Three takeaways from the San Antonio Spurs’ nail-biter against the Philadelphia 76ers

LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLORIDA - AUGUST 03: Rudy Gay #22 of the San Antonio Spurs defends Josh Richardson #0 of the Philadelphia 76ers during the second quarter at Visa Athletic Center at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on August 03, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLORIDA - AUGUST 03: Rudy Gay #22 of the San Antonio Spurs defends Josh Richardson #0 of the Philadelphia 76ers during the second quarter at Visa Athletic Center at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on August 03, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLORIDA – AUGUST 03: Jakob Poeltl #25 of the San Antonio Spurs misses against Tobias Harris #12 and Matisse Thybulle #22 of the Philadelphia 76ers at Visa Athletic Center. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLORIDA – AUGUST 03: Jakob Poeltl #25 of the San Antonio Spurs misses against Tobias Harris #12 and Matisse Thybulle #22 of the Philadelphia 76ers at Visa Athletic Center. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Though the San Antonio Spurs came up short in their third game inside the bubble, it was a great testament to the team’s willpower and upside.

For a brief moment, it seemed like the San Antonio Spurs had this upset in the bag. With mere seconds left on the clock, the team had a two-point lead that was torn from them by a 3-pointer by Sixers point guard Shake Milton. San Antonio fell 132-130 despite clawing back in an all-around effort led by guess who? Starting power forward (?!?!) DeMar DeRozan.

The veteran win dropped 30 points in the victory including some clutch shots down the wire to extend the Spurs’ lead. It was one of the best defensive performances he’s put up in a Spurs jersey, sticking with a rotating cast of talented forwards and wings that the Sixers cycle through on a nightly basis. He was the best player on the court tonight and has been for the last three games.

San Antonio continued to play a modern, team-based game with assists on 21 of their 46 made field goals that included 12 3-pointers at 46.2 percent. Their offensive efficiency was remarkable for a group without a ton of chemistry playing in these lineups. That’s part of the Spurs’ mentality every time on the court that resulted in a next-man-up approach to the game.

Tonight’s next man up was rookie Keldon Johnson, who just keeps getting better the more he plays. The rook had a career-high 15 points on six shots along with three boards and an assist. San Antonio has taken on a lot of projects in recent seasons, drafting players for who they could be as opposed to who they are. That’s not Johnson’s case as the 20-year-old entered the league with a grown man’s game and the physical profile to match.

Johnson was one of five Spurs in double figures and while they couldn’t quite get it done tonight, it was still an offensive performance to be proud of. Here’s why.

Next: 1. Veterans truly stepped up

LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLORIDA – AUGUST 03: Rudy Gay #22 of the San Antonio Spurs is defended by Al Horford #42 of the Philadelphia 76ers during the first quarter at Visa Athletic Center. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLORIDA – AUGUST 03: Rudy Gay #22 of the San Antonio Spurs is defended by Al Horford #42 of the Philadelphia 76ers during the first quarter at Visa Athletic Center. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

1. The San Antonio Spurs’ vets, DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay are playing like the best versions of themselves.

Ever since the action began inside the NBA’s Orlando bubble, the best versions of these two Spurs veterans have emerged. While DeMar DeRozan is obviously the most talented player of the group, he’s taking a different approach to his game at this point, prioritizing a team-game over his iso-heavy scoring style and tendency to take ill-advised shots.

Instead, DeRozan is working within the flow of the game to keep his team in check and incorporate the young players around him. Up to this point, the result has been two wins and a close battle with the Sixers tonight. His aforementioned defensive intensity was a treat to watch in this one with a steal and two blocks including a clutch rejection against Joel Embiid in the fourth quarter.

DeRozan has been playing like an ideal version of himself, proving that if he opts-in, the Spurs can still take steps to prioritize their youth movement.

Pure. ?@DeMar_DeRozan | #GoSpursGo pic.twitter.com/TUUQErqntD

— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) August 4, 2020

He’s not the only one getting back to his winning ways. Forward Rudy Gay had a rough season up to this point, shooting bricks from deep and failing to hit his signature pull-up jumpers from the mid-range as Spurs fans have become accustomed to. Against the Sixers and in previous games in the NBA restart, we’ve seen the best of Rudy as a shot creator and influential second-unit leader both on and off the ball.

