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What we learned from the Spurs loss to the Trail Blazers

Missing Wembanyama in an up-and down contest.

San Antonio Spurs v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s hard to win an NBA game, everyone knows that. It’s even harder to win it without your best player. Victor Wembanyama’s absence was severely felt in the San Antonio Spurs 134-128 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on Friday night.

After some good defensive activity at the beginning of the game, Portland started to gain momentum in the half court, relentlessly attacking the paint. San Antonio couldn’t do much to keep them out of the lane, leading to 60 points in the paint for the Blazers. Last game, Wembanayama was dominant around the basket with 7 blocks, and deterring opposing drivers at the rim. Portland scored just 38 points in the paint when Wembanyama played.

There was some offensive aimlessness before the Spurs went on their third and fourth quarter run. A lot of possessions featured one pass and a shot or awkward spacing. Other than Zach Collins presence in the low post, it was hard for San Antonio to find consistent offense. With an increased emphasis to get the ball to Wembanyama in the paint, they thrived on Thursday. It wasn’t until the Spurs started pushing the pace and getting more three pointers up that the tides of the game changed.

Even when they started to figure it out in the fourth, lack of execution and silly turnovers cost them in what was a winnable game down the stretch. Without a key contributor like Wembanyama, these were tough mistakes to overcome.

Head coach Gregg Popovich was happy with the team’s effort despite the loss.

“I told the team I was proud of them,” Popovich told reporters after the game. “The way they hung tough. A young group can just give in but they got back in the ball game by playing more physically themselves.”

A loss isn’t the result the Spurs and their fans are looking for, but in a rebuilding season finding silver linings is key. Losing a hard fought game without your best player isn’t the end of the world.

Takeaways:

  • Keldon Johnson has been awesome in the sixth man role. He led the Spurs on their comeback in the second half by hitting clutch threes and getting downhill. Playing in the second-unit with Tre Jones and Cedi Osman means the Spurs can push the pace with three of their most dynamic open-court players. Johnson finished the game with 29 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists. Every team needs a great bench piece, and Johnson looks like just that.
  • I’ve been impressed with Devin Vassell’s defensive effort lately. He’s playing aggressively on and off the ball, and racked up 4 steals on Friday night. San Antonio needs him to become better on that end. If the two games in Portland were any indicator, he is well on his way. It helps when his shot is falling like it did on Friday. He went 3-6 from three on his way to a 22-point performance. The finishing ability has also improved. You’d like to see him be more assertive, but that will come with time.
  • The Spurs had two key bench pieces twist ankles on Friday. Collins was playing well until he turned his ankle. Jones rolled his, but came back in to finish the game. It’s worth monitoring the injury report over the next few days. If Collins needs to miss a few games, that could be detrimental to the Spurs already depleted big man rotation. They’ll need to rely on Dominick Barlow and Sandro Mamukelashvili to play back up center minutes.
  • Doug McDermott had one of those games where he could not miss on Friday. He scored 18 points off the bench, going 6-8 from three. His movement shooting might not be exactly what the Spurs need right now, but should be attractive to a number of contenders at the trade deadline. He is the player I have my eye on in trade discussions as we hurdle toward February. San Antonio can likely net more draft capital for the veteran shooter.