Progress Over Perfection

Some time in the 2000s when the Blazers were good and the Spurs were battling for the best record, the regular season matchups against them — and any team that was good — felt momentous.

They were fuel for the arguments I would have at school about the team and it’s place in the league and in history.

In the years since, it has been nice to get some confirmation that the players take some games more personally.

Last year against the Raptors when Kawhi returned to San Antonio, it felt like that again. DeMar DeRozan notched a triple double. Kawhi yelled after dunking early.

In this matchup against the Clippers, it is harder to get the same feelings. If I have to choose an LA team to hate it would obviously be the Lakers, even if the Clips — a version of them — were the last LA team to beat San Antonio in the playoffs.

Kawhi day out the first game to be prepared for the Spurs. He was criticized for sitting against Utah because those fans are missing out while the LAC crowd has 41 chances to see their guy.

That is another discussion. What is curious is that he sat the front in, and not the second night. He wanted to play SA?

DeMar was more crisp in this one partly because he is back home in Los Angeles, partly because he is in the fourth game of the season and is catching his rhythm.

In the end, the Spurs has no obvious answer for Kawhi doing Kawhi things. They stayed fighting but did not get enough clutch buckets late.

The real complaint will be about the first half, where LAC was struggling after the playing the night before and the Spurs looked like they had some jet lag.

This is where two things can be true, something I had trouble understanding when I was a kid looking for hot takes for school arguments.

The Spurs wanted to win this game but did not do everything they could to win it off the court. Playoff preparation is much more detailed. Regular season preparation is about building the team cohesion.

We saw the Spurs get better by just a little bit in this one. Young Dejounte was not nearly as dazed by Patrick Beverly as he was in that Rockets series in 2017.

In fact, Murray back-tipped Bev on a drive. The student had become at least an apprentice.


  • Marco Bellinelli is still slumping. He has a shooting slump last season but he has been just poor all over the court.
  • Still no Carroll eh? What is going on there?
  • Lonnie was scolded in the postgame by Pop.
  • Kawhi did actually say he looks forward to playing his old teammates.
  • LMA was held to 5. He didn’t catch the rhythm of the game and the Spurs didn’t really help him out. Having DeRozan go off for 29 was nice and kind is the point is having two stars.

Clutch Is About Shooting Even Though You May Fail

Damian Lillard missed two would-be tying threes to close the game out, after bringing his Portland Trail Blazers to the brink of a comeback against the Spurs.

DeMar DeRozan scored 27 but missed two free throws that would have made it four or five, and before that missed a fadeaway free throw line jumper that would have extended the lead.

Lillard has a reputation as a closer, a finisher, and a guy that hits big shots in big moments. That is true, and what is also very true is that he has missed some big ones as well. If those are not as prominent in your brain as the big ones he made, that is because big shots have a tendency to stick in the mind a bit more.

We remember Kawhi hitting the fadeaway jumper against Philly in the playoffs last year and almost have completely forgotten he missed some huge free throws in the 2013 Finals vs the Heat.

DeRozan has yet to have a big shot moment like that — it is certainly possible he never will have half as many as Lillard has had in his career.

What is great is that DDR is still shooting the shots. He is the closer and like Dame, he will miss some and he will make some like he did against the Wizards.


DeMar had 27, all of that through the early 4th quarter before the Spurs’ reserves started blowing the lead. He came in a little cold after that. No excuses, but that was a thing.

Missing Dejounte in the 4th quarter will be tough, as the Spurs allowed 39 in this final period, and it cannot imagine that would have been quite so easy with Murray harassing Dame a bit more.

The Spurs held a 15 point lead after Murray assisted Marco for a three and the Blazers were on the verge of pulling everyone and packing it up with about seven minutes to go. It is easy to get upset with the failure to close it out there, but this was a weird game. The Spurs were down big early, and got all the way back.

The Blazers were on the second night of a back-to-back (SEGABABA) and that means we can probably do some self-loathing — how could they allow this team to come back etc. The truth is that ugly wins are better than pretty losses and the Spurs are 3-0, with a good offense and a brilliant defender playing 20min a night and getting a little healthier with each game.

DeMar Time

Watching (or not) the Raptors get their rings, among all the hype around Kawhi — the man who took the Raptors where DeMar did not — beat Lakers in Los Angeles, had to have some part in the play of DeMar DeRozan in the Knicks game.

