San Antonio Spurs keep NBA playoff hopes alive against New Orleans Pelicans

San Antonio Spurs DeMar DeRozan (Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images)
San Antonio Spurs DeMar DeRozan (Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images) /

The San Antonio Spurs defeated the New Orleans Pelicans in a prime-time matchup that perfectly encapsulated their 2020 season. 

The San Antonio Spurs played their first nationally televised game of the NBA restart today. This prime-time Sunday afternoon victory against the New Orleans Pelicans brought playoff energy as it came with significant play-in tournament implications. Both teams are chasing the coveted Western Conference ninth seed, which will officially trigger the NBA’s new best-of-three play-in tournament. The Spurs rose to the occasion, keeping hope alive for their NBA record 23rd consecutive playoff appearance.

After building a 20 point lead, San Antonio survived a late second-half push from New Orleans as they essentially eliminated the Pelicans from playoff contention in a 122-113 win. San Antonio entered the day two games out of the Western Conference playoff picture and one loss behind Portland, who controls their own destiny in the four-team chase for the ninth seed.

The Spurs’ 22 consecutive playoff appearances were the story of the day, as a loss would virtually end their historic run. Neither team would be able to overcome a loss with just three games remaining in the 2020 season resumption. ABC led the national telecast with a feature on just how impressive and enduring the Spurs postseason streak is. Nine players on the court today weren’t even born the last time San Antonio missed the playoffs. 2020’s No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson wouldn’t even be born until a year after San Antonio’s first title.

Williamson struggled early against San Antonio’s small-ball lineup. Center Jakob Poeltl defended well, stepping out to pick up Zion on the perimeter while he was more than able to handle Wlliamsons’ weight down in the post. The Spurs current starters played a combined one minute before the season was postponed. However, they’ve played exceedingly well in the 60 minutes we’ve seen them on the court in the bubble.

Guard Derrick White led the Spurs to a white-hot start, scoring eight of the team’s opening twelve points. His shooting has really come into form during the NBA restart. You can see him balance his feet with his hands ready in his “shooters pocket” the moment he crosses mid-court. The Spurs offense is naturally fluid (on a good day) and White is constantly sliding and repositioning to his favorite spots while the teams’ slashers attack the hoop.

DeRozan is famous for bailing on a shot mid-air to find an open teammate. This has led to many “Ginobli-esque” assists down in the NBA Bubble. Pop has officially given White the “green light” and the 2019 Team USA participant is showing us the fruits of his labor in the gym.

San Antonio’s early offensive burst was able to mask poor transition defense as some suggestive foul calls allowed New Orleans to stay in the game. Starting point guard Dejounte Murray had some great defensive stops and some not-so-great offensive lapses. It’s clear he has the speed and length to affect both ends of the court. Learning how to control that “Westbrook-like” athleticism will undoubtedly lead to his next step. Still, the Spurs ended the first quarter leading in every statistical category.

Classic Spurs offense with a youthful athletic twist was on full display in the first half. The team was playing some of the best ball we’ve seen on both ends of the court. Sophomore Lonnie Walker IV dished out a career-high 5 assists before he even sunk his first basket. Commentator Jeff Van Gundy remarked that the Spurs were “moving the ball so well, even the shots they’re missing, they’re good possessions.”

San Antonio opened up a commanding lead over a New Orleans team that looked sluggish after team owner Gayle Benson sent some Louisiana home cooking to the bubble. Williamson struggled in his two early six-minute bursts, shooting 3-9 from the field. NBA All-Star and Most Improved Player finalist Brandon Ingram only attempted four shots. Guards Jrue Holiday and Lonzo Ball shot a combined 2-of-12 as the team totaled 11 turnovers.  Veteran J.J. Redick was able to keep New Orleans close, scoring 14 in the first half —12 of which came from the three-point line.

Unfortunately, White went down with an injury after knocking knees with Holiday late in the second quarter. While White was able to start the second half, he went down after a non-contact layup two minutes into the third quarter and called for team’s trainers. As White was helped off the court, the dynamic of the game changed. By the beginning of the fourth quarter, New Orleans had whittled the lead down to four.

Rudy Gay drives baseline and throws it down with two hands! ?@spurs 92@PelicansNBA 81#WholeNewGame on ABC

— NBA (@NBA) August 9, 2020

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Spurs fans had seen this play out time and time again before the 2020 season was postponed. The team shifted from setting the tone and pace of the game, to simply trying to survive Zion’s minutes restriction. They barely hung on, after Williamson was pulled in the middle of an 8-0 scoring run he rattled off by himself. In nearly five minutes, he was able to double the scoring total of his twelve first-half minutes. Williamson ended the quarter as New Orleans’ leading scorer as backcourt tandem Holiday & Ball only made two of their combined 17 attempts.

Thankfully, 27 points from DeRozan held the Pelicans at bay. DeRozan’s ability to draw contact added ten points from the free-throw line. White’s absence prompted DeRozan into his usual role of carrying the offensive load. Forward Rudy Gay added 19 on 45 percent shooting as well. The Drew League teammates truly have transitioned their chemistry from the Pro-Am court to the league.

The true relief came from the Spurs’ youth, as Austin Spurs Alums combined for 40 points! Head coach Gregg Popovich has said that the Spurs’ plan in Orlando was to focus on player development. In hindsight that might be Pop playing 4D chess while the rest of the league plays checkers. The Spurs ended the game tied with Portland for the ninth seed. Their record-setting 23rd consecutive appearance still a very real possibility. With the ability to make history, it seems as if relying on the future is indeed the only way the Spurs can keep their playoff hopes alive.

Next. Dejounte Murray needs to adjust for the Spurs

Upon the NBA restart, the league implemented a new “Play-in” style tournament should the 9th seed finish within four games of the 8th seed. The Grizzlies’ loss today all but ensured that as Memphis dropped their 38th game of the season to Toronto earlier in the afternoon.