Random Thoughts: Spurs @ Nuggets – Game #79

The Spurs traveled to Denver to take on the Nuggets and got clobbered, 113-85. Really, what we witnessed tonight wasn’t an unexpected result. At this point, no one could have honestly expected San Antonio to get a win on the second night of a back-to-back after they had to go all out to beat the lowly Hawks. On top of that, the Nuggets boast the second best home record in the NBA, while the Spurs are saddled with far and away the worst road record of any Western Conference playoff team.

The Spurs, 45-34, have three games left in the season: road games in Washington and Cleveland and season finale at home versus Dallas. As it stands, they’re the eighth seed in the West. To move up to the seventh seed and avoid another postseason defeat at the hands of the Warriors, San Antonio needs to win all three contests. That’s what it comes down to; beat three lottery teams or pay the price.

It’s possible that San Antonio could remain eighth even if they win out but I think chances are in their favor that either the Thunder lose one of their final four games (DET, @MIN, HOU, @MIL) or the Clippers lose two of their final three games (LAL, @GS, UTA). 

-Tonight’s game against the Nuggets basically ended 63 seconds in when Pop got ejected. Any hopes of a miracle win went out the window when he shuffled to the locker room. No offense to Ettore Messina but I have zero confidence in his ability to coach this current team to a victory, especially out on the road against a quality team. Pop has had to use a fluid rotation to coax wins out the roster and I don’t see Messina having that touch. 

-I’m also not a fan of Messina’s playcalling. His plays are just … odd. (I find it truly weird that the plays Messina calls are plays Pop never calls.) For example, when the Spurs need a basket, Pop will call a post-up for Aldridge or DeRozan, an isolation for DeRozan or Gay, or a pick-and-roll with White. When Messina calls a play, it’s almost always some sort of misdirection, usually for a shooter. To make matters even more strange, Messina likes adding convoluted aspects to his playcalls. For example, tonight he tried to deceive the Nuggets by passing the ball to Bertans and Forbes in the low block. Both times, Denver sniffed out the obvious forthcoming misdirection and smothered the shooters. Maybe such plays work in a lower level of basketball but it’s simply not going to work in the NBA. 

-As far as the players were concerned, it was difficult to get a read on the starters tonight. That said, DeMar DeRozan set a terrible tone when he didn’t attempt a shot and only had one assist in the first quarter. The Spurs aren’t going to win many road games if DeRozan comes out of the gates sleepwalking. LaMarcus Aldridge came out with more energy than DeRozan did but he wasn’t especially productive either. 

Bryn Forbes continued his confident play. Derrick White didn’t build upon his strong outing against the Hawks. Instead, his defense was sub par and he didn’t look interested in doing much on offense other than miss shots. Jakob Poeltl was back in the starting lineup and helped out with his offensive rebounding and his activity on defense … but he was inexplicably clumsy on both ends.

-Off the bench, Rudy Gay grew frustrated by missing open shot after open shot. Marco Belinelli couldn’t have played much worse. Patty Mills tried harder than he we’ve seen in recent games but he didn’t play well. Davis Bertans‘ three-point marksmanship is AWOL. After hitting just 34.7% of his three-pointers in March, he’s 0-for-6 in April.

-Tonight’s bright spot? The play of Lonnie Walker IV. Following a tepid outing against the Hawks, the rookie was much more aggressive against the Nuggets. What we saw was pretty exciting.

Whether it was slick ball-handling and elegant body control off the dribble:

Or his improved, compact stroke, both off the catch and off the dribble:

And then there was this play when Walker got fouled while showing off his athleticism:

-It’s been obvious since preseason that Walker has a high ceiling. If he can stay healthy, learn to harness his physical tools and continue putting in work to learn the mental part of the game, the kid has a chance be good. In a sea of disappointment tonight, it was fun to see a glimpse of his potential.

-Going forward, what’s the number one key to the Spurs getting back on track? After some reflection, I believe it’s White’s play. Yes, DeRozan and Aldridge have been uneven as of late and the Spurs need those two to rediscover their rhythm. Gay, too, needs to get rolling. But, as crazy as it sounds, how White plays matters most. If he can regain form, San Antonio should win out and then have a legit chance to move past the first round of the playoffs. White at his best gives the Spurs their one game-changing perimeter defender, their best playmaker, their best passer and someone who can make smart plays down the stretch of close games. If White plays like he has as of late outside of the contest versus Atlanta (the Rookie Wall version, if you will), it’ll be really difficult to even avoid the eighth seed and the postseason run would essentially be over before it even begins.

LJ Ellis