If there is something else unifying about all these NBA players, it is that they are more competitive than the average citizen. It had to sting a little — even just the tiniest bit — to see a guy do all that

DeRozan did not play well against the Knicks, turning the ball over often and missing free throws. Tonight against the Wizards, he displayed a level of aggression that is worthy of his salary. We counted three dunks, two with the right and one with the left. One of them was on the other side of the rim. He looked like he was looking for his shot, like he is an all-star known for getting buckets when and where he wants them.

He closed out the game by attacking the middle of the floor and looking for his shot. He finished things off by getting a tough two in traffic. That is the kind of thing we used to see Kawhi, Ginobili, and Parker do when it mattered.

Another spurned player balled out of his mind in this one: Davis Bertans. He looked every bit the guy we did not want to see go, firing sumptuous three-point shots and mixing in a little defense here and there. He closed down DeMar on one of the final possessions, and helped his team by blocking Forbes.

The Spurs won this thing and like the opener, there is much to dislike. The Knicks and Wizards are not going to win the title and neither is a guarantee for the playoffs no matter how weak the East is.

An encouraging sign is the level of defensive quality when closing out both games. Sure, there were some glaring errors in positioning that allowed the Wiz to take the lead and even hang around early. Watching Dejounte eat up space and turn steals into dunks is invigorating, however. Derrick White and Murray shut down Bradley Beal on the final possession. That is Spurs basketball.

Oh, and in eight quarters of play, the Spurs have scored 30+ in six of them.

The squad has one more on this little home stand before heading west where they will be tested against Kawhi and the Clippers. Dame Time is coming Monday, and the level of competition will rise.

The West is wide open and these wins count just as much as any others, and are arguably more important given thee weakness of the teams concerned. The Spurs did lose to the Knicks last season after all, and that meant a lower seed in the playoffs.


LaMarcus had a quiet 27 to lead the team again. He was his default good self and even drained a couple of threes. He needs to do that Tim Duncan thing and be consistently good for the Spurs to challenge.

I am bullish on the Spurs’ chances — the West is not so great that no one is without flaws. Where the Spurs lack top flight talent, they have depth and experience. That may not go so far in the playoffs, where you need special talent to show up, but it is better than nothing.

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Spurs, Dejounte Are Back In Action

Dejounte Murray is fast and quick and long and young and it is weird to have someone like that on the Spurs. San Antonio still feels like it has a bunch of fogies, that even the knowledge we have — SAS has a ton of young guys — still doesn’t always translate to Feel.

DJ sliced through for buckets and got steals and for a second I allowed myself to think of what he and Kawhi would have done in the same backcourt tonight.

Instead, we saw him get a nice 18 on 7/10 shooting. He was in a competition with Bryn Forbes for leading scorer until LaMarcus’ late three pushed him to the top.

The Knicks should not have been much of a problem but you have got to like that the Spurs played defense in spurts, when their likely starting rotation was in, and that they scored 37 in two different quarters.

This all without a fully functional Demar. He missed free throw tosses in warm up. For a long stretch of the game he has only a single point, and went through a stretch where the Knicks were sitting on his drive-and-kick thing, stealing a handful of passes.

He had four turnovers.

The essence of a team, however, is that it is more than one guy. The role of primary scorer is one that multiple guys filled. Five guys were in double figures and Derrick White had 9.

Demar closed the game out with some drives and created some free throw line trips. He will get his rhythm and not look so out of sorts and the Spurs should be a little more dangerous.

Kawhi Leonard Is Healthy As Hell

Kawhi Leonard is going to the NBA Finals again. This will be his third time and his first leading a team on his own. The 2013 and 2014 teams were led by the Spurs’ big three, but this was all Kawhi. 

He recorded an all-time NBA postseason and solidified himself as a top-3 NBA Player of his era. This has hurt many a Spurs fan, who did not want to see the One That Got Away do particularly well.

The truth is, this here Spurs fan is still pretty sports-bitter about the whole thing, but I always knew Kawhi was one of the best players in this league. It makes that 2015 season in which he was kicking the Warrior’s ass on their own home floor feel even more like a lost opportunity. 

