The San Antonio Spurs (3-1) dropped their first game of the 2019-20 season in Los Angeles against Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers (4-2). While the game was relatively close throughout, the Spurs were never able to get over the hump and eventually lost by a final count of 103-97.
In the first half, neither team could gain much separation. San Antonio led by one point at the end of the first quarter and then L.A. led by two points at intermission. In the third quarter, the Spurs fell into a nine-point hole but then crawled their way out and trailed by five points heading into the fourth period.
To begin the fourth, Leonard spearheaded an 11-3 run to give the Clippers a 13-point advantage. San Antonio didn’t give up, though, and slowly chipped away at the deficit. A Derrick White floater got the Spurs within four points with 2:34 remaining but the good guys could get no closer.
Give Leonard credit for a very strong fourth quarter after a mediocre first three periods. In the fourth, he tallied 15 points on 7-for-9 shooting for the floor. Leonard finished with 38 points, 12 rebounds and four steals in 34 minutes.
Truthfully, I don’t think either team played that well. The Clippers hit only 5-of-26 three-pointers despite a plethora of open looks. The Spurs, on the other hand, struggled to sustain offensive rhythm and any momentum they had was fleeting. San Antonio also failed to tickle the nets on a regular basis, hitting only a third of their threes (7-for-21) and two-thirds of their free throws (18-for-27).
Given the Spurs’ struggles over the last couple years on the road, it was moderately heartening to see them compete against a good team away from the friendly confines of the AT&T Center. That said, we’ll see how they back up this effort on Friday night when they travel to San Francisco to take on the Golden State Warriors in their first back-to-back of the season.
San Antonio Spurs @ Los Angeles Clippers – Final Grades
To put it bluntly, this was simply a pathetic effort by LaMarcus Aldridge. Heading into the game, I pointed to the importance of Aldridge establishing himself in the paint against a team that hasn’t been good defending the post. Instead, Aldridge was Charmin soft and attempted only one shot the entire game within eight feet of the rim. He was satisfied firing away contested mid-range jumpers, even when the Clippers switched guards onto him. Defensively, he wasn’t notably good in the paint and was poor out on the perimeter. His transition defense was lacking and his rebounding was also feeble. The Spurs needed a big game from Aldridge to win. Unfortunately, he was passive and aloof, which basically gave San Antonio no chance of winning.
The good: I liked DeMar DeRozan’s effort and his competitiveness. He played hard on both ends and kept playing hard even when things went against him. Offensively, he was a beast when going to the rim. On shots within eight feet of the basket, he was 9-for-11 from the field as he drove to the rim with his hardhat strapped tightly. Defensively, I thought he did relatively well. He spent time on Leonard and efforted adequately. The bad: Last season, DeRozan wasn’t much of a ball-stopper as he concentrated on playmaking. This season, he’s had stretches where he stops the ball completely. Tonight we witnessed a lot of that. Too often, DeRozan would make a rudimentary dribble move and then settle for a difficult mid-range shot. That isn’t a winning strategy, especially in today’s NBA. And while I appreciate his fearless drives to the rim, he needs to better balance his aggression and his playmaking. Over his last two games, he has 12 turnovers and only two assists in 68 minutes. The bottom line: DeRozan is playing hard enough but he needs to get back to playing smarter to help himself and the team.
Defensively, Dejounte Murray was all over the court. He didn’t get many chances to defend Leonard but he created a lot of havoc, particularly in the fourth quarter. His rebounding was great again, too. Offensively, Murray didn’t do a good job of running the offense. He either pushed the pace without a plan or slowed it down so much that the Clippers were able to gobble up the sets. Murray also wasn’t consistently aggressive when calling his own number. He was getting a step on the defense but didn’t always make the Clippers pay. Murray is never going to be the purest of point guards but he has to look to crack opposing defenses and he wasn’t doing that much tonight.
I was mostly okay with how Bryn Forbes operated on the offensive end of the court. My only quibble was that he wasn’t finding the open man when the Clippers blitzed him with two defenders. Forbes should be aggressive but shooting jumpers over double-teams isn’t good basketball. My main issue with Forbes tonight was his defense. It was really, really poor. No matter who he was matched up against, he managed to make it a mismatch the other way. Leonard ate him alive, Lou Williams easily got away from him and Forbes generally just looked either too small or to defend anyone.
