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Almost Symmetrical

Season 51, Game 07
San Antonio 94, Boston 108

I miss Kawhi Leonard. And I know I am not the only one.

The Spurs fell to 4-3 Monday night after a 108-94 loss to the Boston Celtics. While it certainly wasn’t the worst loss in Spurs history, clearly this team is without its superstar and it’s never been more obvious.

The Spurs actually played fairly well and managed to keep it close for most of the game, save that ghastly 3rd quarter. The offense is humming along and the Spurs had several good looks. Pop has said numerous times that the players can’t worry about making the shots. That part will come. What they can and should worry about is taking the right shot and making the right play.

For the most part, the guys seemed to do this. Unfortunately, we continue to see plenty of “deer in headlights” plays. Too often, the Spurs are passing up a good shot for a worse shot. It’s fine to go from good to great. It’s another thing to omit the good completely. There’s been quite a bit of extra passing that isn’t exactly beneficial to this team.

The Spurs shot a rough 41 percent from the field, 46 percent from 3 and a mere 50 percent from the charity stripe. Those aren’t good enough numbers to beat the Magic, let alone the Celtics. Brad Stevens has done splendidly in getting the Clover back to reality after losing Gordon Hayward on opening night. Also, it doesn’t hurt that he has Kyrie Irving.

There was about a four minute stretch where you could almost see it on the faces of the players: we miss Kawhi. They needed a bucket a few times and looked like a team playing on a SEGABABA in the middle of March. They looked gassed. Mentally, it takes a toll on you. You miss a few shots, over the course of a few games and then the defense starts to slip. Guys shots turn up short and then they miss a rotation. It’s almost symmetrical.

For years, the Spurs have been kind of a running joke around the league. Everyone talks about how old they are and we all laugh and chuckle about it. But the reality is, this team is young and against the Celtics, without Manu, that youth showed.

It showed when Kyle, Danny, Bryn, Brandon and Sweet Honey Dejounte all refused to shoot, desperately looking for LaMarcus at the end of shot clocks. There is an unnecessary deference taking place inside the offense right now and it’s driving me nuts. These guys are on the court because they can play basketball – well, the jury is still out on Kyle – but without them having the guts to let it fly, the whole team suffers.

Kawhi will help immensely and his return is looming. Parker will also help control the flow of the game and settle things down in the chaos. But until that happens, we will experience some growing pains along the way. For now, we need to take the bad with the good and expect there to be a few headaches.

A few more takeaways from this game…

LaMarcus Aldridge is still really good at basketball.

He received way too much criticism last year, partly for not being Tim Duncan, and partly for not being Portland LaMarcus playing in a spread offense with a penetrating and ball dominant point guard. It was all unfair. He’s been great for the first six games of this season. But he was rubbish last night. In 26 minutes, he shot 39 percent, had a +/- of -19 and shot 1 of 5 from the line. He finished with 11 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, a steal, a block, a turnover and a foul. Sounds like Aron Baynes.

LaMarcus showed some real maturity this offseason by letting the trade rumors fly and then eating some humble pie and having a heart to heart with Pop. This is good and necessary, but tonight was his first game since the opener where I didn’t like his effort. Well, not at least until he started getting the ball at the elbow versus the low block. He’s much more effective there.

Dejounte Murray is not Kyrie Irving.

This was a little underlying drama to the game. Remember when I was telling you guys all summer on my Twitter that Kyrie Irving was not being traded to the Spurs and you guys wouldn’t listen? I do. Good times. But that trade was only even on the table for the Cavs because of Murray. He was the young piece that had the Cavs interest. And Dejounte shares the same agent with one of the Cavs players. I forget which one.

This game was essentially a showcase of who made the right choice. And clearly, Kyrie was ready for this. He ate Dejounte’s lunch and popped the bag. Murray had five turnovers and two of them were pretty much Kyrie just taking the ball away from him.

Look, Murray is going to be a good player in this league. Maybe an All Star one day. But that day is a long way away. He’s still a 21-year-old, second year player, subbing for a Hall of Famer. It remains to be seen how the rotation will shape up when Parker returns, but for now, Sweet Honey Dejounte will match up against the cream of the crop for point guards every night. We should all accept that it might not always be that pretty.

