One thing that has become apparent during the Spurs’ recent run of not-much-success is many of their rivalries, both historic and relatively recent, have become dormant. The Lakers and Suns have both generally had more success than the Spurs over the last several years, and beyond anything that came from now-disgraced former Suns owner Robert Sarver or Lakers fans on Twitter trying to claim Anthony Davis is better than Tim Duncan, there hasn’t been much tension on the court when the Spurs play those teams.
On a more localized level, the Dallas Mavericks have been up and down, and while their star player Luka Doncic may seem like an easy punching bag at times with his constant smiling and whining (with little in between), it just hasn’t been the same as when someone like Jason Terry or Eduardo Najera stirred the pot in the 2000’s. Mark Cuban also hasn’t contributed anything lately, so that matchup has been bit of shrugger after nearly two decades of intense bitterness. (Maybe the Spurs’ tribute to Dirk Nowitzki was too kind.)
That may start to change soon, especially if two of the Spurs’ first three games have been any indication. In preseason games against fellow (should-be) up-and-comers in the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets — two teams the Spurs have had various levels of rivalry with over the years, although they have often been dictated by postseason play — there was a level of intensity and physicality that is usually lacking in meaningless exhibitions. Against the Thunder, both Victor Wembanyama and Chet Holmgren were out to prove themselves in their rookie debuts and show the future of the big man is as bright as ever.
That was exciting enough, but if any rivalry has been lingering lately, it’s been with the Rockets. Even though both teams were vying for the bottom last season, the games were intense, and things only got even more bitter over the summer with the Spurs winning the lottery and drafting Wemby, which has really gotten under the skin of fans on social media. In last night’s matchup, it was more of the same even with Wemby on the bench. Zach Collins and Alperen Sengun continued to play like they have a personal grudge against each other, plus the Rockets added enforcer Dillon Brooks to the equation, who wasted no time in getting into the mix with a technical for pushing Collins when he went in to break up a potential scuffle between Amen Thompson and Jeremy Sochan.
And of course, as notorious Rockets announcers Craig Ackerman and Ryan Hollins exacerbated over last night, a posterization by Cam Whitmore over Doug McDermott was wiped out by an offensive foul, similar to what happened with Sengun and Collins at one point last season (and was held up after a challenge) in a momentum-killing moment. It felt silly listening to them whine about that for so long last night, but it was also a reminder that it stuck for a year because even if this isn’t the playoffs, the IH-10 Rivalry is as bitter as ever. Add Wemby to the equation in tomorrow or next week’s regular season matchup, and it will go to a whole new level, both this season and beyond.
- While the known main rotation players who were available all looked good last night (Collins, Sochan, Keldon Johnson, Malaki Branham, Charles Bassey, etc), very few who are otherwise vying for the last few rotation spots are doing much to stand out. Cedi Osman has made his case, and Dominick Barlow continues to be the standout of the third string with his play on both ends (making it all the more mind-blowing that he ended up with just a two-way contract). Otherwise, Julian Champagnie’s preseason struggles have continued, Sandro Mamukelashvili hasn’t done much in limited minutes, and Devonte’ Graham remains a wild card. While Khem Birch (who finally made an appearance last night) is still likely the main one at risk of being waived to get the roster down to 15, there’s work to be done for everyone else if they want a spot in the rotation
- Blake Wesley remains an enigma. The potential is there (and we’re all getting tired of saying that), but it’s getting to the point that you want to cover your eyes whenever he chooses to drive with the ball. It should be a strength with his speed and athleticism, but he has a tendency to get tunnel vision and drive into traffic instead of spotting the open man (especially in two-on-one situations), and which only adds to his already known inability to finish around the rim. With the roster so deep at the wings, hopefully he will spend some time in Austin to continue honing his skills.
- Seeing Johnson’s return made it harder to know who will take on a sixth man role. It feels like it’s down to him and Tre Jones, but KJ also showed (in an admittedly small sample size) that he has improved in ways that mean he will not need the ball to be affective. His three-point stroke looked better (the ball actually stayed in the camera frame instead of traveling to the moon first), he found the open man on drives for 4 assists, and his defensive rotations were tighter. All of a sudden, a defensive squad of him, Devin Vassell, Sochan, Wemby and Collins sounds pretty intriguing. Of course, not of all them have to start to still play together, but I look forward to seeing what that lineup can do.