Spurs go small, young guards shine in preseason win over Rockets

Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

With Dejounte Murray and LaMarcus Aldridge leading the way, the Spurs got their first win of preseason.

It turns out that a matchup against the Rockets was just what the Spurs needed. San Antonio finally got a win in preseason by dominating a lackadaisical Houston team that didn’t seem all that interesting in competing against a hungrier, younger opponent.

Results don’t mean much in preseason, but the Spurs clearly wanted to get a win on their fourth try, and it showed. From the start it was evident that the game mattered more to them than to the Rockets, who sleepwalked for most of the first half. While San Antonio’s backcourt pressured the ball and attacked the rim, Houston’s superstar guards mostly floated around the perimeter early. Lonnie Walker IV, starting for a resting DeMar DeRozan, provided some physicality and energy at the wing while LaMarcus Aldridge steadied the half court offense whenever needed the Rockets tried to make a push. San Antonio came out focused for this one, and that was the difference.

Very quickly the Spurs took a double-digit lead in the first quarter and never looked back en route to a 128-114 win that seems closer than it was thanks to a stretch in the third quarter in which the Rockets actually tried and a garbage time run by Houston’s deep bench.

More important than the score was how well some players performed and how a small tweak impacted the rotation in a positive way. The Spurs went small, with Trey Lyles starting at power forward despite Jakob Poeltl being available. Lyles didn’t do anything impressive in his 20 minutes on the court, but his presence (and DeRozan’s absence) created more room for the guards to attack the paint and for Aldridge to own the block. As for Poeltl, he looked right at home in the second unit, screening and diving in a well-paced floor and providing a defensive presence for a bench that needs one. It’s unclear if Gregg Popovich went with that rotation just to match the Rockets’ but the team’s performance on Wednesday makes a good case for continuing to go with Aldridge at center going forward.

While going small helped, the biggest reason why the Spurs actually looked promising for the first time in preseason was the play of their young guards. It turns out that Derrick White didn’t forget how to play basketball, after all. White had 13 points, five rebounds and three assists and looked more engaged on defense. Dejounte Murray continued to show that the hype about his progress was warranted. Without DeRozan around Dejounte took on a bigger offensive role and delivered, logging 20 points on an array of drives, pull-ups and even a couple of three-pointers. Lonnie Walker IV, meanwhile, had a less impressive stat line but defended James Harden well while also providing help defense and showing his court vision by finishing the night with four assists. It was great too see all three do well on the same night.

It’s tempting to say the Spurs turned a corner in their preparation for the season with this win, but it might be premature to do so. After all, they faced a Rockets squad that looked uninterested and was so shorthanded at the center position that Ryan Anderson actually manned the spot for a few minutes. DeRozan and Rudy Gay were out for the Spurs, which means Pop will have to tweak the rotation yet again, too. The shooting was also unsustainable, so some regression will come.

We shouldn’t take too much away from any preseason games, but it’s still fine to get excited about how good the Spurs looked for stretches on Wednesday, especially after fretting over how bad they were for most of their past three showings. There’s still work to be done, but San Antonio seems to be heading in the right direction.

Game notes

  • LaMarcus Aldridge had 20 point on 13 shots despite not taking a single three-pointer or free throw and with just one shot at the rim. Look at this wacky shot chart:
LaMarcus Aldridge vs. Rockets in preseason
  • The Rockets’ broadcast actually listed White as a starter by mistake, but he came off the bench and didn’t share the court with Murray despite DeRozan’s absence. Pop clearly wants them to run their own units. It’s a thing.
  • Walker was dynamic on offense despite not shooting well and great on Harden (who still dropped 40 because he’s the best scorer in the league), but I’m not sure he gained a lot of ground on Marco Belinelli for the backup small forward spot. Marco had 15 points and made three of his six outside shots. As long as he’s making threes, he will likely hold on to the role.
  • The two free agent additions were mostly quiet in this one. It’s probably not an issue for DeMarre Carroll, who likely has a guaranteed spot in the rotation, but it feels like a missed opportunity for Lyles. He moved the ball and didn’t make mistakes, but was not assertive at all. It will be interesting to see if he starts or is even in the rotation when Rudy Gay, who was out on Wednesday, returns.
  • The rookies and Chimezie Metu got some run in garbage time. Is it bad that Metu still looks either lost or overeager in his second year? I think it’s bad. Hopefully he’ll start showing some progress soon.
  • Russell Westbrook shot 5-for-13 from the floor, had twice as many turnovers as assists and almost fouled out in under 30 minutes. It’s going to be fascinating to see if he can have a bounceback season and adjust to playing with Harden. It’s not looking good so far.

Next game: Vs. Grizzlies on Friday

Ja Morant vs. Dejounte Murray! A sneak peak at Jaren Jackson Jr. before his breakout season! A potential Kyle Anderson revenge game! Grayson Allen might instigate a preseason fight! It could actually be a fun game, against all odds.

Spurs go small, young guards shine in preseason win over Rockets
Spurs go small, young guards shine in preseason win over Rockets

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