It’s getting to that point in this season that it’s hard to know if there’s anything left to learn about this Spurs team. It’s quite possible we won’t see a complete lineup again, and this game may have been proof. It wasn’t on either end of a back-to-back, so it really didn’t warrant any “injury management”, but Gregg Popovich did it anyways by sitting Devin Vassell, Zach Collins and Romeo Langford (I’m saying Jeremy Sochan’s issues are real), while Keldon Johnson and Tre Jones returned after they missed Wednesday’s game against the Bucks. Should we just go on and assume Johnson and Jones will now sit Sunday in Boston?
This is not a complaint or anything like that, more like just calling a spade a spade: the Spurs are in full tank mode, plain and simple. Fortunately for Pop, all of the players that have been in and out of the rotation have had legitimate injuries this season, so the league can’t come down on him with a David Stern-sized hammer. But as I recently wrote, health permitting, expected player growth happens, and desired player(s) is drafted, the Spurs probably won’t be able to get away with being this bad again. The sample size is small, but when this team has been whole, they’ve looked significantly better than 28th in the league. The league (and fans) are taking it for one season (and how can the NBA not when they’re literally advertising Victor Wembanyama), but they may not again.
But, back to last night’s game. It was actually rather enjoyable for three quarters. The Wizards were also shorthanded without Bradley Beal and Kyle Kuzma, but they still had Kristaps Porzingis towering over the center-less Spurs, and Corey Kistpert, Deni Avidija and Delon Wright all had themselves big shooting nights, but the Spurs didn’t let that deter them.
Keldon got his 30 points by attacking the rim and only taking threes when they came to him, Keita Bates-Diop got on a roll and dropped 20, and Doug McDermott found his outside stroke again, to name just three of the six Spurs who scored in double figures. The Wizards got out to an early double-digit lead, but the Spurs always had an answer. They fought back and even retook the lead in the third quarter before finally running out of gas in the fourth, unable to keep answering Washington blow-for-blow.
So I guess what we learned — or continue to be reminded of — is the Spurs’ season may be all but over, we may not see them whole again until next season, and they will still lay a stinker of a game every now and then, but you should still keep watching them. They’re more than capable of surprising you, the improvement is there, there’s hope for the future, and with how hard they keep fighting despite being put in no-win situations night-in, night-out, they deserve our respect.
- Another reason to keep watching is Sandro Mamukelashvili and Julian Champagnie, both late additions to the roster off the waivers, and both very much impressing in their own right. Mamu has looked like a potential keeper since the moment he arrived. It’s hard to believe he was just a two-way player for the Bucks the last two seasons, but he has looked like a rotation forward since joining the Spurs and is everything Pop loves in a player: he can shoot, defend, is versatile, intense, and never stops moving. Mamu Mania is here, and I’m all for it.
- As for Champagnie, he has also been completely unafraid of the moment despite being just a two-way rookie. He’s taking and hitting outside shots, is showing off a good ball fake when the defender closes out and is a capable shot blocker for his size. He looking like a classic 3-and-D wing, and he should be making a case for a guaranteed contract somewhere next season, even if it’s not with the Spurs.
- As previously mentioned, the game started getting away from the Spurs early in the fourth quarter mostly because their shots stopped falling (and they couldn’t get stops on the other end anymore), but there seemed to be a key turning point, and that was a phantom foul call on McDermott. With the Spurs down five with 10:21 remaining, Jordan Goodwin was going up for a transition layup and missed. Knowing he probably had no chance to stop it, McDermott had pulled up and was a solid foot behind Goodwin, but when he missed, the ref blew for a foul for reasons only he can explain, claiming McDermott’s leg clipped Goodwin’s trailing foot on the way up. (I guess the ref assumed he only could have missed such an easy shot of if he had been fouled.) Replays showed there was no contact, but Pop decided against challenging it. I don’t know if it was because he wanted to preserve the challenge or if this was yet another stealth tank move, but one of your hottest players on the night getting called for the phantomest of all phantom fouls and picking up his fifth in a close game seems like a good enough reason to use it to me.