The Spurs seemed poised to beat the 76ers on the road after having secured an eight-point lead with under three minutes to go. They hadn’t played well, especially on defense, but no one was going to dwell too much on that if they actually secured the W, like they seemed they would. And then it all fell apart.
Ben Simmons got loose in transition to cut the lead to six with 2:15 to go, then again to find Landry Shamet alone beyond the arc for a three that made it a one possession game. After the third empty offensive trip in a row for San Antonio, Marco Belinelli and Rudy Gay botched a switch and JJ Redick got free for a three-pointer while also being fouled by a desperate Gay.
That was it. Neither team would have another field goal for the rest of the game. After being on the wrong end of a 10-0 run — Corey Brewer scored a free throw — the Spurs dropped a game they had several opportunities to close against a shorthanded 76ers team, 122-120.
The loss itself is not terrible. The Sixers are good, even without Jimmy Butler, and the Spurs are not great on the road. The way they lost, however, is heartbreaking, especially after having stretches of good play.
The start of the game was disturbingly familiar, as the defense outside of LaMarcus Aldridge was soft and a little slow while the offense was mostly reactive, settling for the shots the opponent was conceding. We’ve seen that from the starters a lot recently. Fortunately we’ve also seen what can happen when the bench checks in. Despite missing Davis Bertans, the subs came out firing and got the Spurs back in the game. Outside shots were key to keeping San Antonio’s offense going, as DeRozan shot well but couldn’t get his driving game going and the Sixers patrolled the paint well when others tried to penetrate. It wasn’t the most sustainable way to score, but putting points on the board didn’t prove to be an issue until the final minutes.
On the other end the Spurs seemed to have a plan. Neither team could actually prevent the other from scoring almost at will, but wearing down Joel Embiid seemed like a good strategy against a Philadelphia team missing a star and boasting a shallow bench. While other Sixers got easy buckets, the Spurs made Embiid work for every one of his, with Aldridge in particular doing a good enough job on him to keep him from going off early. There were signs that stratagem was working, too. At times in the third quarter the Sixers’ center showed signs of fatigue and tightness in his back, an ailment that almost kept him from playing. He still willed his team to tie the game to end the third quarter after the Spurs had secured a seven-point lead, but was clearly getting tired.
The game plan paid off in the fourth quarter. Embiid made his last bucket with just under seven minutes to go. In the ensuing minutes, the Spurs took control of the game and seemed to have fresher legs to close it out. They turned to DeMar DeRozan, who had been scoring well for most of the game, to seal the win. He couldn’t. Then the mistakes started to pile on, leading to an unexpected collapse. Watching it all happen in real time was painful yet it also felt uncomfortably familiar. The timing of the errors was especially grating but their nature — poor execution on transition defense and switches, lazy passes and predictable offense — was all too recognizable. In the end the Spurs were done in by exactly the type of seemingly minor issues that have been bothering them again for a while now.
I’ll say it again: this is not a terrible loss if we zoom out. It was on the road and against a good team. I get that it’s probably the last thing any Spurs fan wants to hear right now. It’s understandable to be frustrated and even angry right now, because it’s never fun to see the Spurs beat themselves like they did on Wednesday. But as long as they bounce back, this game won’t probably matter in the long run.
Here’s hoping the Spurs figure things out going forward and we get to wash off the bad taste this loss left in our mouths with a decisive win on Saturday.
- I’m not sounding the alarm just yet, but the decline on defense is real and it is a little concerning. The Spurs rank 18th in defensive rating in January. They need to step it up on that end.
- DeRozan broke out of the slump that he’s been in recently. He dropped 26 points on 19 shots, looking comfortable when puling up from mid-range. Next he’ll have to fix his driving game. He’s turning the ball over a lot when he goes to the rim, either getting stripped or making last second passes that are intercepted. Still, a good game by DeMar. He needed one of those.
- LaMarcus Aldridge didn’t have a great offensive game but he did great work on Embiid on defense, especially in the first half. He was one of the few Spurs who did well on that end, along with Bryn Forbes, who rarely lost Redick in the second half, and Derrick White, who tried his best against Ben Simmons.
- Rudy Gay had such a weird game. He stuffed the stat sheet, finishing with 17 points, four rebounds, three assists and two steals and made a couple of plays on defense to boot. He also fouled three-point shooters twice, was in foul trouble throughout and was a part of two costly mistakes late. His performance was a mixed bag but had more good than bad.
- The team missed Davis Bertans, out for personal reasons. His absence forced Pop to shrink his rotations and the centers — especially Jakob Poeltl — missed the spacing he provides. Davis is a key part of the rotation now.
- The Spurs didn’t miss Bertans’ scoring that much because Patty Mills, Forbes and Belinelli combined for 11 three-pointers in 20 attempts. Those guys did their job. So did Derrick White, who finished with 15 points and five assists. The guards were good, at least on offense.
- After all the tanking, Brett Brown now has a 158-300 record as head coach. I’m wondering if he’ll get to above .500 while still coaching the 76ers. The talent is there — Embiid and Simmons are monsters — but there are some volatile personalities in that locker room that might cause Brown to get fired before he gets there. Right now I think he’ll leave Philadelphia with a losing record. Let me know what you think.
Up next: @Pelicans on Saturday
The Spurs will visit the Anthony Davis-less Pelicans. They should beat them if they go into New Orleans with the appropriate fear, as Pop likes to call it.