Rudy Gay is kind of our best player.

I’ve been on the “Rudy Gay for Sixth Man of the Year” bandwagon for a while now. He was the only player to play more than 20 minutes AND score double figures and not finish with a negative +/-. And he’s a scorer. Personally, Sean Elliott can do better than “Natural Born Scorer” as a nickname for him, but it at least remains true. He’s been the only help for LaMarcus in these first seven games and it’s hard to find a real weakness in his game.

Nothing looks rushed. He has incredible size (I didn’t realize how long and bulky he was), an above average handle and is the only player on this roster not named after a Hawaiian Island who can create his own shot, which coincidentally is also a good shot. I love Rudy. I’d buy his jersey.

I don’t know what Brandon Paul is yet.

I have this joke I never got to make when we signed Brandon Paul. I wanted to make a meme of Pop yelling at RC Buford saying, “No! I said CHRIS Paul.” Guys, it would have been hilarious. Point is, I knew nothing about BP3. But uh, hello? He’s nice, y’all.

Defensively, he’s been pretty solid filling in for Kawhi and spelling Green at times. But he has easily been our best shooter as well, shooting a blistering 64 percent from behind the arc.

The next closest person? Former NBA Finals Three Point Leader Danny Green at 44 percent. Paul can Ball and I’d fully expect him to get a lot of Jonathon Simmons’ old minutes, just like Pop said he has earned.

The Spurs get a day off and then get six games at home. They start off with the Warriors, then get the Hornets, Suns, Clippers, Bucks and Chicago. I’d like to see them get four of those six, but it won’t happen unless someone starts shooting the ball.

Hopefully that someone wears number 2.

Photo credit: Michael Dwyer/ AP

Round The Horn

Magic Hand Spurs First Loss of Season in Rout

Season 51, Game 05
San Antonio 87, Orlando 114

I suppose it’s good to get the first butt-kickin’ out of the way early.

When you shoot under 34% as a team, you’re likely to lose. When your opponent shoots a blistering 57% from the floor (and that went down in garbage time; it had been well over 60% for most of the game), you’re likely to lose. When both happen, you’re likely to lose by almost 30.

The Magic started the game with force and energy, and it completely took the Spurs out of the game. Yes, sometimes the shots don’t fall for you and they do fall for the other guys, but the effort begat the shooting performance, not the other way around. The Magic swarmed on defense and pushed on offense, and the Spurs just didn’t have the counter to keep up with them.

Ball game.

That marks two straight subpar defensive performances, both troubling in different ways. While the Heat were able to break the defense apart in the half court, the Magic caught the Spurs’ defense napping by pushing in transition. To be a great defense, you need to be solid in both. You can guess what happens to your defense when you’re poor in both.

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Spurs Remain Unbeaten, Hand Toronto First Loss

(Photo Credit: Eric Gay, The Associated Press)

Season 51, Game 03
San Antonio 101, Toronto 97

Fresh off his double-digit rebound game in Chicago, the Spurs’ Dejounte Murray led San Antonio with 14 boards and added 16 points in a 101-97 victory over the Toronto Raptors to improve to 3-0 on Monday night. With the veteran starter Tony Parker sidelined by a leg injury, Murray has grabbed the starting job by the horns and doesn’t seem keen on letting it go.

He’s yet to crack 30 minutes in a game this season, but his PER 36 numbers have really impressed me already, particularly the rebounding. As a point guard he’s averaging 13.1 rebounds, 3.6 offensive rebounds, and 18 points. According to Basketball Reference, Murray has grabbed 10% of all available offensive rebounds while on the court – as a point guard. That seven-foot wing span is incredible. One nitpick: He hasn’t gotten to the line a ton, and Murray is only connecting on 75% of free throws when he does get to the line.

That said, Sweet Honey Dejounte is exactly what San Antonio needed to power through the opening stretch with true superstar Kawhi Leonard and Parker recovering from injury.

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Go Spurs Going Forward

The 2016-17 season was the first in decades that the Spurs had to play without Tim Duncan. The Silver and Black attack exceeded all expectations by putting together perhaps the best rebuilding season by any team in history.

The 2017-18 season will be one of continued rebuilding, laying a foundation for now and the future, one as solid as we spoiled fans of San Antonio can hope for.

