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San Antonio Spurs: One thing to learn from each Christmas Day game

Dec 23, 2020; Memphis, Tennessee, USA; San Antonio Spurs guard DeMar DeRozan (10) and San Antonio Spurs guard Devin Vassell (24) celebrate during the second half against the Memphis Grizzlies at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 23, 2020; Memphis, Tennessee, USA; San Antonio Spurs guard DeMar DeRozan (10) and San Antonio Spurs guard Devin Vassell (24) celebrate during the second half against the Memphis Grizzlies at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports
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San Antonio Spurs
San Antonio Spurs

Dec 23, 2020; Memphis, Tennessee, USA; San Antonio Spurs guard DeMar DeRozan (10) and San Antonio Spurs guard Devin Vassell (24) celebrate during the second half against the Memphis Grizzlies at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

The San Antonio Spurs are probably tuning into these games like the rest of us

Playing on Christmas Day is one of the highest honors a team can receive in the NBA. It’s a right that’s typically reserved for the best teams, or those with a growing superstar. Sadly, we won’t be watching our San Antonio Spurs take the court this year.

You have to go back a few years to find the last Christmas Day matchup featuring the Spurs. They played the Chicago Bulls during the ’16-17 season but have since been shut out of the festivities. It kind of stings to know that the Knicks have had more time to shine on Christmas Day since then but that’s the nature of the game.

The players and coaches likely won’t complain about having the day off and a little more time to spend with family. But if they’re anything like your casual NBA fan you can bet that they’ll be tuning into the action on Christmas Day.

We’ve got a full slate of games to enjoy today. Pelicans – Heat, Bucks – Warriors, Nets – Celtics, Mavericks – Lakers, and, if you’re still going late into the night, Clippers – Nuggets. It’s an NBA fans perfect day and we’re here for every minute of it.

These games can be more than just entertainment, they can serve as good lessons for the Spurs players and coaches. Here is one thing they could learn from every Christmas Day matchup this year.

Next: Heat v. Pelicans

San Antonio Spurs
San Antonio Spurs

Oct 11, 2020; Lake Buena Vista, Florida, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis (3) shoots over Miami Heat forward Kelly Olynyk (9) while forward Bam Adebayo (13) and forward Jimmy Butler (22) look on during the fourth quarter in game six of the 2020 NBA Finals at AdventHealth Arena. The Los Angeles Lakers won 106-93 to win the series. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

San Antonio Spurs can see the importance of hounding defense

Pat Riley and his Miami Heat team pride themselves on being the best-conditioned, hardest-working, most professional, unselfish, toughest, nastiest team in the NBA. It’s a credo that goes straight to the heart of the legendary Heat culture and is something that the Spurs should seek to emulate.

That toughness and conditioning shine through in the way the Heat play defense. With Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo leading the charge, the Heat are capable of turning up the pressure and suffocating some of the most potent offenses in the league. It’s how they were able to upset the Bucks in the playoffs last year and it’s how they were able to hold their own with the Lakers in the Finals.

The San Antonio Spurs didn’t play the best defense in their season opener against the Memphis Grizzlies. They allowed Memphis to tally up 119 points and Ja Morant went for 44 on his own. But that doesn’t have to be the norm.

There were stretches of the game when we got to see Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell, and Dejounte Murray share the floor. In those minutes you could see the outlines of what the Spurs defense can be in a few years.

Those three are a nightmare to play against, they’re crazy long and you’d be a fool to try and dribble your way out of trouble around them. They’ve still got learning to do but they can be a fearsome defensive unit someday.

If the Spurs’ young core can mimic the Heat’s dedication to conditioning and defense they could be one of the more formidable defensive units in the league in no time.

Next: Bucks v. Warriors

San Antonio Spurs
San Antonio Spurs

Dec 23, 2020; Memphis, Tennessee, USA; San Antonio Spurs guard Keldon Johnson (3) goes to the basket against Memphis Grizzlies center Gorgui Dieng (14) during the first half at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

The Milwaukee Bucks show the San Antonio Spurs the importance of patience

If anyone tells you that they knew in 2013 that Giannis Antentokounpo would develop into the player he is today they’re full of it. Even the most ardent of Bucks fans had no idea that the spindly kid their team took with the 15th pick in the 2013 draft would grow into the world-destroying force he is today. But that’s what patience and hard work will get you.

So often in life, we want immediate gratification, we want the good right now and we don’t want to wait. But good things take time.

I want to preface this next bit with this: In no way, shape, or form am I suggesting that Devin Vassell and Keldon Johnson are going to reach the heights that Giannis has. But, who’s to say that they can’t get close?

Johnson has already shown tremendous growth since the Spurs selected him with the 29th pick in the 2019 draft and Vassell is way more than just the three-and-D wing that some draft scouts tapped him as.

During an episode of The Ringer NBA Show shortly after the NBA Draft, The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor pointed out the untapped potential that Vassell has in his game.

He grew as a shot creator from his first to his second years at Florida State and he did that in a team that didn’t focus around one star. They played full team basketball and that stifled the potential of players like Vassell to a certain degree. We still haven’t seen what he’s fully capable of.

I’m not suggesting that either of these two are going to grow into MVP level players, only that they’re only going to get a lot better than they are now. And they’re already pretty damn good. Just have patience, trust the Spurs development program, and enjoy the journey of watching these two young players improve.

