“You know, the only thing that matters is the ending. That’s the most important part of the story, the ending.”
– Mort Rainey, Secret Window
For the first time this season, the San Antonio Spurs have landed themselves in the loss column. I suppose it was bound happen. Not once in seventy-four years of NBA play has a team managed to go undefeated, and in a game that featured some of their sloppiest stretches of the season, the Silver and Black managed to keep it close, but were ultimately unable to put up a tying basket to send it to overtime.
It was a fitting end to a match-up in which neither team seemed capable of finding any kind of consistency, and I suppose I could end this article here, but with all due apologies to Stephen King, the end is not the only thing that matters.
In their own unique fashion, narrow losses are just as interesting as narrow wins. Dissatisfaction can sometimes leave you more to mine; can spur you to more closely examine lose ends than you might otherwise. A close win often leaves the viewer with a sense of relief, but a close loss can often provide an evidence wall’s worth of supposition.
Suppose, for instance, that the San Antonio Spurs hadn’t been outrebounded 56-47. Suppose they hadn’t nearly doubled New Orleans’ number of turnovers 15-7. Suppose LaMarcus Aldridge had managed to score more than four(!) points, or DeMar DeRozan had shot more than 25% from the floor.
Suppose Devin Vassell had made even one of his shots, or the team had collectively shot better than 30% from three. We could be looking back on any one of those things as the linchpin of another Spurs victory. Hell, taken together we could have played witness to one heck of a holiday rout!
The flashes were there, in case I’ve forgotten to make that clear.
There was Keldon Johnson alligator wrestling any player fool enough to drive in his direction. And there was Lonnie Walker levitating in his moments of breathtaking clarity. There was Rudy Gay, rising from early season mediocrity to try and carry Aldridge’s and DeRozan’s scoring load all on his own, keeping San Antonio in it every time the Pelicans tried to pull away.
Even with New Orleans doing their best to bully San Antonio with their size advantage, and DeJounte Murray struggling to find an open passing lane, the pace continued to be a youthful one, and the Silver and Black shot three-pointers with a regularity that is (for me at least) still taking some getting used to.
But that’s the thing about close contests, regardless of which side of the win column your team ends up on. The supposition is just as applicable for both teams, it’s just that the winner feels less need to examine the fragility of their victory; a truth just as applicable to personal and financial arenas as it is to the wide world of professional sports.
The truth is, it’s just as easy to imagine a scenario in which the Pelicans shot better than 20% from three, and 38% from the floor. Or in which longtime sharpshooter (and ofttimes Spurs Killer) J.J. Reddick canned even one of his six shots from long-distance. It’s almost easy to imagine a scenario in which New Orleans’ defense managed to retain most (or all) of their fifteen point second half lead with timely defensive rotations and savvy positioning.
The supposition is endless. And in the end, the only thing that seems to stand on it’s own is the final result. Maybe that’s why we all love competitive sports so much. Maybe it’s one of the only planes of human existence in which we find that kind of closure. Maybe Stephen King was right, and the end is the only thing that matters.
But I simply can’t agree about it being the most important part of the story.
- All things considered, it’s hard to take this result too seriously in the absence of Derrick White. Against a team with size like the Pelicans, much of the Spurs advantage will have to made at the guard positions, and it’s hard to know exactly what that advantage would have looked like without White. It’s worth considering that the Spurs ran up a twenty-two point lead the last time Derrick White took the court against New Orleans, before a thigh injury deprived us of his presence for most of the second half. But then, that was last season, so take it with a grain of salt.
- As has been noted, there had to be some anticipation of struggles for San Antonio coming into the historically troublesome Smoothie Center on a SEGABABA, and both Aldridge and DeRozan looked absolutely gassed for most of the contest. Aldridge looked particularly creaky, even in drop coverages, and being banged on by a procession of Pelican bigs almost certainly exacerbated his level of exhaustion. It was no surprise to find that he’d only played for twenty minutes in this one, as at 35 it’s becoming clear that he does not have the stamina that he once did.
- Some of the credit for that has to go to Steve Van Gundy, who understood exactly how well his team matched up against the Spurs in the front court, and seemingly did everything he could to maximize that advantage by keeping Steven Adams, Zion Williamson, and Brandon Ingram on the court at the same time whenever possible. Van Gundy is famous for his love of four-out offenses, and consequently has both the knowledge and the tools to derail them. He exploited San Antonio’s lack of big men at every opportunity, while finding a way to clog up the snappy ball-movement that San Antonio had exhibited over the first two games, which seemed to frustrate the Silver and Black’s youngsters enough to keep them from getting into any kind of rhythm.
- And that’s where Rudy Gay took over. The cagey vet has seen a wide variety of approaches and offensive droughts in his career, and he found some of his old form that made him a feared scorer in his prime. Whether bailing out the offense with some timely iso-work, playing within its confines, or wresting critical rebounds away from a swarm of Pelican big men, he spent most of his playing time stepping up, and he deserves to be lauded for it. He’s been an major x-factor since arriving in the Alamo City, and that’s a role he seems likely to keep as long as he has more games like this one in him.
- However, Lonnie Walker IV appears to be inching closer to that role with each passing game. As talented as he can be inconsistent, Walker appears to be finding his way as the game slows down for him. He still vacillates between majesty and mediocrity, especially when it comes to decision-making, but he’s starting to pull-up more than he defers, and so far that’s been a big boost for a Spurs team trying to find a way to make up for losses in the long-distance shooting department.
- Trey Lyles on the other hand remains a mystery. His role, his minutes, and his shot all remain shrouded in shadows, which was unfortunate in a game in which the Spurs really could have used his size. I’m not sure if he’s managed to somehow run afoul of an eternally meticulous Gregg Popovich, or if he’s suffering from a crisis of confidence, but he did not look good out there, even for just six minutes. He looked a bit lost to me, which is a wild thing to say about a player that I expected to benefit from more familiarity with San Antonio and their system. In any case, Lyles really needs to get it together, because he’s going to be needed against teams with New Orleabs’ kind of size. It seems crazy to say it, but the margin for error may be so thin this year that San Antonio’s season could depend on Lyles rediscovering his form from the end of last season.
- I simply cannot say enough about Patty Mills. His stat lines are rarely flashy, but if you watched any of the last three games you know exactly how important his presence has been in keeping the ship righted while Derrick White recovers. Regardless of the game he seems to always have a hand in a number of critical exchanges all the while serving as one of the critical cogs in keeping the offensive engine running. With last night’s game he became one of the eight longest tenured Spurs in team history, and I think at this point it’s hard to argue that the Bala from Down Under doesn’t deserve a spot in the rafters of his own.
Patty Mills is playing his 600th game as a Spur tonight – just the 10th player in SA history to reach 600.
Tim, Tony, Manu, Robinson, Gervin, Elliott, Avery, Bowen, Bonner, Mills.
— Jordan Howenstine (@AirlessJordan) December 28, 2020
Playing You Out – The Theme Song of the Evening:
Carry On Wayward Son by Kansas