Knicks and Lakers are Two Different Kinds of Tests

The Spurs ended their 8-game losing streak thanks to the Knicks, but then tonight, got a taste of the real quality of the NBA against the Lakers, winners of seven-straight coming into tonight.

That the Spurs played well both times they faced the Lake show says something about them, and their ability to show up for the big ones. It means they can play at that level, but cannot always muster the desire to do so every time.

Tonight, LaMarcus was on, hitting nearly everything from midrange and DeMar DeRozan did a decent impression of Kawhi for a bit until LeBron decided to turn things up.

There were still too many silly mistakes — letting LAL get up the floor too quickly and allow the role players easy looks from three — and that is a symptom of the poor defense the team has shown all season.

Staying close through three was fool’s gold as the difference in talent was always going to be the difference in game like this. Bron has mastered the art of saving the good stuff for when it is needed and he controlled the game in the fourth as the Spurs sort of fell apart.

For whatever reason, it seems like the Spurs are always down 10 in the fourth quarter. The offense, as good as it is, cannot come up with the shots it needs and the defense cannot get a stop. This is the Spurs team of 2019/2020. We should accept them for who they are.

Seven Losses Is Bad

The most frustrating part about the latest loss, the 138-132 road loss to the Wizards, is that the Spurs played hard until the end. Effort is not really the issue as the Spurs are playing hard.

The team has been saying that they do not communicate well and while the Spurs have always been able to take one or two poor defenders and turn them into competent ones, that was always with a Tim Duncan as an anchor.

Since Kawhi left (along with Danny Green) the Spurs have been poor defensively and it does not help that the league has been in an offensive revolution. The young players on the team have either been hurt or are still developing, so nothing is complete.

Murray has been good, but the overall defensive talent is low and there is only so much scheme that can be done. The Spurs are not good but they are talented enough to keep this thing going for a bit. DeMar DeRozan does not have tremendous trade value and he provides some of that quality NBA knowledge the team values.

Letting the young guys learn and develop is fine, but if they have to learn lessons themselves? Eh. It is only so valuable. Everyone likes to point to the Spurs’ 96 season where they “tanked” for Tim, but the real value was in putting Tim in a program that had David and Sean and Avery there to provide the winning structure. Those three had won 60-games before, had been to the playoffs, and played in big games.

The Spurs could use a little bit of grit and defensive presence. That was supposed to be Marcus Morris Sr, until that whole deal meant the Spurs lost Davis Bertans and got Trey Lyles. Beyond that the weird DeMarre Carroll situation means the Spurs are carrying a guy with little value.

Lonnie Walker has been underperforming and simply giving him time on the court is not the answer. Time on the court is useful but focused time is the best kind.

We can guesstimate that there is only so much losing the organization will tolerate before changing the plan for the season. Just as you modify your game plan in one that got out of hand, you change it up as the season regresses.

What is there to do? The popular suggestions are in moving LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan. Either can be a key addition to a playoff-hopeful squad as they both have a proven ability to get buckets and are pro’s pros. The problem is that the return is not going to be good. Draft picks will not help in the immediate future and whatever young pieces come back this way will likely not fit the scheme or the roster.

We will see more of the unbalanced team we have seen since Kawhi left, just with young players filing the roles. Count me among the number of fans that like making the playoffs each year, as that can teach the young players the things that are necessary for winning in this league better than tanking.

Still, putting Lonnie Walker, Dejounte Murray, and Derrick white on the floor along with the new draft picks will certainly be a learning experience. If the Spurs really are going to lose more, well, then they might as well get some experience while doing it.

The interesting thing in all this is that the Spurs had a chance to draft a defense-first guy that would have fit in perfectly right now: Matisse Thybulle. They instead drafted Luca Samanic, who has rode the bench. The Spurs player-development staff is great, but mistakes can and will be made.

Luca Ascending

Everyone knows Luca Doncic is good. He can shoot a little like Dirk did, but has the added ability to handle the ball like J-Kidd did, too. He is the natural evolution of basketball and it makes perfect sense. It also sucks that he is on the Mavericks.

Whereas Dirk changed the game when he came into the league — a 7-footer that would step out and shoot the rock like a 2-guard — Doncic came of age in a basketball world that already saw Dirk with an MVP award and a league title to his resumé.

This is the way it goes. When someone saw basketball the first time as a kid, they adopted the moves of men and women who had spent their lives up to that time exploring new frontiers — look at that dude dribble with both hands! It still works the same way. When you first saw Steph Curry shoot from 30-feet out it was a revelation. Trae Young saw that as a kid watching Davidson and Oklahoma play and added that to his game.

Now everyone works on shooting and it will not be amazing to see a 200+ 3pt FG guy in the league the way it was in 2013. That is how the game evolves.