The post season had our franchise attached to big names and rumors of this generation’s best point guard wanting to join our squad. Chris Paul was serious about wanting to come to San Antonio, despite the realities of his contract needs and the inability of the Spurs to bring him with the team’s cap restrictions.

What’s important is that he, Derrick Rose, Dwayne Wade, and many others have now been actively and publicly linked to playing in San Antonio. Longtime fans know that San Antonio was not a destination for elite free agent NBA stars in the past. That’s changed. The significance of this cannot be overlooked.

We have many, many, many reasons to be optimistic about this year and beyond. And I believe this may be the deepest roster San Antonio has ever fielded.

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Take It Back

2017 Western Conference Semifinals
San Antonio 103, Houston 92
Spurs lead series 2-1

Faced with a tough decision, Pop chose the most conventional and also highest risk option.

It seemed almost impossible that Pop would start Murray in a 2nd round playoff game. The regular season is one thing; but Pop is loathe to trust rookies in the playoffs, and Murray’s growth had been retarded by a nagging injury that kept him out the last month of the season.

To be fair, Murray was shaky. Being thrown into your first playoff start on the road is one thing; having it also be against Patrick Beverley is another. He is to PGs what Tony Allen is to wings. He is relentless and will prey on the slightest hint of weakness. The first few possessions were bad. And yet, Murray remained poised and collected, and finished his 14 minutes a team high +14. Basically, he didn’t lose the game, and that was enough.

Elsewhere, LaMarcus finally showed up to the series, playing tough late and really giving the team the push in the 4th quarter that got them the margin that would eventually lead to victory. It was an ugly game all-around, and LaMarcus embodied the team’s “pounding the rock” mantra; in the 4th quarter, that rock finally broke.

The Spurs turned it over 21 times, leading to 25 Rockets points. The Rockets shot 36% from the field. Kawhi was decidedly average (by his standards); Harden scored 47% of the Rockets total points, yet seemed to drift in and out of the game. It was the type of playoff game we’ve become accustomed to seeing over the years, the type of grind-it-out affair that leaves the losing team broken down and demoralized. The type of game that favors the Spurs in this series.

We’ve now seen three very distinct games in this series. A blowout; an offensive battle that is decided by one team’s late run; and a grind-it-out defensive battle decided by one team making fewer mistakes in the 4th quarter. The first two types  likely favor the Rockets, while the third favors the Spurs.

But the Spurs stole that second game, out-offensiing the second best offense in the league. They now sit in prime position to regain control of the series.

The question is: which type of game do we think is most emblematic of this series? What will see more of in Games 4 and 5? The Spurs defense seems to have figured out a working solution to the Rockets offense; but the Rockets offense also seems poised to have a big game at some point soon.

The deeper series run, the more likely they are to become back-and-forth grind-it-out in the mud types of series. Advantage Spurs. The Spurs also seem to have better poise, better execution, and better trust in their system. Advantage Spurs. But the Rockets might have an offensive gear that the Spurs can’t match, and a wild-card (3-point shooting) that the Spurs won’t match. Advantage Rockets.

After three games, I feel like we’re no closer to understanding this series than before Game 1. With the loss of Parker, it becomes even more confusing. If this game was a neutral game for Murray, what is more likely moving forward: a positive game or a negative game?

We’ve seen one great Kawhi performance, one good but not great performance, and one underwhelming performance. Which is more likely in the next two games?

Harden has been up and down the whole series, even vacillating within games. He looks a bit banged up (and is possibly sick). Which Harden seems most likely to appear?

Can Aldridge repeat Game 3’s performance?

Can Gasol continue to fortify the interior defense?

Will the Rockets shooters regain their shooting touch? Game 1 excepted, they actually haven’t been shooting well this post-season, despite their easy series win in Round 1.

Will the Spurs bench outplay the Rockets bench in Houston again?

144 minutes of data, and there are still more questions than answers.

Game 4 will be huge. A Spurs win would put a vice-grip on this series. Much like in Game 2 with the Rockets, the natural tendency will be for the Rockets to play desperate and for the Spurs to ease up a bit. The Rockets are favorites. I hope like hell the Spurs get greedy and steal another one on the road.

Game 4 is Sunday night.

Go Spurs Go.

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