SAN ANTONIO — The Spurs came up just a bit short in another tough contest against the Lakers, but there are still plenty of positives to draw on for San Antonio.
Keldon Johnson scored a career-high 26 in his matchup with LeBron, DeMar DeRozan continued to shoot well from three, Derrick White returned, and overall the execution was pretty crisp on both ends against a Los Angeles team that won a title last year behind one of the most dominant duos ever assembled.
"We played a heck of a basketball team, and we were a good basketball team tonight also," said head coach Gregg Popovich.
Pop liked the fight that his team showed against an elite team, and credited LeBron and Anthony Davis with making plays down the stretch. He said games like these are learning experiences for his young squad, and though the tough schedule isn't great for their record, it's good for their development.
Speaking of development, Keldon Johnson was giving LeBron James everything he could handle in this game. The 21-year-old rising star might have even outplayed James for the first three quarters before LeBron, well, you know, did the "best hooper on the planet" thing that he does.
Johnson checked LeBron while fearlessly shooting over and driving through Anthony Davis. He finished with a career-best 5-9 from three to go with his scoring total, and added 10 boards, 2 steals and a block. He shot just 11 times from the floor and drew 8 free throws, hitting 7.
"He's a competitor, he's a fine young player, and he's gonna have a great career," Popovich said after the game.
Johnson spoke after the game about his efficient offense, his attack mindset, what he's learned in this stretch, and what he likes about this team. As always he downplayed the individual matchup, saying that even against a LeBron, he tries not to think about that too much and focus on the team game.
DeRozan was right behind Johnson with 23 points, 9 boards and 7 assists, hitting 3-4 from deep. DeMar has started the year 8-16 from downtown, meaning that with his next three he'll match the grand total of 9 that he made last season.
Derrick White's return was welcome, and though he didn't have his best shooting night and only played 23 minutes off the bench, he showed that he's still the same Derrick with two blocks and two charges drawn to go with 9 points on 9 shots. He meshed well with the young group, and spoke about getting back into the flow of things.
"It's always great having Derrick, he's a very smart player, and it's good to see him get the rust off and get back into the rotation," Popovich said.
Minutes for Derrick means fewer minutes for others, and in this game that meant none for promising rookie Devin Vassell as Pop rolled with a nine-man rotation. Patty Mills had an efficient 10 points and 4 boards in 25 minutes, and Rudy Gay added a much-less efficient 15 points in 24 minutes.
Gay has shot over 6 attempts from deep per game to start the year, leading the team. His 25% clip is among the lowest on the team, and he shot 2-8 from long range in this game.
The Spurs could have used a bit more production from Dejounte Murray and Lonnie Walker IV, especially from deep, but they contributed to some wonderful team play on both ends. San Antonio got no scoring from their centers Jakob Poeltl and Drew Eubanks. Those guys aren't known as scorers, but the Spurs very much missed LaMarcus Aldridge in this mini series against the tremendous Lakers.
Losing a close game is never fun, but the Spurs have to be happy with how they're playing and growing.
"We just played the champs at a high level and we can go out there and play with versus anybody else in this league," DeRozan said after the game.
They'll face Utah on Sunday before going to Los Angeles to take on the Clippers Tuesday.
San Antonio's young guns opened the game in attack mode, with Keldon Johnson starting the contest by attacking Anthony Davis for free throws. Dejounte Murray hit a contested layup and then a pull-up jumper over LeBron and Lonnie Walker IV took a pick-and-roll possession into Marc Gasol's chest for a layup.
Johnson drilled a 3 over the outstretched arms of Davis, and DeMar DeRozan knocked down a triple as well, helping the Spurs to a 14-13 lead.
Los Angeles stayed in the game thanks to second-chance points, recording five offensive rebounds in the first five minutes. Part of it was DeMar DeRozan guarding the taller Marc Gasol so that Keldon Johnson could focus on LeBron and Jakob Poeltl could stick AD.
After falling behind, Johnson drilled another three to tie after passing one up seconds earlier. Patty Mills came in and continued his hot-shooting start to the season.
Derrick White entered the game and shared the court with Murray in his first minutes of the season. He turned it over, but drilled a triple and stripped LeBron James under the basket on the next possession. He also partook in one of his favorite activities: getting run over by a full-speed NBA player to draw a charge.
San Antonio led 31-25 after the first quarter.
White opened the second quarter by stuffing Montrezl Harrell, and DeRozan knocked down another triple to push San Antonio to 7-14 from deep.
Los Angeles battled back and took a lead at 39-38, But San Antonio found something with the incredibly young lineup of Derrick White, Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker IV, Keldon Johnson and Jakob Poeltl as the defense forced Los Angeles to cough it up.
The young ones didn't seem to fear Anthony Davis or anyone else between them and the rim. Keldon Johnson continued to drive into him, with success.