Doncic is the natural evolution of the game. He was smooth attacking the basket and confident stepping back and firing the rock from distance. The Spurs, however, are still trying to get their two-guard to fire from distance. DeMar was incredible on the night, taking charge and looking like he believed he was the best scorer on the Spurs team. He put up 36 attacking the basket and getting to the line tonight. The Spurs rallied from a big deficit in the fourth and made it a game but fell short.

This time, we cannot complain about DeMar, but it is easy to notice the best player for the next few years will be 77.

The Depths of Mediocrity

The Spurs are on a 4-game losing streak and it is partly because of defense (mostly) and partly because of not-as-good offense as the team produced last season. Coming into this season, the idea was that Marcus Morris and / or DeMarre Carroll would provide some defense along side the returning Dejounte Murray.

Instead he has played sparingly, and the defense has been just about the same level as last year’s iffy squad. The offense, missing Davis Bertāns, has not been as amazing. The strange thing is that it has been good, with a 109 offensive rating compared to last year’s 111 or so. The ranking is the same, but the wins and losses are different.

The Spurs have been unlucky — the non-call against DeMar DeRozan the other night vs the Grizzlies was bad — but putting yourself in a position to win or lose based on luck is a recipe for losses.

The Spurs had a big lead against the Magic, but do not have the savvy to hold it or pull out.

This is the kind of thing that mediocre teams encounter. They need things to be perfect to pull out wins, and they fall victim to bad luck more often than not. The Spurs are very mediocre because not much has changed from last season. Everyone was hoping for Murray to make a big difference – he has in spots — but the Carroll-for-Bertans swap — however unintentional — has not paid off.

Last year the Spurs found a groove, and worked their way to a seventh seed — and one game away from the second round. That is very possible this season given the number of young players that can make a leap. The team really needs DeMar to be better than good — he needs to be special. Aldridge is 34, and that extra gear can only be reached infrequently as he gets older.

That is the nature of the game. DeMar still can reach that level. He needs to carry this team, and right now, he is just playing a role.

Blowout

Pop tried that thing where he subbed everyone out but it did not do much. LaMarcus Aldridge, one game after dropping 39 on the Thunder, scored three. The offense was not even the problem, as the Spurs allowed 39 points in the first quarter.

The defense is struggling, and the Celtics, more than any other team the Spurs have lost to, is just good at executing. The Lakers and Clippers had talent and made plays. These Celts have good players, but just did their stuff better.

Sometimes it just is not your night.

That is always a tough thing to acknowledge, and while the Spurs have been good at not getting dominated, even the best squads — the title winning ones — got blown out. Remember the 2005 team got destroyed in Detroit in back-to-back games? Yeah. It happens.

Aldridge Appreciation Post

LaMarcus Aldridge is unappreciated.

This blog will freely admit to adding to the pile of criticism that came when he seemingly wilted against Golden State right when the Spurs needed him most. Eventually — and I surmise this is what happened when Pop had a talk with him and accommodated his wishes — you have to realize he is who he is.

Pop is known for grinding his players and fashioning them to the player he wants them to be. He still does that with Murray and some of the younger guys. A player that is well-established like Aldridge? Nope.

There are few big men that can defend and be the primary scorer on any team, let alone a good team. Aldridge and DeRozan have a similar reputation for wilting when the lights get bright but given that Kawhi did not want to be here, there is not much choice is there?

There are maybe three or four guys in this league that can shine bright and bring a championship: Kawhi, Bron, Giannis …?

Okay maybe two. James Harden has playoff struggles (Manu block!) and even Anthony Davis could not bring his Pelicans sustained glory. Aldridge was incredible last night and that was mostly because his shot was falling.

The difference between LeBron and Kawhi and the rest of the stars is that they can overpower the defense with sheer physicality. This game is about athleticism and skill, sure, and when one is failing a great player can rely on the other half of it.

When Aldridge’s shot is not falling everyone from Shaq to your uncle wants him to go inside and bully his way to buckets. The thing is that Aldridge has never had the frame to do that against just anyone.

When it is falling? Well, he is exactly what you need to beat up on a mid-table side like OKC.

Trae Young Is Nice

I saw Methuselah hit a step-back fade-away three pointer over Trey Lyles. People say that it was, in fact, Vince Carter.

It was that kind of night in this one. The Hawks have a guy that changes the calculus of the floor in Trae Young and the Spurs do not have a rim protector to at least force him to be one-dimensional.

The Spurs shot three more 3PT shots and made just three fewer than the Hawks. The thing is that a couple of the Spurs’ threes were some desperation things — including Rudy Gay’s silly toss from half court because he was unaware of the actual time on the clock.

Trae Young firing 27-footers is a great shot for the Hawks.

The worst thing about this game was having the feeling that the Hawks had the better player. Trae Young looked dangerous and controlled the game at the end, toying with the Spurs, drawing the matchups he wanted and making the game his.

Our guys that are supposed to do that did not, in fact, do that.

