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What we learned from the Spurs postseason-clinching win over the Nuggets

The Spurs are in, the Lakers are out, and everything’s great!

I have to be honest right off the bat: I think I’m in a more chipper mood about the Spurs today than I have been since at least 2019. Does being so upbeat over seeing a team clinch the 10th seed (at worst) in a down Western Conference (which wouldn’t even have mattered before 2020 when the play-in was implemented) seem a little ridiculous, especially when most of my lifetime has been spent watching the Spurs contend for championships? It does, but a little more context explains a lot.

Satisfaction #1: The Spurs are peaking at the right time, which is something they haven’t done since 2019 when they last made the playoffs after going 15-5 over their final 20 games of the regular season and nearly upset the Denver Nuggets in the first round. While the Spurs had a good Bubble run in 2020, going 5-3 while resting their veterans and seeing what some of the young core we’re currently seeing had, it wasn’t enough to overcome a 4-14 stretch from early in the season and 5-10 stretch ahead of the COVID shutdown. Then, in 2021, they (understandably) withered down the stretch of a COVID-condensed schedule, going just 2-10 over their last 12 games to fall into the play-in.

This season’s Spurs have been predictably inconsistent after letting all their veterans walk, and at times it felt like they would never quite figure things out and put together enough wins to make the postseason, but here they are: playing complete team ball on offense, competent defense, and winning 7 of their last 8 even despite missing Dejounte Murray to an illness for the last three games (and likely counting, based on his own description of what he’s going though). Seeing them grow before our eyes and peaking at the right time is extremely satisfying, especially after the way the last two seasons ended on down notes.

Satisfaction #2: Bye-bye, Lakers. If you’re on Twitter and see how much Lakers fans infiltrate themselves into almost any post that mentions the Spurs, you probably know how satisfying seeing their super team staring LeBron James get knocked out of the postseason in part by the Spurs. Everyone probably remembers the ridiculousness from a couple of years ago when Lakers fans were trying to hype Anthony Davis over Tim Duncan, and frankly it hasn’t stopped. They were doing the same BS in a recent Bleacher Report post about South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston working with fellow Virgin Islander Tim Duncan. That post had nothing to do with Anthony Davis (and frankly little to do with Duncan), and yet there Lakers fans were, all up in the comments trying to tear down Duncan in favor of Davis.

As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter where the ideal spot for the Spurs in the draft is, the bottom line is it’s pretty hard to deny that eliminating the Lakers and watching how this young team is coming together at exactly the right time is beyond satisfying. Save the venting about draft positioning and “what could have been” for later and enjoy the moment.

Takeaways

  • If the Spurs won more close games early, there never would have been a tanking debate. They have a net rating of a .500 team / 8th seed (just not the record to back it up — which still kinda matters), but the reality is these Spurs were and are too good to fall all the way to the bottom of the league. Even without DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge, Patty Mills and Rudy Gay, the Spurs have drafted well enough over the years that they have too much talent to be that bad. Also, intentionally or not, their midseason trade of Derrick White for Josh Richardson has been a much bigger boon for team in the short term than anticipated, with JRich providing some much needed outside shooting and an infusion of energy. Finally, the Spurs just happened to figure everything out late in the season, whether or not that’s how the Spurs drew it up.
  • I guess we should talk a bit about the game itself. The Nuggets’ game plan was likely to feed Nikola Jokic early and often to get Jakob Poeltl in foul trouble. It worked early as Poeltl was left on an island with no help defense coming, and he had to sit just over a minute into the game with two fouls. However, in an unexpected twist, Zach Collins held his own against the reigning MVP (aided by the Spurs defense waking up and swarming better), and Jokic became more passive on offense (at least as passive as you can call 35 shots and 41 points). The second half was more of what was expected. Relieved of his foul burden, Poeltl became the defensive nuisance to Jokic we was supposed to be in the first, and the Spurs succeeded in their own game plan of making Jokic beat them while limiting his assists not letting anyone else go off.
  • I’m really enjoying watching Josh Primo grow, both physically and mentally. His shot still needs some work, but his decision making is good, his defensive awareness is improving, and most of all he has shown no fear stepping into a starter’s roll for a team with postseason aspirations despite being the youngest player in the league. All the “Primo!” chants when has hitting big dunks and threes in the preseason and garbage time were fun, but now the novelty has worn off, and he is showing he’s a true NBA player with massive upside. Perhaps my favorite moment of the last night’s game — and there were a lot of them — was him blocking Nikola Jokic under the basket. Talk about no fear from a rookie when he could be wondering refs would given Jokic an “MVP call” if he even tried. I can’t wait to see what another summer of growth, maturity, and some time with Chip Engelland does for Primo’s game.