Davis and James remain one of the most potent pairs in NBA history, and finished the half with a combined 32 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists and 3 steals.
San Antonio hung right with the Lakers though, trailing just 58-57 at the end of the half.
The Spurs shot 8-19 from deep to start the game compared to 7-15 for the Lakers, but 10 offensive rebounds helped Los Angeles win the board battle.
Kentavious Caldwell Pope started the quarter scoring the first 8 points for Los Angeles taking advantage of some fairly sloppy defense.
Keldon Johnson responded with a run of his own, knocking down a triple, driving for a floater in traffic and deflecting a cross-court LeBron pass before drawing free throws in transition for 7 points in a row.
Caldwell Pope made another crisp backdoor cut, but twisted his ankle when he planted for a layup which was blocked from behind by DeRozan, who scored on the ensuing 5-on-4 sequence.
DeRozan then knocked down a catch-and-shoot triple for the third time in the game, tying the contest at 70. He then found Johnson in transition, who knocked down his most open three of the game to give San Antonio the lead back and give him a game-high 22 points at the time.
Johnson forced another turnover, then lost a gamble giving Kuzma a back cut. Derrick White, however, reacted instantly and beat him to the spot, drawing a charge.
DeRozan hit a few contested jumpers, Rudy Gay did as well, and with some tough defense mixed in, a 7-point deficit turned into a 4-point lead for San Antonio.
The Spurs led 85-81 heading into the fourth.
The back-and-forth affair continued, with Keldon Johnson dueling LeBron on both ends. LeBron and Talen Horton-Tucker gave Los Angeles a three-point lead, but consecutive buckets from Murray and Walker erased that and led to a Laker timeout.
The defense struggled to communicate at points, but the activity level was phenomenal and they clamped down on a fantastic offensive team. Johnson drilled another triple, and White finished a tough floater.
Davis hit a three, but faced tough defense on a layup attempt, sending the ball into a pile of bodies where Johnson fought for it and DeRozan recovered it.
He drove for an and-1, but the three-point lead was short lived as Schroder got loose for an open three.
Rudy Gay got a nice three from the corner, but wasn't even close. He made up for the miss on a poor shooting night with a tie-up on LeBron, then scored an and-1 on the other end for another brief lead.
Los Angeles tied it moments later on another three from Davis. The Spurs blocked LeBron at the rim, but Kuzma scored a tip-in.
DeRozan wanted a foul call on a pull-up jumper to tie, which missed everything. The officials also swallowed their whistle on LeBron shoving White to the ground, and Johnson bumping James before his subsequent layup. White tried a three over LeBron, but it came up short and the Lakers hit free throws, winning 109-103.
Gregg Popovich started his pre-game media availability by confirming that Derrick White would make his season debut, but come off the bench with a minutes restriction. He said that LaMarcus Aldridge remains out with a sore knee, and he'll start Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker IV, DeMar DeRozan, Keldon Johnson, and Jakob Poeltl.
White was second in the league for blocks among guards, and second in the league in charges drawn, all while playing a smaller role off the bench for most of last year. In the bubble, he proved to be San Antonio's best two-way player by kicking up all parts of his versatile offensive game.
He signed a four-year contract extension worth $74 million at the last possible moment in the offseason, and figures to be a key piece in San Antonio for the foreseeable future. It will be interesting to see who plays fewer minutes as he eases back into the rotation.
In another long-awaited debut, San Antonio will play on their Fiesta-themed court for the first time in their new Fiesta jerseys. The Spurs will play with this court every time they don the teal, orange and pink at home, which really should be every time they play.
LeBron James will play after being listed as questionable again with a sore ankle. He had 26 points, 8 assists, 5 rebounds, a block and a steal in LA's 121-107 win over San Antonio on his 36th birthday Wednesday.
He was one of many who congratulated Becky Hammon on her historic achievement as the first woman to act as head coach in an NBA game. In Pop's first comments since getting tossed in the second quarter, he heaped praise on an assistant he believes is more than qualified to be an NBA head coach.
"We didn't hire Becky to make history, she earned it," Popovich said, acknowledging the barriers women face, especially in sports, while focusing on the gender-less reasons he pointed to Hammon and told her she was in charge on his way off the floor.
Like the rest of the Spurs who have talked about Hammon since she broke that glass ceiling Pop spoke about her as a leader with a brilliant basketball mind, a competitor who cares about her teammates, and somebody who absolutely belongs.
Popovich noted that the Lakers were her scout team, so it made the most sense to hand her the reins since she prepares the most for this matchup and as a result knows more about the Lakers than he does.
The next time Pop has some words for the officials and packs it in early, Mitch Johnson or Will Hardy may get the clipboard. That doesn't make Hammon any less qualified to lead this NBA team or any other one, it just makes her part of a merit-based system where everyone is valued. She seems to like that.