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What we learned from the Spurs loss to the Wizards

The Spurs should have won last night, and they know it. That’s a sign of growth.

Washington Wizards v San Antonio Spurs Photos by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

Expectations are ever so slightly changing for the Spurs, and they know it. You could see it in their eyes as they sat on the bench, waiting for Gregg Popovich to draw up a fruitless play with his team down five with five seconds left against a Washington Wizards team that before now, had never won in San Antonio in consecutive seasons. The Spurs looked more dejected that they had just lost a home game to one of the few teams in the league with fewer wins than them than they have during multiple 30-point annihilations at the hands of contenders.

As frustrating as the loss was, in part because it prevented them from winning three consecutive games for the first time since December 2022, it may not be the worst thing to happen to this team. (It’s not like they’re fighting for their postseason lives or anything.) Sure, it was a massive letdown two nights after a thrilling victory over the top-seeded Timberwolves in which the Spurs showed up bigtime in the clutch while they failed to do so last night, but the fact that the team was visibly upset with themselves shows that they’re growing and shifting their own expectations.

Just look at them, especially the always jovial Keldon Johnson, who, while far from alone in being complicit in their fourth quarter meltdown, ultimately had the game-deciding turnover with 32 seconds left that allowed Wizards to go up by five. (And although the Last Two Minute Report will surely show the Spurs should have gotten the ball back still down three and a chance to tie it since Daniel Gafford blatantly held Victor Wembanyama down on the offensive rebound attempt of their last bucket, the Spurs weren’t complaining about that because they knew it never should gotten to that point in the first place.)

That’s not the look of a cellar-dwelling team shrugging off “just another loss”. They should have won last night, and they knew they blew it. After spending recent weeks fighting off the demons of blowing double-digit leads from the first half the season, they let their complacency return last night. Maybe they had gotten a little too used (relative) success, having gone 5-6 in their last 11 games, and assumed the win would just happen considering the opponent and having a mostly healthy squad, but this game taught them they are not yet at a level where wins will just come naturally, even against equal or inferior teams. They have to fight each and every night regardless of the opponent, venue or circumstances.

Despite the loss, this team has still turned a corner in recent weeks, and we might look back at last night as an important learning point when revisiting the arc of this entire season down the road. I’m willing to bet that they learn and grow from last night, and win or lose, you’ll see a much stronger effort on Wednesday when the Magic come to town.

Takeaways

  • We are reaching a point where merely a 20-10 night from Wemby is kind of “meh”, and that’s saying a lot for a rookie regardless of if he’s a generational talent. Last night’s 22-11-4-3 stat line doesn’t off the page (even though it should), but a closer look at the game itself explains why. He shot 9-19 from the field, which isn’t bad, but he was also 0-4 from three with four turnovers, most of the careless variety. I guess the point is, the fact that he put up that stat line as a rookie, and we’re over here shrugging about it is a sign of great things to come. Assuming Wemby stays healthy and can continue to play 30-35 min per game from here on, it’s quite possible he at least catches Tim Duncan (36) in the number of 20-10 games for a Spurs rookie, although David Robinson might be tough to beat with 47. (Oh, and a reminder, both of those guys were fully grown adults when they entered the league. Think about that.)
  • I get why veterans like Doug McDermott and Cedi Osman are on the trading block, but whatever the Spurs get in return for them if they are dealt (knowing Brian Wright, he’ll want picks first and foremost), I just hope it includes shooters. Three-point shooting is the Spurs’ biggest weakness, and none of their top five players are reliable in that department (yet). They’re working on it — for example, Jeremy Sochan has shown significant improvement in limited attempts — but no one can be counted on to deliver on a nightly basis. My personal hope is at least one of McDermott or Osman stick around for the rest of the season to provide offense off the bench, but if they are dealt, hopefully some actual talent comes back in their place, not just draft picks that may or may not deliver down the road.
  • I want to make one thing clear: I have not given up on Zach Collins. I know some fans have, and that’s just the nature of the beast, but if the Spurs can get last season’s version of him back, they will be much better off. He has been asked to do too much this season, such as play point-center and be a perimeter player while starting next to Wemby. Then, just when he was getting into a flow with the second unit, he suffered an ankle injury that is still bothering today. Yes, Dominick Barlow has shown massive improvement from last year, and it’s possible that if the Spurs re-sign him next season (on what would have to be guaranteed contract since players can’t sign more than 2 two-way contracts), he will have taken another leap to the point that Collins is expendable. But he’s not there yet, and the Spurs are still better off with Collins when he’s healthy and on his game. Personally, I’m rooting for him to find his form again.