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What we learned from the Spurs win over the Trail Blazers

The Spurs avoided the “trap” series against the tanking Blazers

Portland Trail Blazers v San Antonio Spurs Photos by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

Mini-series — or consecutive games against the same opponent — are tricky for a variety of reasons. Teams are used to playing one game before moving on to studying the next team, so repetitiveness and complacency can become an issue. Similarly, repeated games give each opponent the chance to make adjustments, and the other side may or may not be prepared, etc.

They were a common occurrence in last season’s COVID-condensed schedule when the league was trying to limit travel, exposure, and make contact-tracing a bit easier, and for whatever reason, the Spurs weren’t very good at them. In 10 total mini-series, they only went 4-16: nowhere close to breaking even and without winning a single series.

There were only two such series this season: a home-and-home against the Denver Nuggets in December, where the Spurs split the outcome, and the just-finished home-and-home against the Portland Trail Blazers on Friday and Sunday — both wins. 3-1 is definitely an improvement from last season (albeit in a much smaller sample size), and while some might say it was all but a given that they would win these last two games against a blatantly tanking club — or at least as close to a given as you can get with these Spurs — last night they still showed why no game can be taken for granted, especially when it comes to miniseries.

Already down Dejounte Murray for the second straight game to an upper respiratory illness, Jakob Poeltl was added to the injury list with “back soreness” (which we all know is code for rest), so it was yet another new starting line-up with Zach Collins joining Tre Jones (and Josh Primo, if you include Doug McDermott’s absence) as part-time starters. On top of that, Jock Landale had to leave after just six minutes of playing time after twisting his ankle, so the Spurs were down to just one big man (good thing Collins is no longer on a minutes restriction) and forced to play some fluky lineups.

Combine that with a possible level of complacency caused by having blown this same team out in two of their last five games overall, and the Spurs had to actually work for this win, likely more than they expected. Embarrassed teams don’t go down easily, and the Blazers put up a fight that the unsuspecting, shorthanded Spurs had to weather before their superior talent finally took over in the second half.

It wasn’t the prettiest of wins, but the Spurs survived the trap of the miniseries (and same opponent for three of six games, for that matter) to build a two-game cushion — three if you count the tie-breaker — between themselves and Lakers for the play-in and get a game closer to the Pelicans for the ninth seed. With the way they were struggling down the stretch last season (admittedly in part due to sheer exhaustion, an issue this team doesn’t have), it’s good to see them taking care of business in the games they should and peaking at the right time this season. It’s a step in the right direction for the future.

Takeaways

  • Keldon Johnson continues to impress. His 28-point outing was his sixth straight with 20+ points, and the only other Spur to do that at age 22 or younger was Tim Duncan with 13. Johnson’s energy and enthusiasm is contagious, and he carried the torch of top dog well last night. A lot of the attention this summer will be on Lonnie Walker and the draft, but Johnson will be eligible to sign a contract extension, which would kick in for the 2023-24 season. Do the Spurs take the same approach with him as they did with Murray and Derrick White: make a good but not over-the-top offer that he’ll accept before his value gets even higher, or wait and risk him hitting restricted free agency in 2023? That’s a bigger question than many probably thought it would be heading into this season, and yet here we are.
  • Almost a month ago, I complained about Tre Jones not taking the open threes that were given to him, and how it’s better to take them within the flow of the offense and miss than not take them at all. Last night he did just that, hitting 2-4 from three with no hesitation, and what a difference it made for him not just for confidence reasons, but it also opened up the driving lanes and allowed him to play more to his strengths. Outside shooting is the missing piece to his game, and if he can make it a permanent addition going forward, he will have a solid NBA career that not many second round picks get.