SAN ANTONIO — "The worm will turn" is a phrase Gregg Popovich has used over the years to describe when his team is playing well but not getting the win, most recently after a gutting loss to the Lakers in overtime, 125-121.
“I thought we played another really good game. Really proud of the guys. They went toe-to-toe with a talented and experienced group," he said, true for the third game in a row. "If they continue to play like that, hopefully that worm will turn, and these will turn into wins. They deserve it."
He's using the phrase as a general metaphor for luck changing from bad to good in an instant, but the original meaning doesn't seem to apply to this Spurs team.
The saying goes that even something so meek as a worm will retaliate if pushed too far. The Spurs count no worms among their ranks.
There are, however, a bunch of guys who played tremendous games and really wanted to beat Los Angeles after competing with the Nuggets and Bucks and losing both ends of that back to back. There were opportunities to win that didn't go in, and that will sting for everybody for a little bit, but there's also optimism in the locker room that continuing to pound the rock where they're pounding it will yield the desired results.
“We’re right there," said Devin Vassell, who finished with 19 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals. "It’s so frustrating being right there and not coming out with a victory, especially three times in a row. You know what I’m saying? So, we’ll figure it out."
"Overall, I’m just happy that we continue to fight," said Lonnie Walker IV, who had 21 points and 6 assists off the bench, hitting 5-7 from long range.
"We have played three great teams these past three games, and we have continued to get better and better and better against top-tier talent," he said. "This is the first time young players have gotten a chance to play the game. We haven’t come up with the win, but we’re damn near close. We’re only three, four games in, and all I expect is for us to keep getting better and better and better as the season progresses. Sadly, we just didn’t get this win.”
LeBron was out, but the Spurs hung with a loaded Lakers team that was itching to shake off their own 1-2 start. They trailed by as many as 12 to the Spurs, but prevailed in overtime behind Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis.
AD put up 35, 17 and 4 blocks, while Brodie was outstanding with an efficient 33 points, 10 boards, 8 assists (mainly of the lob variety), 3 steals and just 3 turnovers.
After the game, Westbrook spoke about why this Spurs team was able to take them down to the wire.
“These guys are young, fast, athletic," Westbrook said. "I still see Pop, so they’re still well-coached and they know how to play the game. They’re tough, they’re going to be a tough program for a lot of years. They’ve orchestrated their team very well, a lot of young guys that want to compete. They played hard tonight, as you could see. It was a good game.”
San Antonio has been deploying that competitive group of young guys as a ruthless high-pressure defense, and forced both Denver and Milwaukee into 20+ turnovers. The Lakers only coughed it up 13 times, but there were still stretches of the game when the Spurs kicked things up a notch defensively and it translated to peak value shot opportunities for hot scorers.
The Lakers took the lead in the third quarter, but Walker went full human torch mode as the team defense got a stop and a teammate zipped it to him at the arc three times. He delivered a personal 11-0 run in 90 seconds flat, turning a three-point deficit into an eight-point lead.
Walker found Vassell for a catch-and-shoot three, and on the next defensive possession Vassell read rookie Austin Reaves like the owner's manual of a 2007 Mazda CX-9, picking off the pass and darting down the court for a layup.
San Antonio led by a dozen going into the fourth quarter, and the crowd, or at least the part that wasn't wearing purple and gold, was loving it.
"We have a very strong bond on the court but we have a strong bond off the court, that's dang near a brother to me," Walker said about Vassell after the game.
"We have a lot of conversations, and like he said, that's just like my brother too, and we talk and we try to feed off each other," Vassell said. "We know as soon as we come in, the biggest thing is just let's come out and compete and help the team. When he's hitting shots I'm trying to look for him, and I'm encouraging him, and when I'm hitting shots he's doing the same thing for me. That's the type of energy we need off the bench, and that's what we're gonna keep providing."
The pair combined for 40 points and 10-16 shooting from deep, assisting to each other on a number of shots. Vassell said seeing those fall was huge, but repeated a basketball truism he's said before.
"We can't control makes and misses, but we can control the effort and how we play, and I thought we played a really solid game today," he said. "There's just certain things we've gotta clean up."
The bench sniping was desperately needed on a night when the Spurs' starters hit just 3-17 from deep. It was a rough night for Doug McDermott who left the game with a sore knee, and Keldon Johnson shot just 2-10 from the floor and extended his season-opening oh-fer streak from three to 10 misses.
Westbrook led the LA offense to a strong start to the fourth, and Davis came in and played bully ball, and after Russ hit AD for a jumper, San Antonio's 12-point advantage had evaporated completely in under five minutes.
Keldon drove past Dwight Howard and got stuffed, and when Johnson recovered the ball and bounced it perfectly to a cutting Vassell, Howard sent it again.
"It’s hard to kind of put things together," Walker said. "Down the stretch, same with Milwaukee at the end of the fourth and going into overtime with (the Lakers), they kind of made shots when they needed to make them. That’s something that we have to also translate as a team."
The Lakers hit timely shots and made nearly 60% of their field goal attempts in the fourth quarter and overtime. The Spurs shot 11-32 from the floor, 1-8 from three, and an upsetting-to-think-about 1-9 from the free throw line in winning time.
The home crowd has been an advantage for a Spurs team that thrives on energy, but the large contingent of Lakers fans at the AT&T Center made noise with each of those misses at the stripe. It must have been a jarring environment, and Popovich didn't take a timeout after the 8:48 mark in the fourth quarter.
"The young group we are, we're learning everything. There was a stretch where they might've hit two big shots and we kind of froze for a second and looked at (Pop), and he's like, 'No, no, lets go! Let's go!' That's huge for us. We're gonna learn.
