Random Thoughts: Spurs @ Cavaliers – Game #81

After a second straight blowout victory, the Spurs have successfully climbed out of the eighth seed in the Western Conference. The Clippers loss to the Warriors moved San Antonio up to the seventh spot, which would currently lead to a first round series against the Nuggets. But there are still a ton of moving parts and a lot could change. More on that later.

The Spurs 112-90 win over the Cavaliers on Sunday afternoon was another impressive performance. Sure, Cleveland is a bad team but it’s same squad that nearly beat the Spurs in the AT&T Center a week and a half ago. This time, the good guys grabbed control in the second quarter and coasted to the W.

DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge were good. Aldridge had his best all-around game in a couple weeks. He was active on both sides of the court and continues to look extremely bouncy right now, which will hopefully continue into the playoffs. DeRozan’s playmaking was sharp, he physically attacked the rim and his defense was once again relatively good. (Speaking of which, DeRozan’s defense since the All-Star break has been much improved. I mean, he’s still not a stud defender but he’s not much of a liability anymore. That, in itself, is a noteworthy development.)

Bryn Forbes’ hot streak isn’t over yet. His three-point shot is money right now; whenever he’s open, he’s seemingly all net. Forbes is making strong moves to the rim and his passing off the dribble has emerged as a weapon. He has at least three assists in six straight games and most of those dimes are a result of him creating looks organically in the halfcourt. Add in conscientious defense and Forbes has been playing the best basketball of his life over the last nine games.

-In the first half, Derrick White was invisible. His defense was okay in the first two quarters but everything else was painfully mediocre. Thankfully, White emerged energized after the halftime break. After missing his first four shots from the field, he was stubbornly able to find a rhythm scoring-wise and then mixed in a few nice passes. Even more impressive than his offense in the second half was his defense. White was able to take over the game for possessions at a time on D by way of his quick feet, toughness when bodied, avoidance of cheap fouls and expert timing when challenging shots.

-Recently, I was stumped regarding why Jakob Poeltl suddenly looked so plodding on defense. This afternoon, the real Poeltl awoke from his defensive hibernation. He was great on the defensive glass, protected the rim well, and disrupted things by getting his hands in passing lanes and sprinting back in transition. Offensively, while the spacing — or lack thereof — hurt the flow, Poeltl did some good: hit the offensive glass, connected on a couple relatively difficult shots and made heady passes.

-With apologies to the original Jaren Jackson, Patty Mills played the role of The Eliminator against the Cavs. For a three-minute stretch spanning the end of the third and the beginning of the fourth, Mills hit four three-pointers to turn a 13-point cushion into a 25-point laugher. Besides those timely three-point bombs, Mills was trying hard to make plays. The results were mixed; we witnessed a few slick passes and a few unwise decisions. 

-It was good to see Davis Bertans feel his oats. The 14 points he scored in Cleveland are the most points he’s put in the books since he scored 16 in Toronto back on Feb. 22. It was also the first time in five games that the Latvian hit multiple three-pointers. For any type of playoff push to occur, the Spurs will need Bertans to play well, as he’s likely to be on the floor to close games. 

Rudy Gay looked fine when he was attempting to put the ball in the iron ring. However, he had a disastrous stretch in the third quarter where he could do absolutely nothing right. When the dust settled, he had turned the ball over five times in the quarter and had picked up a technical foul. 

-Coming off a hip injury that caused him to miss the Wizards affair, Belinelli sat out the first half against the Cavaliers before dusting off his silver and black duds for the second half. He … didn’t look good. He was stiff in his movement, wasn’t getting his normal amount of elevation on his jumper and his defense was even more glacial than usual. Let us hope that he can get back to 100% by the time the postseason tips off.

Lonnie Walker IV did well. With how this roster is composed, he usually ends up playing point guard during garbage minutes — and he doesn’t look too out of place doing so. His ball-handling is good enough and his court vision and passing are better than his reputation (and statistics) suggest. Walker’s athleticism going to the rim was the most exciting aspect of his play against the Cavs but he also made a few plays on the defensive end that point to him having a decently high ceiling on that end as well. His overall defensive IQ is still in its infancy but his tools (quick hands, quick feet, willingness to compete) are intriguing. 

-So, uh, Donatas Motiejunas didn’t exactly do himself any favors this afternoon. Pop hates bigmen who needlessly foul and this dude almost fouled out in six minutes of garbage time. His reaction times on defense were extremely slow, as was his running of the court. And, whoa, he went to the free throw line and his two attempts were some of the ugliest shots I’ve seen on the NBA level. For Motiejunas’ sake, let’s hope this was a case of him shaking off rust.

-Good win. The Spurs were faced with needing three consecutive wins to climb out of the eighth seed and now all they have left is a home game against the Mavericks to finish the mission. The Mavs usually play the Spurs tough so it’s not quite time to pop the seventh seed champagne. And, remember, this will also likely be Dirk Nowitzki’s final game, so Dallas will be even more motivated — as if pushing San Antonio back to the eighth seed won’t be enough motivation for the in-state rivals.

-With a win over the Mavs, the Spurs will play the Nuggets, Rockets or Blazers. Obviously, of those three teams, the Rockets are the team the Spurs would like to avoid. Who do I prefer between the Nuggets and Blazers? I don’t have a strong stance either way. The Blazers are dealing with injuries and got embarrassed last year in the playoffs, while the Nuggets are more talented but also largely inexperienced. Either team is much preferred compared to the Rockets … and, it goes without saying, the Warriors.

-If you’re drawing up the dream scenario, I’d only ask for two things: a win over the Mavs to stay out of the eighth seed and the Rockets dropping to the fourth seed. The Warriors and Rockets in the same side of the bracket? That would leave the door open for all four teams on the other side of the bracket to talk themselves into having a realistic possibility of making a Western Conference Finals appearance.

-The other thing to think about in the final days of the regular season is draft positioning. The Spurs will be drafting anywhere from 18th to 22nd depending on how it all shakes out. If the Celtics beat the Wizards to end their season, that range will shorten to 18th to 21st. To get that 18th pick and simultaneously avoid the eighth seed, the Spurs would need the Pacers to beat Hawks, the Clippers to beat the Jazz, the Thunder to win at least one of their final two games and then win a series of coin flips. 

-That first round pick from Toronto will either be 28 or 29. If the Raptors and Warriors win their final games, a coin flip will decide it. As it stands, both teams have 24 losses.

LJ Ellis