Next: Nets v. Celtics

San Antonio Spurs
San Antonio Spurs

Dec 23, 2020; Memphis, Tennessee, USA; San Antonio Spurs guard DeMar DeRozan (10) handles the ball against Memphis Grizzlies guard Dillon Brooks (24) during the second half at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

The San Antonio Spurs already know the value of a closing assassin

When the Nets and Celtics face off this afternoon we’re going to get to see three of the best closers the game has to offer. There simply aren’t many players you’d rather hand the ball to with the game on the line than Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and Jayson Tatum.

This isn’t so much a new lesson as it is an affirmation of something that the San Antonio Spurs already know. The Spurs know the value in having an assassin they can turn to in the final moments of the game, it’s why they regularly turn to DeMar DeRozan down the stretch.

The formula that San Antonio followed in their opening game against the Grizzlies is one that we can reasonably expect them to follow throughout the season. They’ll let the young players run the show for the first three quarters, and sometimes into the fourth, but when it comes time to close things out they’re turning to DeMar.

In the fourth quarter of Wednesday’s game, DeRozan was as close to perfect as you will get. He was two of two from the field, hit all five of his free-throw attempts, and dished out three assists to shut down the mini-comeback the Grizzlies were trying to mount.

Who knows if DeMar will be in San Antonio for the long haul. But for as long as he’s here let’s appreciate what he does. We’re lucky to have one of the best clutch players in the league running the show for our team in the fourth.

Next: Mavericks v. Lakers

San Antonio Spurs
San Antonio Spurs

Jan 10, 2020; Dallas, Texas, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) and Dallas Mavericks forward Luka Doncic (77) fight for position during the second half at the American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The San Antonio Spurs need a top-ten player to contend for a title

This is the marquee matchup of the day. LeBron James and Anthony Davis against Luka Doncic. Three of the ten best players in the NBA on the court at one time, it’s a Christmas gift we can all enjoy.

This isn’t a particularly novel or groundbreaking bit of basketball analysis but in order to contend for a title in the NBA, you almost always need a top-ten player on your team. That’s just the way it is. And right now, if we’re being honest with ourselves, the San Antonio Spurs don’t have anyone who looks like they can be that guy.

I don’t mean to disparage the players on the roster in any way. They’re all skilled and valuable players in their own right. But they’re not in the AD/Doncic class of stars. And if the Spurs want to hang their sixth banner any time soon they’re going to need that guy.

San Antonio’s best chance at landing a player of that caliber could be in the 2021 NBA Draft. Spurs players and coaches have talked about the importance of getting back to the playoffs but the postseason is no sure thing even in the best of years. And in this year’s brutal Western Conference it’s even less likely of possibility.

I want to see the Spurs back in the playoffs as much as the next guy but there’s a solid chance they’re headed back to the lottery for the second straight year. If they end up there they’ve got to make it count.

With players like Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley, Jonathan Kuminga, Jalen Green, and Scottie Barnes all projected to go in the top-ten there is no shortage of star talent in the 2021 class. If the Spurs find themselves in the lottery again they should take a shot and select the player with the highest upside, regardless of risk.

Missing the playoffs for two straight years would certainly be a blow for a franchise that has never done that before. But if the end result is the Spurs getting the star they need to chase banner number six it will have all been worth it.

Next: Clippers v. Nuggets

San Antonio Spurs
San Antonio Spurs

Dec 15, 2020; Houston, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs guard Lonnie Walker IV (1) passes the ball between Houston Rockets guard David Nwaba (0) and forward P.J. Tucker (right) during the second half. Mandatory Credit: Mike Wyke/Pool Photo via USA TODAY Sports

The San Antonio Spurs are slowly developing more and more playmakers

One of the things that both the Denver Nuggets and LA Clippers do well is use different players in lead playmaking roles. The Nuggets have Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and the feisty Facundo Campazzo and the Clippers have Paul George, Patrick Beverley, and Luke Kennard.

That’s something that the San Antonio Spurs have been building out for a while now too. DeRozan, Murray, Patty Mills, and Derrick White can all initiate the offense on their own but there is still one player who the Spurs desperately need to develop as a playmaker. That man is Lonnie Walker.

Lonnie can get to the rim at will. He’s as explosive of a player as you’ll find in the NBA and he’s regularly going to be able to draw the defense in to try to contain his drives to the rim. To counter that he’s got to get better at kicking it out to open players around the perimeter.

The Spurs have done a good job of driving and kicking and driving and kicking until something opens up. Lonnie’s great at the driving part of that, but the kicking could use some improvement.

https://videos.nba.com/nba/pbp/media/2020/12/23/0022000017/602/7b41452f-a060-5f9c-8828-517d8f05a43c_1280x720.mp4

He does a good job of finding Keldon Johnson here for an easy lay-in and this is the kind of play he’s got to be able to make on a consistent basis.

Lonnie is well on his way to becoming a well-rounded combo guard but the last piece of his game that needs to be filled out is his passing ability. Once he’s got that down he’s going to be incredibly dangerous.

Next. All 5 Spurs' Finals MVPs, Ranked

These are points to watch for but don’t let them distract you from having a relaxed Christmas Day of kicking back, spending time with family, and enjoying some high-quality NBA basketball. Merry Christmas everyone.

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