Kawhi was not even as good then as he is now, as he has had three more seasons of individual work to make him what he is today. He was having an incredible postseason then — one that was cut short by a bad luck injury and took that incredible Spurs team to a shell of itself. 

DeMar DeRozan has got to be sick about all of this. His best friend is in the Finals and so he is happy for him, but his adopted team is in the Promised Land and he is looking at them celebrate from afar. 

That is what happens when you are dealing with Greatness, however. Kawhi Leonard is great and eventually we will forget about all the other teams that were in the conversations — those Sixers that pushed him to 7 games and forced him to sit and watch as fortune guided the ball into the bucket after 4 bounces. 

We remember Shaq and Kobe and forget they needed a 15-point comeback against Portland and a ref-aided(???) 7-game series win over the Kings. 

Greatness makes you forget. In this particular case, it will be a little harder to forget. 

From this vantage  — a Spurs fan who has seen 5 rings — it is a little difficult to get _too_ hurt about it all. This world is full of _actual_ injustice and pain and misery and watching an incredible basketball player do his thing at some other basketball place is the minutest of slights. 

If anything it gives us a glimpse of what would have happened had Tim Duncan signed with Orlando. 

Seven of Eight Is Great

The Spurs were dead in the water, people were writing their It’s Over pieces about the Spurs dynasty being done. The team had a little practice and worked it all out it seems.

On November 28 the Spurs were handled easily by the Timberwolves only two nights after escaping from lowly Chicago. The followed that up by getting whooped by the Rockets at home. There was a win against the Blazers that seemed to halt things before the Jazz destroyed them by 30+.

LeBron beat hte Spurs in a close one but then: it was all solved.

Blowout win over the Lakers at home.

Blowout win over the Jazz.

Blowout win over the Suns.

Blowout of the Clips.

Hiccup against those pesky Bulls.

Blowout of the Sixers.

Utter destruction of the Magic.

Blowout of the Wolves, the team that started this thing back in November.

It is December 21st and the Spurs are back, baby.

***

Okay that is an exaggeration. None of the above teams are picked to win the league. The Warriors are not shuddering at the sight of Bryn Forbes shooting herky-jerky pull up jumpers. Still, the defense is intriguing.

The Spurs have held seven-straight opponenets to under-100, a stat that is a thing in this modern NBA.  The holiday slate is what will truly tell us about this team as the Spurs host the newly revived Rockets, have two agains the surging Nuggests, host Boston and the looming showdown with Kawhi Leonard on the 3rd.

The Raptors have the league’s best record, one of the stingiest defenses in the league, and two former Spurs that know everything the Spurs are going to do before they do it — especially considering that this current Spurs roster may actually not know as many Spurs plays as Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard do.

***

For now, we can settle in knowing that the worst is likely over. The team will actually continue to get better from here — knowing each other, knowing the system, the plays, the rhythm of this particular team.

 

Growing Pains

I suppose the biggest difference in this version of Pop than the one from 20 years ago is that he does not have pressure on him. He is more mellow, obviously, and some of that is age and maturity, but some is life experience. He lost his wife last year and that can certainly put a perspective on things that makes the daily investment in basketball seem even more silly.

Gregg Popovich had never been one to lose sight of the situation: this is a game that is ridiculously well-paid, but if you are going to play it you might as well play it the right way.

There is a delicate balance to it all, and that is much like life.

This week DeMar DeRozan mused that he thought this recent swoon would have brought more fire from Pop, but he was “more patient than I expected”. Pop has always been good at picking up a struggling team and being a taskmaster when it is going well.

The good and bad feelings from wins and losses do enough, and the competitors that are NBA players will put in the appropriate level of work. The coaching staff is there as a check, and an external motivator, mostly.

In this tough conference, the Spurs sit just outside of the playoff picture having benefitted from beating a hurt, and struggling Warriors team. As Pop said, “no one cares”. He is right. Much like no one really cared that Kawhi and Tony were injured in the 2016 WCF, no one cares that the Spurs got a win over a Steph-and-Draymond-less GS team.

DeRozan repeats that the Spurs are getting a “little better” every game and every week. This has been true. There are a lot of moving parts and it has only been just over a month of real basketball to play. Derrick White came back and struggled but then also shone brightly in the win over Houston.

