Game Thoughts: Spurs @ Jazz – Game #58

Without their top two perimeter defenders (and arguably their two most indispensable players) in Rudy Gay (ankle) and Derrick White (heel), the Spurs went to Utah to take on a red-hot team … and the result was predictable. When the dust settled, San Antonio dropped to 32-26 after a 125-105 loss. The 2019 Rodeo Road Trip has started off with four consecutive defeats. Not good — but also not too surprising considering the difficult competition and the injury woes.

-The Spurs were actually ahead after the first quarter, 24-23, due to the most gimmicky defensive gameplan I’ve seen on the NBA level: a triangle-and-two zone. What the coaches decided to do was man-up on Donovan Mitchell and Joe Ingles, have one defender guard the area around the top of the key and two defenders guard each side of the lane near the baseline. It actually was working at first due to the fact that the other three starters for the Jazz (Ricky Rubio, Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors) aren’t good shooters — and the fact that none of the players had seen such a gimmick zone since high school. As anyone could have guessed, the Jazz eventually figured it out and repeatedly got good look after good look.

-While it was a gimmick and wasn’t really a path to victory, I can’t blame Pop for going with the triangle-and-two. The Spurs are a bad defensive team when whole and go from bad to way worse without White and Gay. This gimmick at least forced everyone to be active and to communicate. Down the road, getting experience in the triangle-and-two could pay dividends if the coaches decide to unveil it for a few possessions here and there to catch a team off guard. 

DeMar DeRozan had a similar outing to the previous game against the Blazers. Once again, he scored well and his efficiency when calling his own number was solid. What was lacking was, once again, the playmaking that made him such an offensive dynamo earlier in the season. DeRozan wasn’t creating much for teammates. To compound his lack of playmaking were his four turnovers. Considering that the Spurs only had nine turnovers as a team, DeRozan’s sloppiness stood out like a sore thumb. Defensively, DeRozan was basically what we’ve come to expect: mostly bad with a few stretches of satisfactory play.

-As much as it is ugly watching DeRozan forego playmaking, it’s undeniably a good sign that he seemingly has his scoring back on track. Over his last three games, he’s averaging 27.3 points on 54.8% shooting. Add back in playmaking and more consistent effort on defense and DeRozan can get back to the player he was earlier in the campaign. 

LaMarcus Aldridge had a forgettable game against the Jazz. Part of his struggles was a lack of consistent, quality touches as DeRozan embarked on his one-man offensive exhibition. Another part was Gobert eating his lunch. As evident by the tears streaming down his face, Gobert wasn’t happy about being snubbed for the All-Star game and Aldridge was forced to deal with one of the league’s best defenders being extra motivated to shut him down. Aldridge wasn’t terrible — he had some good passes, ran the court hard and was attentive on defense — but he was handily outplayed by Gobert.

Jakob Poeltl started and his play next to Aldridge was a step in the right direction. He typically looks lost when on the court with Aldridge but he was better versus the Jazz. Yes, he was helped by the fact that Utah starts two legitimate bigmen. But Poeltl also helped himself by being aggressive, not overthinking things, picking up early on transition defense and focusing on defensive boards. 

-While it’s easier for the coaches just to start Pau Gasol due to his experience next to Aldridge, I much prefer Poeltl starting. If Poeltl is ever going to play a lot of minutes for this team in the foreseeable future, he has to learn how to play next to Aldridge. Gasol is a short-term band-aid but I’d rather Pop let Poeltl learn on the fly how to coexist with Aldridge. 

-Speaking of Gasol, he looked better in Salt Lake City than he has recently. He’s still really slow but wasn’t as painfully glacial as we’ve seen him previously. Gasol’s talent still shines when he doesn’t need to move quickly. Unfortunately for him, the game of basketball requires movement … moreso today than probably ever before.

Davis Bertans and Bryn Forbes had similar performances. Without anything resembling a point guard in the starting lineup, both had to create more for themselves and shoot more contested shots than they are comfortable doing. Considering those circumstances, they did okay on offense. Defensively, their efforts were commendable. They weren’t shutting anyone down but they were flying around the court trying to make plays. 

-I can’t fault the energy provided by Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli. They were active on offense, trying to probe and make plays, and didn’t slack off on defense. But the triangle-and-two gimmick was destined to fail with those two on the court, as neither one makes sense to be at the top of the triangle (Mills too small, Belinelli too slow) or good enough defensively to be one of the two man-to-man defenders. Add to the equation a Jazz bench that is much better at shooting than their starters and it’s no wonder the Spurs bench got ran off the court. 

Dante Cunningham is showing signs of life (either that or there is so much else wrong that he looks better in comparison). For the few few months of the season, he was a defensive liability. Now? He’s competent when grading his defensive performances to the defensive performances of his cohorts. Offensively, he’s better at staying out of the way. As it is right now, Cunningham is successfully playing the role of a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency tenth or eleventh man.

-As things have shaped out, Tuesday’s game against the Grizzlies is pretty much a must-win game. The Spurs really don’t want a five-game losing streak heading into the All-Star break. On top of that, the Spurs have already lost to the Grizzlies twice. A third loss to that cellar dwelling team would be disheartening, to say the least. Got to get it.

-While things look bleak right now in Spursville, big picture-wise they should be able to make it into the playoffs with a reasonable amount of health (especially for key cogs such as White and Gay). If the Spurs can finish off the Rodeo Road Trip by at least splitting the last four games (beating the Grizzlies and Knicks would accomplish that), the rest of the schedule plays out in a way that 47+ wins is entirely doable. And that should be good enough for a spot in the postseason.

LJ Ellis