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'Work in progress' | Spurs try new things with Poeltl out, fall just short to Mavericks

"We're close in all these games. We're there, but we hurt ourselves more than the other teams hurt us," Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich said after the frustrating loss.

SAN ANTONIO — After another tight but disappointing loss to a quality team, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich acknowledged that there was a bit of a broken record after these last few matchups.

"We're close in all these games. We're there, but we hurt ourselves more than the other teams hurt us," Pop said after a 109-108 loss to the Dallas Mavericks at home Wednesday.

"They are working hard, but it’s a work in progress. We need more habits. Those mistakes we make, we hope we can make less and less,” he said. “But they've never played together basically, and they're learning the game, so we need to be patient."

San Antonio was down one large and very important man, missing Jakob Poeltl and feeling the absence heavily in multiple phases of the game. Most notably, they lost the rebound battle 56-40 and gave up 15 extra chances to the Mavericks, and the backup bigs struggled mightily with former Spur Boban Marjanovic.

Bobi put up 17 points and 5 rebounds, a matchup nightmare off the bench that helped Dallas outscore the Spurs by 17 when he was in the game.

"That's the 7'3 guy right? He was great," joked his former coach, Popovich.

“He’s big, he wants to get to his right hand, so you’ve gotta make an adjustment with him especially as big as he is, push him out, get around and have help on the weak side,” said Drew Eubanks, who got the start and had 10 points and 3 blocks, but also saw room for improvement.

“We’re gonna miss (Jak) out there, but me, personally, I’ve just got to be more solid especially on defense,” said Eubanks, who had a bit of a rough start underneath Doncic lobs to Dwight Powell. 

“We’re gonna need guys to step up. I’m gonna need to step up, Thad’s gonna need to step up. Jak does a lot for us, we’re gonna miss him over the next however many games he’s out, but nobody’s crying for us,” he said.

Thad Young stuffed the stat sheet, finishing with 8 points, 6 boards, 3 assists, 2 blocks and 2 steals while functioning as the backup center.

“He’s just a veteran guy who has been in this league a long time and knows how to get to his spots, knows how to talk and express what he sees on both ends of the floor. He’s a vet guy, he needs to play, he’s really smart, so I’m pretty sure the coaching staff will figure that out.”

Australian rookie Jock Landale didn’t see the floor, though he might get some burn in the next one.

Pop made an interesting late adjustment. In the closing stages of the game, he played Keldon Johnson at the five and went small without a traditional center. He said that the lineup with Murray, White, Vassell, McDermott and Johnson had barely played together in practice. 

It had the effect of eliminating favorable switches onto big men for Luka Doncic. The Spurs blitzed him in pick and roll, forcing the ball out of his hands.

Doncic finished the game with 23 points on 10-25 shooting, 12 boards, 7 assists and 4 turnovers.

“Every game’s a different situation,” Popovich explained. “We have to stay in front of people and had a hard time staying in front of people. When you go small, theoretically, you can stay in front of people a little bit better.”

It worked for the Spurs as far as containing Doncic, but the other players took control for Dallas down the stretch with tough shot making.

“No excuses, if there’s no screen you shouldn’t get beat, and have your teammate’s back if he does get beat,” Murray said of the small lineup. “It’s on us.”

The strategy pushed the ball into the steady hands of Jalen Brunson, who made San Antonio pay and finished the game with 31 points. He hit four big, tough mid-range shots in the final four minutes and change.

“Brunson was a killer again, in both games he was the difference,” Pop said. “He plays really smart, tough kid, he’s skilled, and in the fourth quarter he got us both times.

Brunson tagged the Spurs for 19 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists in the first matchup, a 104-99 Spurs loss in Dallas. Dejounte Murray said he’s known Brunson since the pair were in high school.

“He’s undersized, but he can outsmart taller guys, so he’s great at that,” he said. “He killed it both games, in Dallas and here tonight, so my hat’s off to him, he played really hard and really smart.”

The Spurs had a chance to win in the closing seconds, but couldn’t get a clean look inbounding from the other side of the court. The loss was another frustrating one, but not without positives to carry forward.

Dejounte Murray and Luka Doncic should make for a fun Texas Showdown for years to come. After Russell Westbrook, these might be the likeliest pair to average close to a triple double this year.

Murray seems to have taken a leap with regard to his three-point shooting, the one thing that's always been a question mark about his skillset. He's hitting 35% on a career-high 4.3 attempts from long range, and taking the vast majority of those from above the break (9-30).

He continues to show shot creation ability with and without the ball for confident shots. there is minimal hesitation, even for a guy with a reputation as a reluctant shooter. He iced a win over Giannis off the dribble from three, in the middle of the shot clock. Against the Mavs at the end of the first half, he used that quick, nasty long crossover to make space for a step-back three and drilled it.

At the end of the game the ball will likely be in Murray's hands, and not just by default. He makes good decisions, finds open teammates in dirty areas, limits turnovers, gets to the rim, now shoots a variety of threes, and has a mid-range shot he can pull whenever.

The new wrinkle tonight was using Keldon Johnson as a screener. It made sense especially with him at center, but it could help San Antonio's halfcourt offense moving forward if he can use that big body to set screens while both engaging him and simplifying the approach for him.

Devin Vassell continues to look sharp as a shot creator, a role he didn’t really have last year. He finished with 21 points, hitting 9-12 from the floor.

“He’s got to do that, as an improvement for the season, we have got to have him shoot threes,” Popovich said. “He’s got to be confident, and he looks confident to me, not shying away at all.

“I tell him, first play defense because that’s what you can do at a high level, rebound the ball, but also be ready to shoot, be ready to drive, be you, do whatever it is that got you to the NBA,” Murray said of his young teammate.

San Antonio actually beat Dallas in the paint 66-50 and held the Mavs to 8-34 from deep, but shot just 7-21 themselves. The Spurs averaged a league-low 28 attempts per game last year, and they’re up to over 30 this season.

Another plus is that the Spurs had 25 assists to 15 turnovers and forced Dallas into 21-19.

The next game they’ll need to survive without Poeltl is Friday at Orlando.

“Tonight’s gonna hurt on the drive home, but what’s today, Wednesday? We play again Friday, so let it hurt a bit and learn from it, adjust,” Eubanks said.

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