3 opposing players who will most impact San Antonio Spurs playoff hopes
By Ethan Farina
The San Antonio Spurs playoff hopes will be impacted by these 3 stars
Yesterday we got the great news that the NBA is near finalizing a plan to return to play. Pending a league vote, 22 teams will be heading to Orlando to take part in a few games to wrap up the regular season and decide playoff positioning, and then transition into the playoffs. The San Antonio Spurs will be one of the 22 teams heading to Florida for a shot at the playoffs. This is where things get interesting.
All teams going down to Florida will play eight more ‘regular season’ games to decide their final standing in their respective conferences. When those eight games are up if the 8th seeded team has greater than a four-game lead on the 9th seed they’ll advance directly into the playoffs. If the distance between the 8th and 9th seed is less than 4 games the two teams will enter into a play-in series that will be single elimination for the 9th seed and double elimination for the 8th seed.
The regular-season games should continue as originally planned with just a few adjustments. The San Antonio Spurs will play the next 8 opponents on their schedule but jump over teams who will not be traveling to Orlando. So teams like the Chicago Bulls and Minnesota Timberwolves, who would have been in the group of the next eight opponents, will be passed over and replaced by the next opponent who is down in Orlando with the Spurs.
Here’s the good news: the San Antonio Spurs still have a chance of making the playoffs and keeping the streak alive. The bad news: it’s going to be damn tough to make that happen. They’re four games back of the 8th seed as it is and have a tough next eight opponents. It’s going to take everything this team has to get back to the post-season, they’ll have to treat every game like it’s their last.
With quite a few superstars standing in their way you can be sure the Spurs coaching staff will soon be getting to work game planning on how to best attack the task in front of them. Here are the three opposing players they’ll need to do the most planning for.
Next: The rookie
How Zion Williamson impacts the San Antonio Spurs playoff hopes
The San Antonio Spurs have only had to wrangle with Zion Williamson once this year but it was one of the most memorable games of the season. After being held out for much of the season, the New Orleans Pelicans let their rookie play for the first time in a January 22nd matchup against the Spurs.
He had an up and down 18 minutes but what the raw physicality and athleticism that he showed in that limited time was enough to put every team in the league on notice. He acted as a lob threat, grabbed rebounds over players significantly taller than him, ran the break well, hit his teammates with crisp passes, and knocked down four 3-pointers in 121-117 Spurs win.
He’s not going to go four for four from behind the arc again, in fact, he only made one more three all season, but everything else that we saw is what you can expect from him on a nightly basis. His impact on the Pelicans’ overall performance is massive. They go from getting outscored by 3.5 points per 100 possessions when he sits to whipping teams by 10.4 points per 100 possessions when he is on the floor.
Zion brings such an advantage to New Orleans because he opens up a variety of lineup possibilities for them that can create matchup nightmares all over the floor. He can function as a power forward with someone like Derrick Favors or Jaxson Hayes playing center, but he’s most effective playing as small ball, point center. Something like what you would get if you worked in a lab, mixed Giannis Antetokounmpo and Draymond Green together, and then replaced the legs with two Space X rockets.
That spells trouble for the Spurs. He’s too fast for LaMarcus Aldridge and Jakob Poeltl and too strong for Rudy Gay. Frankly, he’s too strong for Poeltl as well. In that lone game, we saw him body his way through Poeltl and others to corral rebounds and clean up easy second-chance points.
Zion isn’t the only player on the Pelicans that the Spurs will have to plan around, Brandon Ingram was an All-Star for a reason. But Zion is unique, he’s a nightmare for every team, but especially for the Spurs who lack any defender who can try to go one on one against him. It’s going to take some serious defensive wizardry from Gregg Popovich and the rest to try to find a way to slow him down.
