SAN ANTONIO — The San Antonio Spurs started their regular season in Memphis with a 131-119 win over the Grizzlies.
The Spurs went winless in the short preseason, but they played all of those games without Keldon Johnson, who burst out in the bubble as a rookie. He returned from a toe injury Wednesday night, and he made a huge difference for San Antonio.
"I want him to play good defense and good offense," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said when asked about his role, giving sage wisdom as always.
Pop was similarly vague about whether or not Johnson would play offense and defense for the starting unit.
"I don't even know what it was last time," Popovich said when asked if he'd change the starting five. "Probably"
The caginess made sense once it was revealed that Johnson would indeed start as a small-ball four.
Johnson wound up finishing with 16 points, 5 boards, 3 assists and 3 steals, which definitely qualified as "good on defense and good on offense." When asked after the game, Pop said he was pleased.
"He drove the ball well, and is starting to figure out how to play with his teammates, what we're trying to do," Pop said. "Defensively he got beat here and there on drives, but his effort is always there, it's just gonna be a matter of recognition and him getting in situations that are repetitive so he knows what's expected."
Popovich said that the fast pace isn't just about Johnson, and pointed to Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker IV, Devin Vassell and Patty Mills as speedsters, and said that's more speed than his team has had in a long time.
"When we combine that with the wisdom of DeMar and LA and Rudy out there, it's a nice combination," he said.
Walker added 16 on the night, while Gay and Mills each kicked in double-digit scoring off the bench. Murray impressed with 21 points and 9 assists, and said after the game that he's put a lot of work into being the best point guard he can be, including offseason work with Becky Hammon and others.
Memphis has built an underrated team around last year's Rookie of the Year Ja Morant who finished with a career-high 44 points to go with 9 assists, but it wasn't enough to best a total team effort from San Antonio.
DeMar DeRozan finished close to a 30-point triple double. He didn't attempt a single shot outside the paint, and said after the game that he took what the defense gave him.
Aldridge finished with 20 points after a rough start to the game. He said that he went back to the mid-range game that he knows so well, and that helped him get in a groove after nothing was working out of the gate. They were mostly pick-and-pop looks, so he wasn't gumming up the offense with post-up play.
Keldon Johnson made the most of his start, scoring 9 points on four shots in the first quarter. Johnson and Lonnie Walker IV each hit a three, but San Antonio found themselves in an early hole as LaMarcus Aldridge struggled on both ends.
Aldridge started with a missed three, which is ok as he continues to get his legs under him. He played poor defense on Jonas Valanciunas in the post and on the perimeter, coughed up an inbound pass, passed up an open 3 and turned it over when he tried to attack the rim out of it.
Memphis built a 10-point lead, but San Antonio got back in it with Poeltl entering the game for Aldridge and shoring up the paint defense. Rudy Gay provided some early pop off the bench, and by the end of the quarter the Spurs trailed just 33-30.
Dejounte opened the second by reminding folks that he's a three-level scorer, hitting a three, a mid-range pull-up and a layup in the first four minutes, and then a leaning circus layup to give him a team-high 13 points and 5 assists to go with 4 boards.
The Spurs played tight defense to open the period, and started on a 23-8 run to build a 12-point lead.
Keldon Johnson added to his total and matched Murray with 13 total points for the first half, and when Aldridge got back on the floor he stuck to the mid-range jumpers he's used to, but they were all catch-and-shoot looks in the flow of the offense. When he tried his first post-up, he was able to bully home a tough shot.
After that rough first quarter, Aldridge finished the half with 9 points on 50% shooting. The other veterans Gay and DeRozan each finished the half with 9 points as well.
San Antonio shot 49% from the floor and 43% on 14 attempts from three. While Memphis hit 9-19 threes, San Antonio limited them to 12-31 (39%) from two. The Spurs took a 66-53 lead into the break.
DeMar DeRozan got up to his usual tricks, getting to the rim and free throw line. After the third quarter he still hadn't tried a shot outside the paint, but he led the team with 19 points at the end of the period.
San Antonio maintained the lead throughout the period, and Aldridge continued to shoot the ball better than he did in the first quarter.
Lonnie Walker IV threw home two thunderous dunks and added a transition and-1 after a quiet first half.
Walker joined DeRozan, Murray, Aldridge, Johnson, Gay and Mills in double figures by the end of the third, as the Spurs held on to a 99-88 lead heading to the fourth.
San Antonio didn't hit a three the entire quarter, but didn't see the lead slip much.
San Antonio's young guns continued to attack in the fourth, with Walker knocking down a corner three, Murray dropping in a floater and Johnson driving aggressively for free throws.
The defense looked solid, with Poeltl swatting a few shot before heading to the bench for Aldridge.
Rookie Devin Vassell, who scored in double figures for all three preseason games, knocked down a catch-and-shoot three for his first NBA bucket.
Walker drilled another triple to lead the team with three, and Aldridge made his first in four tries.
Ja Morant got his, scoring 44 points and adding 9 dimes in a career night. However, it came in a losing effort as San Antonio put up 131 points on an efficient offensive night.
DeRozan came very close to finishing with a 30-point triple double, And each of San Antonio's starters scored at least 16 points.