When he’s engaged, Rudy can nail shots from anywhere on the court and levels a bench squad that’s been balanced out with young players as of late. Tonight, he managed to tack on 24 points on 9-of-15 shooting with four boards and two triples. He was a walking bucket, taking advantage of his matchups and using his underrated ball-handling ability to get past defenders or create space between them and himself.

If these guys can keep it up and remain engaged, the Spurs might actually have a shot at the playoffs.

Next: 2. Making up for a lack of depth

LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLORIDA – AUGUST 02: San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, right, speaks with Drew Eubanks during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Memphis Grizzlies at Visa Athletic Center. (Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images)
LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLORIDA – AUGUST 02: San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, right, speaks with Drew Eubanks during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Memphis Grizzlies at Visa Athletic Center. (Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images)

2. The ‘Bubble San Antonio Spurs’ continue to play above their size.

Don’t ask me how, but the San Antonio Spurs managed to outrebound the Sixers 44-35 in this one. Whether it be the effort of their guards or the unlikely role that two-way center Drew Eubanks has taken with the second-unit, San Antonio played harder than anyone may have expected. The result was a +9 advantage on the glass against one of the league’s better rebounding teams.

Rebounding is a team effort and head coach Gregg Popovich clearly compelled the squad to focus on that aspect of their game plan. Six Spurs came away with at least four rebounds and all but one player had at least two. They couldn’t quite match the oversized Sixers’ interior scoring, getting outscored by 10 points in the paint, but they did make up for it with their hustle stats and strategic double teams on Embiid throughout the night.

Lately, its become easy to forget that the Spurs are without their leading big man in the bubble. It doesn’t help that the team’s second-leading rebounder, Trey Lyles, is also out for the year. However, the perseverance and dedication displayed by this version of the team more than make up for the massive losses they’re battling through.

While they couldn’t come away with the win in this one, they need to repeat this as they go up against the jumbo Denver Nuggets on Wednesday.

Next: 3. For the time being, Derrick should be the lead guard

LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLORIDA – AUGUST 03: Josh Richardson #0 of the Philadelphia 76ers is defended by Derrick White #4 of the San Antonio Spurs during the fourth quarter at Visa Athletic Center. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLORIDA – AUGUST 03: Josh Richardson #0 of the Philadelphia 76ers is defended by Derrick White #4 of the San Antonio Spurs during the fourth quarter at Visa Athletic Center. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

3. At the end of games, the San Antonio Spurs should put the ball in Derrick White’s hands instead of Dejounte Murray’s.

No one is going to catch more criticism than starting point guard Dejounte Murray after tonight’s antics. Coming off of one of his best games of the season, Murray shot 4-of-14 from the floor, had the ball come off his finger with a second left in the contest and most importantly, he let Milton get wide-open for that three to give the Sixers a lead at the end of the game.

Murray isn’t a bad player, nor should he be crucified by Spurs fans for making a poor decision. Let us remember that he’s a 23-year-old still getting his feet wet after a career-altering ACL tear suffered early last season. He still has a ways to go before fulfilling his potential and this is a teachable moment.

https://twitter.com/spurs/status/1290471254886100992

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However, the San Antonio Spurs must course-correct. The next time that they’re in this situation, the ball should not go into Murray’s hands — it should be put in Derrick White‘s. Like usual, White led the team in plus/minus despite totaling three turnovers and fouls in the contest. He still managed to score 20 points on 6-of-11 shooting including some pivotal 3-pointers and free throws. He missed one of his attempts in the clutch that would’ve potentially forced overtime, but that’s not the point here.

Dejounte embodies the Spurs culture more so than Derrick does at this point, but that doesn’t mean that he’s better or more mature. There’s a three-year age gap between them that also plays a factor in it all, but simply put, White is a better decision-maker. His basketball IQ is better, he sees passes better and he’s proven himself to be more clutch.

Last game, it was Murray’s time to take over. In this one, it was Derrick’s. They seem to take over on opposite nights and at some point, we’ll see them each pop off alongside each other. Until that point comes, they need to ride the hot hand and defer to their teammates for the betterment of the team.

Next. Modern basketball has a stronghold over the Spurs

At the end of the day, this is a learning experience for the young Spurs and that’s all you could really hope for out of this experiment inside the bubble.

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