Early in the second quarter of Saturday night’s contest, Jeremy Sochan shoved Kris Dunn off of him after the journeyman guard had the rookie’s jersey in a vicegrip. Dunn shoved back (while saying “what the *bleep* is wrong with you, boy?”) sending security onto the court.
The moment couldn’t help but make me smile. Here is a young team that is in the midst of a 15-game losing streak, on a seemingly endless road trip, but is still willing to fight. The contest was full of physicality. The Spurs were the enforcers early on, which is not something you can often say about this team. Zach Collins was eating up Walker Kessler inside. Keldon Johnson and Sochan were making strong drives to the cup (Sochan had a phenomenal put back at the buzzer that should have counted.) Even Charles Bassey was making his presence known. After laying down in a loss against Dallas, this was just the kind of bounce back performance you would expect from an NBA squad.
Then San Antonio experienced something I call a “turd quarter.” It’s when a team comes out of a half and... well... drops a metaphorical deuce. Whether they come out flat or the other team comes out with force, it typically results in a major swing. Good teams are able to weather the run, keep the game close, and make a run down the stretch. The Spurs are not a good team.
Utah bullied the Silver and Black after halftime. Talen Horton-Tucker bulldozed through them on drives, Dunn was a nuisance on both ends and Lauri Markkanen, aka ‘The Finnisher,’ Finnished them. Once San Antonio got punched in the mouth, it was over. Old habits reared their nasty heads, as they turned the ball over, struggled with transition defense, and continually lost men in the half court.
What’s that old saying: Progress is not linear? Sometimes it’s a spike, then a drop. First half: spike. Second half: drop. Say what you want about Saturday’s result, you still have to acknowledge that first half. Gregg Popovich wasn’t happy about San Antonio not being a 48 minute team, and he rightfully griped about it in his presser. He’s the coach. It’s his job to get mad. But Spurs fans see the writing on the wall. Heck, half of the talk about the team over the last few days has been about whether or not they are the best fit for a 7-foot-5 French teenager, not how poorly they played the game before. Clearly winning is not the priority right now.
So yeah, blowing a lead sucks. But that first half was some of the best Spurs basketball I’ve seen this year. The ball movement, defensive intensity and physicality — looked like a legit NBA ball club. The starting five played well, with four guys out there who could make something happen with ball in their hands. Malaki Branham and Sochan were solid, and played off of each other well. I don’t mean to be a sunshine pumper, but sometimes keeping your sanity in a rebuilding season means looking at what went well.
Bottom line: the Spurs looked like a better ball club tonight, even if it didn’t result in a win. That is something to feel good about.
- Collins had a strong game. He finished 15/5/2 going 3/6 from 3-point range. The big man brought physicality in the paint, spaced out the floor from outside, and even had two impressive blocks. If Collins can stretch the floor consistently (he’s shooting 35% on 6 attempts per game) he opens a lot of space for their playmakers to operate. The defense is coming around too. He’s not quite a plus defender, but some of his rim protection on Saturday was impressive. A stretch big that can also protect the rim is an elite commodity in today’s NBA. (Hmm. A stretch big who can protect the rim... sounds a lot like a consensus number-1 pick.)
- It is far too early in this team’s build to be concerned with fit... but I am getting nervous about KJ and Sochan’s ability to play together. If Johnson’s shot really is back to being broken, which it has looked that way, can you rely on two non-shooters as your best offensive weapons? This is the Spurs 3rd most-used 2-man lineup, at 872 minutes, but it’s one of their worst in net rating, at -10.3. Despite what the eye test would tell you, their offensive rating is still 111.7, in the top half of the team’s two man lineups. Sochan clogs up a lot of the driving lanes that Johnson uses to put rim pressure on the defense. At the same time, Johnson doesn’t give Sochan a reliable kick out target when he’s operating in the post, or as a ball handler off screens. Collins and Branham’s shooting ability alleviates this a bit, but it’s clearly not a perfect fit. I trust Popovich to make it work, but it’s something to watch as the season progresses.
- One of the season’s more heartwarming storylines has been Lauri Markkanen’s resurgence, from draft bust to all-star, and the best player for a team that just traded away two superstars. What a find by Danny Ainge. Taking a flier on a guy who has disappointed is something that always sounds good in practice, but hardly works out like this. In hitting on Markkanen, Ainge likely sped up their rebuild. It makes you think... who is the guy out there that San Antonio could take a flier on? The Collins contract seemed strange at the time, but he has shaped out to be a solid player for the Silver and Black. Romeo Langford showed some stuff before he got hurt, too. This offseason, I’d love to see the Spurs take a chance on a boom/bust player that hasn’t panned out so far, just to take another swing at finding a contributor to a winning team.