Next: The other rookie
How Ja Morant impacts the San Antonio Spurs playoff hopes
Zion Williamson is a beast but he’s not the only rookie that the San Antonio Spurs will have to deal with. Zion might be a bit more exciting but Ja Morant is just a hair behind and deserves to be Rookie of the Year after he led the Memphis Grizzlies back to playoff contention.
Morant was a problem for the Spurs this year, he had some hiccups in the earlier matchups between the two teams but when they met in January he had settled in and was in complete command of his team. His 22 point 14 assist performance against the Spurs set a new career-high in assist for the rookie and was one of his most impressive games of the season.
The problem for the Spurs is that Morant is so slippery and so athletic that if Derrick White or Dejounte Murray isn’t matched up on him he’s going to take his time and find a way into the paint. Once he’s there he’s going to get his.
He shot 42 percent of his field-goal attempts within 3 feet of the rim this year and connected on 60 percent of them. He’s got a flair for the creative, frequently showing off mind-blowing contortionist finishes that wouldn’t be possible without his rare ability to elevate and float in the air like a piece of destructive dandelion fluff.
And that’s not even his preferred method of finishing, he’d much rather just dunk on you. Just ask Kevin Love, or Aron Baynes, or PJ Tucker, or any other member of the ever-expanding list of players Morant has made a highlight out of. If you give him a launch pad he will try to take off and pack one on your teams best shot blocker, the young point guard doesn’t back away from anyone.
Planning for Morant and the Grizzlies is doubly important for San Antonio. Memphis has a four-game lead on the Spurs and a three and a half-game lead on several other challengers. The bar for a play-in series is set at four games, any distance greater than that, and the 8th seed waltzes into the playoffs. As the current 8th seed, Memphis is going to have a target on their backs. Their lone game against the Spurs is going to be one of the most important regular-season games the Spurs will have.
Next: The Joker
How Nikola Jokic impacts the San Antonio Spurs playoff hopes
The two rookies we’ve covered are important, but the lights are going to be brighter in Orlando then they have been in the regular season. Those two will be on a bigger stage then they’ve had in their young careers, maybe they’ll be rattled, maybe they’ll slip up. It’s unlikely, but it’s possible. That’s not going to be a concern for Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets.
Jokic and the Nuggets ended the Spurs playoff hopes last year and they’ll have an opportunity to play the role of spoilers yet again. The remainder of the Spurs ‘regular’ season opens up against the Nuggets and then they play them again in game 6. Those two contests are going to largely determine the Spurs playoff chances.
Denver is the best team that San Antonio is going to have to face in these eight upcoming games, and their whole offense runs through Jokic. He’s one of the most unique players in the league and one that the Spurs have had plenty of experience trying to control.
In the lone matchup between the two teams, this season Jokic’s ability to impact the game was on full display. Even though San Antonio was able to hold him to just eight field-goal attempts he was still able to be a game-changing player, finishing with 19 points 13 assists and 8 rebounds. He got to the line 8 times and knocked down 7 of his attempts.
What makes Jokic and the Nuggets so difficult to plan for, even when you take away Jokic’s shots and ability to score the ball he’s such a talented passer and is surrounded by a cadre of shooters and slashers, that even if you play perfect man on man defense against him you also have to stay locked to every other cutter or he’s going to find them.
Lose Jamal Murray for a split second? Jokic has already whipped a behind the back pass you didn’t see coming right into his pocket. Gary Harris gets lose and slides into the corner? Jokic saw him moving out of the corner of his eye and has a pass arriving into his hands right as he’s setting up for a shot. They’re a dangerous team, entertaining as hell to watch, and it all goes through the big fella.
That first game is going to be critical. The Spurs are a resilient bunch, but if they get punched in the mouth right away by Denver, and other teams above them win decisively, it might not take a few more hits before they pack it in and use the final few games of their time in Orlando to experiment with some new things in a look ahead to next season.
The San Antonio Spurs have plenty to work on their end of the floor like improving on their poor performance from deep, but if they don’t game plan heavily for theses three stars their chances of making it to the postseason are slim.