them, leaving help defenders in an awkward position that almost always ended in a bucket for the Spurs. Head coach Willie Green showed the rest of the NBA how not to guard Dejounte Murray, but the sixth-year floor general put on a masterclass on how to decimate a clueless defense.
  • Gregg Popovich has reiterated how important it is for the Spurs to start strong since the beginning of the season, and the good guys outscored New Orleans 37-34 in the first quarter. Saturday admittedly wasn’t their best opening period, but building an early lead is so important if you want to win games in the NBA. In his book Thinking Basketball, Ben Taylor says, “Ninety-five percent of 50-win teams have a positive 1st quarter differential, but not a single 30-win team has one.” Fans and media love to laud over crunchtime, and though San Antonio has struggled mightily in the clutch all year long, not having a reliable closer is not what has kept them near the bottom of the standings. The Silver and Black shot 55.5% from the field and nailed five three-pointers while dishing out nine assists, committing zero turnovers, and setting a tone for how they would execute for the remainder of regulation. If the Spurs establish a solid foundation from the tip-off, there’s a solid chance they will emerge with a dub.
  • Another good indicator that often determines if San Antonio might pick up a victory is whether or not they win the three-point battle. They are 14-13 when they outscore their opponent from beyond the arc and only 8-22 when they fail to do so. The Spurs have been on a heater over their last four contests, draining the long-ball at 40.7% on 32.5 attempts per game. Saturday night was no different as they knocked down 14 threes and put an 18-point cushion between themselves and New Orleans by the end of the third quarter. The Pelicans hit a few desperation triples once garbage time had already set, so the final score was hardly denotative of how the matchup went for the Silver and Black. Keldon Johnson, Doug McDermott, Devin Vassell, Dejounte Murray, Josh Primo, Lonnie Walker IV, and Jock Landale made at least one trifecta. And the Spurs being this lethal from downtown after shipping Bryn Forbes to the Nuggets a few weeks ago has been a pleasant surprise.