Trey Lyles started, played 13 minutes and didn’t really move the needle in either direction. Defensively, he got lost a couple times in transition but otherwise he was sturdy. The Clippers mostly stayed away from him, though, so it was difficult to gauge his effectiveness on that end. Offensively, Lyles had a slick floater in the lane and a couple good passes. However, he was hesitant to shoot, which didn’t do the spacing any favors. Lyles didn’t hurt the Spurs tonight but he also wasn’t a notable help, either.
I was mostly pleased with Rudy Gay. Defensively, he was better than usual. He guarded Leonard for a handful of possessions and was able to get a hand up and avoid getting completely blown by off the dribble. Gay was brawny on the boards, physical in the paint and ran the court hard both ways. On offense, he wasn’t efficient with his shooting but he passed the ball smartly and limited his mistakes. Gay looked a bit more mobile tonight, which is a good sign considering he has appeared rather creaky to begin the year.
In his 25 minutes of action, Derrick White stayed busy. On defense, he was stingy individually and was quick to help. He also played the passing lanes well and even defended the rim. Outside of Murray, White was by far the best defender on the team. Offensively, it’s difficult to frown upon his production. He pumped in 20 points with ease, whether it was dropping bombs from three-point range or attacking off the dribble. The two areas where White could have been better: He wasn’t flexing his playmaking muscle; he was a bit timid when the time came to make an aggressive pass to a cutting player. Also, White just didn’t shoot the ball enough. The Clippers were going under the screen on him and he needed to shoot those open jumpers. Not only are those high-quality shots that he can make, he needs to force defenses to guard him tighter so that there’s spacing for other players. If White is hesitant when teams go under the pick, the court gets congested for the rest of the bench unit. But, yeah, overall, White was a definite bright spot again tonight.
It’s difficult to assign a grade to Patty Mills for his effort against the Clippers. On defense, he didn’t do particularly great work but Los Angeles wasn’t able to exploit him much at all. Offensively, he mostly stayed off the ball — which is better for the team. He didn’t get many open looks in his 22 minutes on the court but he also helped by not forcing much. All in all, I’ll give credit to Mills for playing hard and not hurting the team.
Eh, Marco Belinelli played better defense than usual. He competed and looked mentally engaged on that end. Offensively, he was shooting blanks. I didn’t have an issue with his attempts but he’s going to have to eventually make shots to remain an NBA caliber player. On the season, Belinelli is now 6-for-20 from the field and 1-for-11 on three-pointers. Considering the Spurs have players waiting and willing to absorb Belinelli’s minutes, he better start showing signs of offensive life soon.
With Aldridge playing bad, it would have been nice if Jakob Poeltl stepped up. Didn’t happen. Instead, Poeltl played at a similar level. His rim defense was mostly laughable. He whiffed (or fouled) when going for blocks, was weak at the point of contact and struggled to contain simple dives to the basket by L.A.’s bigs. Montrezl Harrell, specifically, ate his lunch and had his Halloween candy for dessert. Poeltl wasn’t good on the boards and outside of one spectacular pass, was mostly underwhelming on offense.
Lonnie Walker IV
Pop had a short leash with Lonnie Walker IV. Walker had a half-hearted drive to the rim, hit the side of the backboard on a three-pointer and made two or three blatant errors on defense … and that didn’t help him in terms of staying on the court. On the other side of the coin, Walker had a couple possessions of impressive defense against Leonard. It looks like Pop is trying to coax Walker into being a really good defender — and I can get behind that plan. If that means Pop has to bench Walker after mistakes and give him stern talking-tos during the middle of games, I’m okay with that. Walker has the physical tools to be a defensive stopper so the coaches should hold him to a high standard.
Last year, Pop used smaller defenders against Leonard and sent soft doubles his way. This year, I think he tried to catch the Clippers by surprise by putting bigger defenders on Leonard and not sending help. The strategy worked pretty well … for three quarters. As far as the rotation is concerned, I didn’t have any huge complaints. White playing 30 minutes instead of 25 would have helped, then again there’s a back-to-back and Murray won’t be suiting up so not overplaying White tonight could pay dividends against the Warriors. And, again, I like that Pop is treating Walker like a defensive stopper in training. The version of Pop who doesn’t put up with defensive mistakes is the best version of Pop, even if it’d be fun to watch Walker play longer stretches.