In a back and forth affair, the San Antonio Spurs escaped their season opener with a 120-111 victory over the New York Knicks. With the crowd faithfully booing Marcus Morris and the palpable excitement regarding the return of Dejounte Murray, the Spurs just barely escaped what would have been a demoralizing loss.
Early on, it looked like it’d be a cake walk for the good guys. The Spurs sprinted out to a 14-4 lead. That advantage grew to 36-20 a few minutes into the second quarter.
But due largely to a barrage of turnovers that led to easy buckets at the other end and an offensive attack that would periodically get stuck in the mud, San Antonio almost fumbled this one away.
The Spurs were up 59-51 at halftime but three minutes into the third, the Knicks had taken the lead. New York would continue to hang around for the next quarter. With 9:48 remaining, the Knicks scored to take a 95-89 lead. Thankfully, that’s when the Spurs got back on track. Over the next five minutes, the Spurs went on a 20-2 run to capture control of the game.
The Spurs looked like a team playing their first game of the season — and not just because of their 21 turnovers. The cohesion wasn’t there on either end and there was a lot of second-guessing going on. But, to their credit, San Antonio snatched away the steering wheel just in time and started off the 2019-20 season on the right path.
Spurs vs. Knicks – Final Grades
In what can only be described as a rusty performance, LaMarcus Aldridge personified the Spurs on this night. One second, a pass would be bouncing off his fingers or he’d dribble right into a double-team while missing wide open teammates. The next second, he’d use his skill and a healthy amount of hard work to get the job done and show why the Spurs decided to fully guarantee his contract. Aldridge could have been better on the defensive glass and could have made crisper decision on offense. But, with an abundance of persistence, he scratched and clawed his way to a good enough season debut.
Through three quarters, DeMar DeRozan was a disaster. In fact, he was the best player on the court for the Knicks. He was loose with the ball, bogged down the offense and just looked to be a step behind everyone else. Defensively, he was active in the first quarter but was really bad the next two periods. Thankfully, DeRozan came alive in the fourth. In the deciding stanza, he turned it around and was really good. He checked in with a little bit more than eight minutes on the clock and proceeded to score 10 points on 3-for-5 shooting from the floor and 4-for-5 shooting at the line, while also handing out three assists, going without a turnover and playing better D. DeRozan sparked the fourth quarter run and helped erase the memories of his dismal first three quarters of the season. The whole still wasn’t pretty but at least the end was pleasant.
Dejounte Murray played like a man who has been waiting for this moment for more than a year. He was electric on both ends. His defense was very strong and was highlighted by three impressive steals. Murray also dominated on the boards and that translated to the Spurs grabbing all but one available defensive rebound when he was in the game. Offensively, his speed, length, strength and coordination when going to the basket was a revelation. Murray had three and-1s attacking the rim and the Knicks looked powerless to stop him when he put his head down. He also added a handful of slick passes and a key three-pointer in the fourth quarter. Murray wasn’t perfect in his return (he played a large role in the Spurs being as sloppy as they were and he was sometimes slow at getting the team into their sets) but he was really good and brought a lot of excitement and energy. That $64 million extension already looks like a great deal for the Spurs.
Since the start of preseason, Bryn Forbes has played like he’s the most confident man on the planet. He’s swinging around his big long-range jumper like the weapon it is; whenever he gets a glimpse of the rim, he lets it loose. Last season, he had to worry about involving his teammates after starting the season at point guard. This season, it looks like he has been told his mission is to score the rock — and he’s obliging. Defensively, I thought he held up relatively well. Forbes also helped out on the boards and was the only perimeter player who finished without at turnover.
Well, wow, okay, that was unexpected. Trey Lyles not only started the season opener, he was in the closing lineup in the fourth quarter. Pop is showing a ton of confidence in Lyles and the results are positive so far. He was strong on the glass, did decent enough work defensively and his understanding of the game plan on both ends is impressive for someone so new to the system. Lyles missed his one perimeter jumper but moved well without the ball and was usually in the right positions. In the fourth, he had the bucket that tied the game when it was looking like the Knicks could steal the win. Lyles had his lowlights, including a few blown defensive possessions and a few passive sequences on offense, but given the modest expectations, it’s difficult to complain about what we witnessed tonight.
The good: Derrick White’s defense was mostly rather stout. Even when he was switched off onto bigger players, he held his ground well and got stops. Out on the perimeter, he was active and harrassed New York throughout the night. Offensively, White was solid going to the rim. He took his time and created good looks for himself. The bad: White’s offensive showing was stained by his tentativeness. He passed up wide open shots, didn’t even look at the basket when he had open threes and just didn’t appear interested in taking the bull by the horns. If White would have pushed the issue against the Knicks bench, the game could have been blown open. The bottom line: Given how bad White was in preseason, this was a step in the right direction. He needs to adopt more of a killer mindset but he did enough right things to be proud of his night at the office.
It was another productive outing in a Spurs uniform for Rudy Gay. He stuffed the statsheet across the columns and played a tenacious brand of basketball. Gay also helped out with good, quick reads passing-wise. On the other side of the coin, Gay — like a lot of his teammates — was too loose with the ball. In the preseason, he looked noticeably less athletic than last year. Unfortunately, that remained the case in the regular season opener. I guess this less athletic Gay might be the new normal we have to get used to. But, then again, as long as he’s this productive, it doesn’t matter much that he may have lost a step or two.
Marco Belinelli surprisingly only shot the ball twice in his 18 minutes. Though, to be fair, he wasn’t getting many touches. The ball movement was sticky tonight for San Antonio, which led to Belinelli standing around and watching a lot on offense. Defensively, he was bad. There were a series of plays in the second half where New York’s strategy was simply to find the man Belinelli was defending and attack.
Freed from the shackles of the responsibilities that come with playing point guard, Patty Mills was letting shots go early and often. Putting up 11 shots in 16 minutes isn’t easy. Unfortunately, Mills wasn’t actually connecting on many of his looks. I thought his aggressiveness was okay given his new role in the offense — although it could help if he sets his feet before he decides to launch. Defensively, he wasn’t good individually but his help-defense was timely and he was physical.
It was a workmanlike first game of the year for Jakob Poeltl. He was strong defensively, particularly in transition. On offense, he scored on a couple of shots in the lane that were more difficult than he typically attempts. Poeltl’s overall energy was also a plus. On the other end of the spectrum, the Austrian could have rebounded a bit better on both ends, he was infected with the same stone-hands condition that plagued many of his teammates and his cuts on offense were ill-timed, which resulted in him getting in the way more often than not.
Pop went with a relatively strict ten-man rotation that kept many of the players at a single position for most of the night. All in all, it worked well enough. For as good as Murray played, I thought Pop was right to limit his minutes. I would have liked more minutes for White and less for either Mills or Belinelli but, like he did in preseason, Pop had Murray and White playing solely at point guard. It was a little surprising that DeMarre Carroll didn’t play at all — and less surprising that Lonnie Walker IV didn’t play. Pop’s most notable decision of the night, though, was to fully trust Lyles as if he was Boris Diaw reincarnate. Putting Lyles in the starting and finishing lineups paid dividends, and it appears as if that has become a realistic option going forward.