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San Antonio Spurs: 3 Takeaways from Grizzlies undressing of Spurs

Feb 1, 2021; San Antonio, Texas, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Keldon Johnson (3) drives to the basket against Memphis Grizzlies forwards Kyle Anderson (1) and Brandon Clarke (15) in the third quarter at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 1, 2021; San Antonio, Texas, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Keldon Johnson (3) drives to the basket against Memphis Grizzlies forwards Kyle Anderson (1) and Brandon Clarke (15) in the third quarter at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports
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San Antonio Spurs
San Antonio Spurs

Feb 1, 2021; San Antonio, Texas, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Keldon Johnson (3) drives to the basket against Memphis Grizzlies forwards Kyle Anderson (1) and Brandon Clarke (15) in the third quarter at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

Memphis had the San Antonio Spurs number in the back to back series

They’ve never had a particularly dislikeable player but there is something about the Memphis Grizzlies that has always rubbed me the wrong way. I’m sure I’m not the only San Antonio Spurs fan who feels this way.

You can probably trace it back to the contentious playoff series between the Grit N’ Grind Grizzlies and the Spurs some years back. Those teams always gave the Spurs problems and this young, new group of Grizzlies is cut from a similar cloth.

They’re not the bruising frontcourt team that the Grit N’ Grind teams were but this Memphis team is as dangerous as they come. They spoiled Derrick White‘s return on Saturday night as they tore up the Spurs and they wasted little time getting back in a similar groove on Monday.

Normally slow out of the gate, the Spurs got out to an early 10-3 lead thanks to a pair of quick three’s courtesy of LaMarcus Aldridge. It wasn’t long after that that the wheels came off and the Spurs quickly found themselves in a hole.

A 36-22 second quarter blew open a deficit that San Antonio was never able to escape from. Here are our biggest takeaways from the collapse.

The San Antonio Spurs were thoroughly dominated in the paint

Let me be the first to say that I fully understand that Brandon Clarke, Xavier Tillman, and Gorgui Dieng are not average-sized people. They are very large, very skilled professional athletes. But there is no way that those three should have dominated the San Antonio Spurs frontcourt as much as they did on Monday night.

The trio would combine for 47 points and 24 rebounds in a night where Memphis would end with a 53-42 advantage in rebounds and a 62-32 advantage in points in the paint. It was, in a word, embarrassing.

They all had their preferred routes. Tillman preferred to simply outmuscle whichever member of the Spurs frontcourt he was matched up with while Clarke was content to use a blend of speed and floaters to score his points. The common theme between the three was the lackluster defense that stood in their way.

It didn’t take long to see that the Grizzlies wanted this one more. They chased down defensive rebounds with more ferocity, pushed the pace more, and regularly found each other open for easy dunks. Honestly, there was almost no resistance in the paint from the start of the game.

There will be a time closer to 2021 draft night where we’re debating who the San Antonio Spurs should take. When that time comes I’m going to point back to this game as exhibit 1A as to why the Spurs desperately need to add a big man this year. Their frontcourt has never been in more need of help than it is now.

Next: Keldon shows up to play

San Antonio Spurs
San Antonio Spurs

Feb 1, 2021; San Antonio, Texas, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Keldon Johnson (3) drives to the basket for a lay up as Memphis Grizzlies center Gorgui Dieng (14) defends and guard Tyus Jones (21) and forward Brandon Clarke (15) look on in the third quarter at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

Keldon Johnson continues to thrive in year two with San Antonio Spurs

Most of the Spurs looked like they were mentally on a beach somewhere but Keldon Johnson showed up to play last night. Johnson led San Antonio with 25 points, 10 rebounds, and 3 assists. A performance like that would have shocked us in the bubble or even a few weeks ago but those kinds of nights are becoming routine for one of the most promising young players in the NBA.

More noteworthy than the box score is how Keldon got his points. Up until last night, he’d been spending so much time in the paint that he was going to have to pay rent soon. This shot chart really puts things into perspective.

Keldon Johnson's FG heat map so far this season.

Wonder where he gets his points? ??? #nba #gospursgo pic.twitter.com/zeBGnKzrIQ

— JeffGSpursZone (@JeffGSpursZone) February 1, 2021

Johnson will occasionally step out behind the three-point line but more often than not he’s looking to attack the rim. After Memphis went to a zone defense, Johnson looked a little thrown off. The driving lanes weren’t there so he started to open it up from outside.

He’d finish the night going 3 for 8 from behind the arc. The eight three-point attempts marked the second-most attempts he’s shot in a game so far this season.

Two things stand out about Keldon’s three-point shot. First, it has to be the highest arcing shot in the league. I swear the ball nicks the bottom of the jersey’s in the rafters before it finds the bottom of the net. Second, if/when Johnson develops a consistent three-point and mid-range shot the league is in serious trouble.

He’s already one of the more aggressive drivers in the league. He’s been getting to the rim almost at will, regardless of who stands in his way. When he adds a consistent jumper to that he’s going to be a true force on the offensive end of the floor.

Next: Where was Devin Vassell?

San Antonio Spurs
San Antonio Spurs

Jan 30, 2021; San Antonio, Texas, USA; San Antonio Spurs guard Devin Vassell (24) dribbles in the first half against the Memphis Grizzlies at the AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

San Antonio Spurs keep Devin Vassell on the bench because…?

For most of the season, the San Antonio Spurs rotations have been as good as we could have asked for. Young players are getting involved, Pop has put together some of the best rotations in the league, and the on-court product has been entertaining as well as productive. But what happened last night was incredibly frustrating to watch.

Despite being one of the best rookies in the league and one of the best defenders and three-point shooters on the team, Devin Vassell was glued to the bench for almost the entire game. He logged just under 12 minutes, with over half of those coming in the 4th quarter when the game was well out of reach.

A 40 percent three-point shooter and elite off-ball defender seems like exactly the kind of player that could have helped San Antonio last night. So why wasn’t Vassell able to get into the game?

The most simple explanation is that Derrick White’s return pushes Vassell down in the pecking order and slices his minutes in half. Before playing under 12 last night, Vassell logged just over 9 minutes in San Antonio’s loss to Memphis on Saturday. That might just be the amount of playing time he’s going to get going forward.

This could end up being a point of frustration for Spurs fans going forward. Similar to the situation that we ran into last year with Lonnie and Marco Belinelli, Spurs fans are going to get frustrated seeing Vassell glued to the bench, especially when a veteran such as Rudy Gay is struggling on the court.

Next. 5 Players you forgot played for the San Antonio Spurs

After falling into a bit of a rut, the San Antonio Spurs have an excellent chance to get on the right track against Minnesota tomorrow night.

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