Popovich acknowledged that he let his guys play, and explained why.
“I want them to grow," he said. "I don’t think we’re a great executing team right now. It’s early in the season. We haven’t gone over a lot of stuff that we will be better at mid-season, so letting them play freely I think is probably the best thing for them right now.”
One of the exceptions was a play drawn up for Vassell in overtime with the Spurs down two. He curled to the wing off a pair of sturdy screens and got an open three for the lead in the final minute, but missed.
"Pop called that play for me, but at the end of the day I've got to hit that shot," he said. "I'm gonna think about it a lot tonight, I'm gonna think about the free throws and that shot. It's huge to know that Pop had that type of trust in me, but I've got to knock that down."
Now and in the future, running that sort of play for Vassell in a clutch situation may be one of the best options for this team if they need a triple.
When this team needs a leader they will look to Dejounte Murray, who finished the game with 21 points, 15 assists, 12 rebounds, 2 blocks and 2 steals. A lot of good players have put on Silver and Black, but apparently none of them have ever had a triple double like that.
Murray's reaction was predictable for anyone who has seen him show out in a loss before.
"We lost, I think I played horrible. I could do better, on the offensive end, being the general," he said. "We lost, it's a failure to me. I don't care about it, I don't want nobody around me to talk about it."
Nobody told Walker that last part.
"We just played one of the top teams in the NBA, and he really made it look easy," he said. "I didn't even realize he had a triple double until I looked up, I'm like goddamn, you know?"
As for the question of who would be the closer for the Spurs, Murray was the answer tonight. He got the ball with the clock ticking down and the game knotted at 114, got a switch in pick and roll, and pulled his bread-and-butter jumper from about 18 feet. It hit front rim and missed.
"I feel like I got a good shot, a shot I make a lot, every day at practice," said Murray, who repeated what everyone has felt about how nobody cares who takes the shot as they try to win a game as a team. Murray may be the key to that down the stretch, though, and the guys all seem to know and accept and encourage that.
"That's our point guard, that's our leader of the team in my opinion, and I firmly believe that if we had that 10 seconds left again he naturally should get the ball immediately," Walker said of Murray after the game.
"He's turned into a point guard that understands the whole deal," Popovich said. "He's not just a scoring point guard, he's finding people, he's getting better and better on the pick and roll finding the big guys rolling."
Oh by the way, Jakob Poeltl had a team-high 27 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks in the game. He's averaging 16 points, 6.5 offensive rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game. He's spent heavy time guarding Jokic, Giannis and AD this week. Get that man an ice bath and some cheat day food, pronto.
Murray found him on the roll over and over, including for one dunk over both Russ and AD. Poeltl finished with 26 points in the paint, and Murray fed him on almost half of his baskets. Murray scored or assisted on more than half of San Antonio's points.
"To see him make the right plays, get the right passes, rebound, all-around effort offensively and defensively, that's what you expect," Walker said. "He's a dog man, and he's smart, a very very intelligent player. He knows a lot about the game, he knows what's best for the team, so he's going to continue to grow."
Murray is shooting just 37% from the floor, 21% from three, and 57% from the line to start the season, but he's averaging 15.3 points, 9 rebounds, 9 assists, 2.3 turnovers, and 2.3 steals per game. If he can warm up his shot and reach another gear as the year goes on, there will be no more "who is the closer" questions.
There are definitely still questions about this team, though. Keldon Johnson played just three minutes in the fourth and OT, while KBD played 14. Johnson was having a rough night overall and a tough time in his matchup with Anthony Davis (who hasn't, tbh), and he took a hard spill on a play where he got pulled down during his launch sequence, and a foul was called on the Spurs, and then a technical on the Spurs for arguing, but I digress.
Still, it was a surprise to see Bates-Diop play for such a long, crucial stretch over the team's leading scorer to this point.
For his part, KBD finished on a feed from Murray to tie the game late in regulation. He hit a corner two with his foot on the line and played tough, though he did get yammed on by Russell Westbrook. That's just an occupational hazard for anyone on a basketball court with him.
"He performed well," Popovich said of KBD. "He plays good defense, he meets every situation with confidence, and I think he's getting better and better with the minutes he's getting."
The seven Spurs who play over 20 minutes per game average double figure scoring. They're at about 30 assists per game to 14 turnovers as a team, shooting four more threes per game than they did last season. They've turned 18 bad guy turnovers per game into 20.5 good guy points. They're also getting two touchdowns per game worth of second-chance points, thanks mainly to Big Jak's tip ins and tip outs.
The Spurs have started 1-3 because they've played three extremely good teams and shot just 32.6% from three and 65% from the line. That must change, and in all statistical likelihood will change, and even without it the Spurs now know what they've been wanting to prove for a long time: that they can play with anybody.
The Spurs are long and fast and dangerous and aggressive. Snakes maybe, but meek worms they are not. Still, the phrase has caught on, and Devin Vassell is with it.
"I definitely believe that, I think the worm is gonna turn, we've just got to keep working, keep chipping at it. Just doing all the things we can control, at the end of the day the worm's gonna turn but it's tough right now," he said. "It's tough, but to think that it's so early in the season, you know what I'm saying? We have 78 more games, we can bounce back, but we've just got to learn from it."
The Spurs will be in Dallas on Thursday for their next stop in an unforgiving start of the schedule.
"They’re playing really well," Popovich said of his team. "Learning every day, getting better every day, but competing off the charts. So, we’ll get a good night’s sleep and hit the road and see what we can do.”