LaMarcus is struggling offensively, but is still a force defensively — an underrated part of his game — and as recently as Nov 3rd he bulled Anthony Davis all night. When things are going for the Spurs, they have a nice little combination that can beat near any team on the schedule.

They do not have an otherwordly athletic force like Kawhi, Giannis, Bron, or KD but right now that is not the focus.

Smooth DD, and Assists

DeMar DeRozan is averaging a career-high in assists — 8.0 per game. His previous career high came last year at 5.2. 

On NBA Game Time, Isiah Thomas said, “We didn’t know he had this type of playmaking in his game” — or something to that effect. 

The thing about assists is, that you need the pass recipient to score after you give it to them. In Toronto, Kyle Lowry was the assist man, and also a good individual scorer in his own right. 

You can see glimpses of DeRozan’s passing ability in highlight reels. His teammates don’t exactly help him out all the time.  His potential assists are markedly higher than his actual total, suggesting that his teammates are helping him out in San Antonio. Compare that to Chris Paul and James Harden, who are creating far more potential scoring opportunities than are being converted. 

nba.com 10/30

For what it is worth, DeRozan’s potential assist rate was not high in Toronto, but as we can see, his teammates would often receive the pass to give it back. Another interesting thing is that the Spurs have never had a guy average this many assists since Tony Parker, and even then he was not exactly Chris Paul.

I think we are seeing the benefit of a playmaking guard that can get into dangerous positions finding other smart, capable, basketball players who can score. 

DeMar is most dangerous because he can score — he had 34 last night on Wes Matthews, a capable defender. He can get those 34 because of his 9 assists, keeping the rest of the Mavericks honest. Look at these next screenshots to see what I mean. The first two show the Mavericks having to stick close to the rest of the roster while DeMar operates on Wes Matthews for two of his biggest buckets of the game.

This final one is of last year’s duel between the Spurs and Raptors. This was a decidedly different kind of situation, but you get my meaning. 

Pau sinking

The Spurs sank into the paint based on the lineups here. No need to guard non-threats from outside. 

The current Spurs, however, do not have obvious non-threats aside from perhaps, Dante Cunningham. He does a great job of playing the other forward spot, flashing in the post for easy 10-15 foot jumpers or as a high-low option to dump the ball down to Aldridge. He also has been great flashing from the weak side for easy dunks — something OKC’s Andre Roberson does on occasion. 

This led to a Rudy Gay 3pt make

The above is mostly a mistake on Luka Doncic’s part, as he doubles needlessly. DeMar finds Rudy Gay for a wide open three. Notice, however, the rest of the Mavericks spread out in stark contrast to the previous Toronto-era DD screenshot. 

This led to a Rudy Gay pull-up jumper. This is also 4-down

Finally, we see the classic Spurs look: 4-down look. This led to a Rudy Gay pull up jumper. One concern everyone had about the Trade was that LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan like to occupy the same space and take similar shots. The solution, it turns out, is that DD has been taking the Pau Gasol post-ups. 

LMA is on the same post-ups-per game pace (just about 13). DeMar has 3.5, which is little more than Pau had last year. 

Both LMA and DD are getting about 60+ touches per game. That is a bit more than Kawhi/LMA’s 2016 55/57 per game.

Here, Aldridge does not quite pull DeAndre Jordan away from the paint, but he is neutralized enough that he does not interfere with the play. Also, look at Cunningham wearing Boris Diaw’s 33 in the same spot.

Everyone said the squad is still working on things and that hopefully means there will be fewer down-to-the-wire games. 

The season is young but the Rockets, Lakers, and Thunder look much worse than we thought. Houston is already changing their entire defensive scheme to compensate for Melo problems and no one can hit a shot. 

The Spurs are getting defensive contributions from Rudy Gay (six steals!) and even DeRozan (three steals!), and Marco Belinelli is an upgrade offensively over Kyle Anderson. Bryn Forbes has been so much better — he’s looking like the guy they drafted and not the gun-shy, brick layer he was early on. 

I can understand the championship-or-bust thinking, but there is very real value to fielding a competitive team every season even if the odds of winning the league are against you. These unbeatable Warriors are composed of players who competed and lost against much better teams early in their careers. 

