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What We Learned from the Spurs’ Loss to the Celtics

A tough loss but also a moral victory

Boston Celtics v San Antonio Spurs Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

PATFO had long been the Gold Standard of how to manage a franchise to ongoing success in the NBA. They drafted wisely, they made wise trades, and they got core players to sign team-friendly contracts. And though Pop and his congenial partner R.C. Buford are still around, they no longer are at the top of their game.

Brian Wright has taken over for R.C. as GM and Pop, as he said himself, is trying to build something for the next guy to work with. Whether or not that next guy, whoever it will be, and Brian Wright can achieve what I would like to call “patfoness” is completely out in the open. Meanwhile, we as observers can find “patfoness” in other franchises. And as far as I’m concerned, you don’t have to look any further than last night’s opponent, the Boston Celtics.

From an off-court perspective, their GM Brad Stevens could turn out to be for the Celtics what Pop is to the Spurs – the towering figure of the franchise, with the difference being that Stevens went from coach to GM, and not the other way around, like Pop. But Stevens was there when they drafted Marcus Smart, when they drafted Jaylen Brown, and when they traded down from first to third pick to get Jayson Tatum – a genius move, in particular because Markelle Fultz was the consensus No. 1 pick that year.

The Celtics have been building around the three guys mentioned with wise draft picks (Robert Williams and Grant Williams) and wise trades: one for Al Horford, one for Derrick White, and one for Malcolm Brogdon. They now have a core rotation of eight guys that make them a serious contender, with the opportunity to remain in serious contention for many years to come. Pretty much like the Spurs were for the major part of the last two decades.

And even when you look inside the current rotation of the Celtics, there are some striking similarities to what the Spurs once had. For example, among their three best players, only two are starting. I had watched the Celtics a couple of times this season before last night. And each time I got the same impression: Their starting five is a well-oiled machine, but it isn’t at its truly best before Brogdon comes in.

Like the uncountable times we were lucky enough to experience it with Manu, the trouble for the opposition really starts when that kind of “sixth man” comes in that makes the term “sixth man” a euphemism. In this case, Malcolm Brogdon. Dare I say the shorthanded Spurs would have won last night’s game if it wasn’t for the Celtics’ Manu-like sixth man? I think I can.


  • The Spurs went into the game with the three guys that are considered the best three players on the roster out. Which pretty much gave a clean slate to all the other guys on the roster to go out and show what they can do. And, oh boy, did some of them deliver!
  • Since he came to the Spurs as part of the Derrick White trade to the Celtics, it’s only fair to make Romeo Langford the first Spur mentioned in these takeaways. The decisive question about Romeo’s future in the NBA has always been whether he can find a way to contribute on offense. And in last night’s game, as in the games leading up to last night, he has shown that can be good at penetrating into the paint and going for layups. Mind you, the layups will have to go in more often than they do. But Romeo seems to have found a way of contributing points. And he’s fine on defense.
  • Another guy who has continued to improve as the season progresses is Malaki Branham. The No. 20 pick often looked overmatched in his first games in Silver & Black, but he now looks more and more solid shooting and also handling the ball. Spurs color commentator Sean Elliott last night said Malaki reminded him of someone, but he couldn’t put the finger on who he reminds him of. I can’t answer that question for Sean, of course, but I can tell you who Malaki reminds me of – Patty Mills. Because of the shotmaking, but also because of his tendency to dribble the ball to below the basket and to pass it on from there. Anyway, after early doubts I think it’s perfectly possible Malaki will be another one of those Spurs picks that have a long career in the NBA.
  • Jakob Poeltl hasn’t had the season he looked like he could have. And one of the more pressing questions PATFO will have to answer is the one about Jakob’s future. In contrast, there should be no questions whatsoever whether or not they will guarantee the third year of Zach Collins’ contract. Collins, provided he stays healthy, has answered that question himself. He has turned into a rock-solid NBA back-up big. Maybe he can even turn into a solid starter? Well, that’s exactly what he was last night. To remember how most analysts were criticizing the contract the Spurs gave to Collins. No one’s criticizing that anymore. Collins, at the very least, is a successful reclamation project for the Spurs. I’m excited to find out what else he can be. He’s only 25 after all — two years younger than Poeltl, that is.
  • I’m not sure what qualifies a former Spur to get a video tribute when he comes back to the AT&T, but the on-screen “Thank You Derrick White” banner just didn’t seem enough for the guy. The last stellar individual performance we have seen from a Spur in the playoffs was Derrick White’s in game three against the Nuggets in 2019. And Derrick was also the catalyst to when the Spurs had their most recent stretch of games that truly mattered – in the Orlando bubble. These performances and the dunk on Paul Millsapp should have provided plenty of tailor-made material for a video tribute. Pity the Spurs didn’t do it.