After months of anticipation, San Antonio Spurs basketball returned in a 113-92 loss against the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks inside the Orlando Bubble.
Say what you want about the final outcome, but this was an encouraging performance from the San Antonio Spurs in their first competitive game since mid-March. The players looked sharp, the coaching staff showed a newfound willingness to play younger players and the team adapted to life without their starting frontcourt with a funky new rotation. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to overcome the team with the NBA’s best winning percentage, the Milwaukee Bucks.
Despite a slow start in the first half, wing Lonnie Walker IV finished with a team-high 14 points on 50 percent shooting with two triples, three rebounds and two assists. Lonnie looked comfortable in that starting spot that he shouldn’t be used to along with Jakob Poeltl, who we’ll talk more about later.
From the perspective of a team trending in this direction, it was extremely encouraging to see Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Walker all in the top-three for the team in scoring. Dejounte had 13 while asserting himself as a playmaker and three-level scorer while White had a calm 11 points, a game-high five assists, a steal, a block and some offensive fouls drawn on the MVP.
Turnovers and foul trouble plagued the Spurs in this one as they committed 22 turnovers and gave up 34 free-throw attempts in the contest. Clearly, they’re a bit rusty considering the many poor decisions that we saw from players from the top down. Almost every Spur who played committed a turnover and a foul, though Walker’s ability to go without a foul was impressive.
Let’s get into the meat of it — these are the four major takeaways from the first game back.
Next: Takeaway No. 1
1. San Antonio Spurs implement an unprecedented starting lineup.
Crafting a starting five without two featured players left the San Antonio Spurs in a tricky predicament, but they made an ultimate decision that fans would appreciate. First and foremost, Derrick White was inserted to the starting five over Bryn Forbes. We’ve combed over this for weeks leading up to the Spurs’ return, but they finally bit the bullet.
Even more interesting than that, San Antonio was truly a small-ball lineup with Lonnie Walker IV starting at the three and DeRozan slotting down at the four. With four perimeter players and Jakob Poeltl in the middle, the starters had plenty of space to operate their offense. White and Walker shot triples freely as Murray and DeRozan commanded attention in the mid-range and on the perimeter. With Poeltl cleaning up on the boards and clearing space with his picks, San Antonio scored very efficiently.
Walker was relatively quiet in the first half but emerged with eight points coming out of the halftime break. This was just one small example of how this starting rotation can survive when one or two guys are having cold shooting nights. Every player is engaged and battling on the boards, creating second-chance buckets and generating open looks for each other.
We can’t confirm that the Spurs will embark on their eight-game slate with these guys starting, but the fact that they’re implementing this lineup so early means the coaching staff is confident in the young guards. Small-ball isn’t something the Spurs turn to often — mostly when they’re forced to by injury — but they seem to be adapting to the modern game.
Next: Takeaway No. 2
2. Jakob Poeltl should start for the San Antonio Spurs moving forward.
What a performance for starting center Jakob Poeltl for San Antonio. Get used to that because it’s the role that he deserves to have moving forward. For as much offense as LaMarcus Aldridge usually generates for this team, the value of Poeltl’s defense is potentially even more valuable for a Spurs team that’s still trying to find an identity with its young players.
Poeltl was the only player who had positive +/- through three quarters, which is partly since the Spurs’ backup bigs aren’t poised to play the championship-favorite. That doesn’t take away from the fact that Poeltl dominated the glass while remaining a nimble and versatile presence on both sides of the floor.
There’s no player in this lineup that I’d rather have set a screen for me than Poeltl. He does all of the little things on the court while remaining an underrated passer from the high-post who can find teammates off of cuts and keep his defender off-balance. Through 16 minutes, Poeltl finished with eight points, seven rebounds including four on the offensive glass and two blocks.
You don’t expect big men to be able to step out to defend shooters, but Poeltl never stops hustling. He traversed from the paint to the corner in mere seconds to block a 3-point attempt from Kyle Korver, proving furthermore that he has what it takes to start in the modern NBA.
Poeltl doesn’t necessarily have a modern skill-set, but he does provide an immense understanding of what it takes to adapt to today’s game with an old-school skill set.
Next: Takeaway No. 3
3. Becky Hammon has potential as the next HC of the San Antonio Spurs.
Just before the game tipped off, it was announced that Becky Hammon would ascend to the head coaching position with Gregg Popovich sliding down to an assistant role. Assistants are going to take the reins in these three scrimmage games, but the veteran leader of these assistants is naturally going to take the toughest assignment against the MVP and the best of the East.
Throughout the game, you could see Becky pulling players aside to give them advice on the sidelines. She was fearless with her rotations, taking people in and out of the lineup based on how they perform in their limited minutes. When Drew Eubanks looked out of place, she swapped him out for Chimezie Metu, who asserted himself more confidently against Milwaukee’s starters.
Get used to seeing Becky Hammon leading the way for San Antonio because she has to be the leading candidate to take over head coaching duties when Gregg Popovich retires. She’s been with the organization since 2014 and has risen within the organization with each passing year. Hammon didn’t hesitate to put rookie Luka Samanic in the game when she deemed it to be garbage time and immediately got in his ear when he made a mistake.
Leadership comes in many forms. While she may not be as aggressive with her teaching style, Hammon never resists the urge to make affirmative decisions for her ballclub. Though we’ll get a better some of Spurs assistants Will Hardy and Mitch Johnson in the other two scrimmages against the Indiana Pacers and Brooklyn Nets, Hammon is the leader of this pack.
Next: Takeaway No. 4
4. Somehow, the San Antonio Spurs made do without their starting big men.
If there’s a will, there’s a way and the Spurs showed a ton of heart without their starting frontcourt available in Orlando. Somehow, San Antonio managed to outrebound the league’s best rebounding team through the early portion of the regular season. Eight Spurs had at least three rebounds including five players with four or more.
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The team was aggressive as a whole, forcing Giannis Antetokounmpo into five first-half fouls that limited him to just 21 minutes in the contest. Outside of Poeltl, the Spurs had no answer for Giannis, who dominated the paint for a game-high 22 points. However, getting him off the floor earlier than usual was influential for San Antonio in keeping the game close in the first half.
Furthermore, the Spurs blocked six shots to Milwaukee’s five and finished at +4 in the rebounding column, snagging 39 in the contest. The fact that the Spurs could adapt to life without their bigs is a testament to the willpower of some of these guards. We all know that Dejounte, Keldon and DeMar are stellar rebounders for their position, but we saw some extra tenacity from Lonnie and Derrick as well. When filling out a small-ball lineup, you need your guards to bring that competitive fire in the form of rebounds.
Regardless of the loss, San Antonio has a lot to be proud of in this matchup. Filling in the roles of two players who accounted for almost 20 percent of the team’s minutes this season is no easy task, but through willpower and great coaching by Hammon, the Spurs gave trouble to the league’s best team.
Winning and losing ultimately don’t matter in these scrimmages. What matters is the experience and this game showed us that the Spurs mean business inside the Orlando bubble.