Getting to the playoffs and losing is not without its value. Sure, for DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, there is less value than for Forbes, White, et al. The thing about going with an all-young group is that they might not even make the playoffs to learn those lesson. You need a mix, and you might as well put out the best possible combination you can — balancing future and present. 

The Spurs are much more fun to watch this season. 

Spurs 2-1, Aldridge Dominating, DD Scoring

Here is what we know: DeMar DeRozan is good at scoring the basketball. The Spurs can score, but they cannot play defense — but neither can the rest of the league. It makes sense considering the Spurs are starting defense-unaware Bryn Forbes in place of the lengthy Dejounte Murray.

DeMar did not get the calls vs the Lakers down the stretch, but he passes better than Kawhi did — DD’s 14 assists were a career high and he should have plenty more opporunities for that kind of thing.

DeRozan got a rebound early and pushed the ball. Instead of pulling up for a top-of-the-key three, he passed to Bryn Forbes who did the same. Meanwhile, earlier in the night Kawhi went 4/7 from deep on the same shot against Charlotte.

He had a hard time at the rim, not getting the calls that one gets in the first quarter. His game is more finesse than power, and late in games the power stuff is more useful when the refs swallow their whistles. LeBron, all power, takes over when that kind of game is played. 1

The Spurs jumped out to a big lead on the strength of the shooting — everyone was on and DeMar was cooking. LaMarcus had an advantage and ate up the competition, getting Javale McGee fouled out and socring 37 and grabbing 13. He was the good LMA, bullying his way to buckets.

For all the trouble — and no-calls — DD faced, his scoring early, passing late, and ball-control were huge. He took the late ball-handling role of Tony, Manu, and Kawhi late. He got a couple of huge assists to Forbes and Rudy Gay that were instrumental in the win.

He doesn’t have a bully-ball game, and that is a good reason why playoff DD is not as good  — they do not give him the same foul calls and he gets trapped the way he did tonight. If the Spurs staff can find shots for him that do not involve him attacking long-armed defenders at the rim, everything should be fine.

Elsewhere

Kawhi Leonard does not look hurt while doing Klaw things up in Canada. It hurt Spurs fans to see a double-block from Danny Green and Kawhi the other day while the Raptors beat Toronto.

I think we — I know I did — forgot that the Raptors were a well-constructed team last season and the addition of a 3-and-D guy like Danny Green, with the game’s best two-way player in Kawhi, was going to be a plus.

The Lakers are 0-3 and their flaws are evident. It is a long season and I would not bet against LeBron.

The Rockets are struggling with the new Melo experiment, while young guns Denver and New Orleans look great running up and down the floor.

Utah, an early pick to finish 2nd in the West, is 1-2, and dropped an ugly game to the Grizz, who are forever grit and grind.

How Do We Feel?

We all wanted to see DeMar go for 30 a night and he’s at 29.3 so far. LaMarcus looked good. The Spurs are scoring and playing fun basketball. Everything feels much better and less dour and depressing compared to last year.


  1. This fact makes me confident he could play in the 90s, when it was rough. It is ridiculous to think otherwise. 

New Season: New Problems

Dejounte Murray is out for the season, probably. This comes after an offseason of stories about his transition into the engine of the team. Pop said everyone was going to have to run with DJ if they wanted the ball. Now? Well, without Tony Parker, Hornet, the Spurs are going to have to rethink things.

This has been the worst offseason in a long while, and it got a little worse. Despite all that, there were some good feelings. Everyone is happy to be done with the robot problem that is Kawhi Leonard. Eventually, we all may reconcile with the KL and learn why, exactly, he hated being a Spur. For now, we all are very disappointed with the way it happened. 

Tony and Manu’s final season together was a valiant effort but it should have been as a contender — even if only in their own minds — instead of just as filler in the West. 

DeMar DeRozan is hungry, not as good as Kawhi, and yet perfect for the Spurs this season. Yes, he disappeared in the playoffs much like LaMarcus Aldridge did in years past and we all would rather someone who does not backdown from the moment. Every team wants that. As it is, the Spurs have two go-to guys and that is still very rare. 

Dejounte Murray was going to be a big part of this team, and probably the real determinant of the ceiling of this team. Now, the Spurs likely are going to be very good, but just not quite good enough. Compared to last year, that still will be so much more fun to watch.