DeRozan put up some numbers — 22 on 16 shots — and LMA struggled a bit on 14 shots. The game was lost late in the third and early fourth and that was that.

We have seen Kawhi take over the fourth. Then we saw Dame Lillard do the same. We saw Bron and AD dominate late and open things up for their role guys. The Spurs need a little more of the DeMar we saw in the first couple of games, taking over, and bending the defense to his will.

Can he do that? you ask.

I do not know, anymore.

Murray Is Going To Be A Star When He Can Go 40 Minutes

Remember when I wrote that progress was the goal? Yes, well this was also one of those times where everyone wanted to measure this Spurs team against the latest incarnation of a LeBron SuperTeam.

The Spurs came in with a great offensive rating and the Lakers, thanks to their length — and really Danny Green and Anthony Davis — came into tonight allowing sometime around 92.3 on defense. The Spurs hit that number tonight, sort of confirming the importance of a quality defense.

There were a fair number of missed shots that usually go in — that is to say, no one was unusually bottled up beyond LMA getting bullied and bumped and probably fouled a number of times. Bryn Forbes was ungodly bad from deep and that was basically the difference.

There is an argument to be made that this was just an off night shooting the ball and that is all the difference between the 5-1 Lakers and the 4-2 Spurs.

On the other hand, it is troubling that Aldridge and DeRozan combined for only 22 on 24 shots between them. DeRozan was off from everywhere and the aggression came from your star Dejounte Murray.

This, like that Cleveland game three years ago, will be another milestone in his progression. He got easy buckets because of steals and also crossed over Caldwell-Pope before getting a sweet lefty scoop shot+1 over Bron.

His minutes are still restricted and so then are the Spurs in that regard. Nate Jones tweeted this:

That is quality analyzing . LMA, and all big men, have some trouble with length. Javale and Anthony Davis do not make it easy to get the normal buckets he does. Poeltl was even more flustered, and slow to get the roll moves on the screens.

The length bothered San Antonio all game and it would improve in a playoff series as the team got used to it. On a Sunday night in early November? Well it led to easy buckets.

Murray led a furious little comeback himself before Kentavious Caldwell-Pope hit two ridiculous buckets to put the Lakers permanently ahead. The Spurs are still searching for someone not named Forbes to get hot from deep — which makes that Bertans deal hurt more — and even Bryn was cold tonight. He shot 1/8 from deep on looks he has been happy to get all season.

In the progress meter, we can call this one a success. The Lakers are more talented but the Spurs were right there, and should play better in better circumstances.

The Lakers however, are ridiculously talented and Bryn is happy to play Robin to AD’s Batman. The real threat? Well it was Spurs-nemisis Dwight Howard getting huge buckets all game long. He finished with 14 and 13, including 4 big offensive rebounds.

Regime Change In The Bay

Watching Draymond Green lose is always fun. Watching him lose with Willie Cauley-Stein and Deangelo Russel is less satisfying than it otherwise could be.

The Spurs won big, played DeMarre Carroll a bit, and got a little more rhythm. After five games (just five) the Spurs are not the same offensive team they were last season. They turn the ball over more,

As of Nov 2, 2019
2018-2019 season

The offensive rating is about the same but crucially, the defensive rating has improved. We wrote about progress last game, and that is the goal. It is a difficult one to achieve with so many moving parts. DeMarre Carroll played in just his first game last night. He was brought in because of his defense. Dejounte Murray is the best perimeter defender and is limited to 25m per game and did not play vs the Warriors.

That has a knock-on effect in that DeMar DeRozan is asked to play more point guard. He only took seven shots, scored only 13 but had 11 assists.

DeRozan has been able to be more aggressive attacking the defense when he has Murray and White running the offense. In this one, the aggression came from Patty Mills, taking a team-leading 16 shots and scoring 31.

In all, it is unremarkable that the Warriors have fallen so far so fast. The have so many injuries and new faces that it is not the same team that went to 5-straight Finals. It highlights how impressive LeBron’s run was, and even more impressive how the Spurs were able to maintain a level of consistency and competitiveness for 20+ years.

Green said this week “this is something (losing) that everyone except Tim Duncan has experienced”. It is true. Tim never missed the playoffs, as these Warriors will this season.

The Spurs are missing the top-five talent that the Clippers, Lakers, and probably Milwaukee have, but if things break right, they can be something like a dark horse. They have a great coach, a good system, and good-enough players. LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan are good enough players to produce Playoff calibre teams. Murray and the rest of the young guns may be just enough depth to carry the team deep.

This Warrior game was missing Murray, and he would have helped limit whatever offense the Warriors produced to make it more interesting late. He would have helped limit (maybe) Dame Lillard the other night.

Against a Jamal Murray last season, maybe a Murray lock-down defensive performance could have given SA just enough advantage to move on. The devil is always in the details and those details get refined in early November on the second night of a back-to-back.