It was yet another close game that came down to the final seconds for San Antonio, a familiar sight for fans at this point. Unlike Monday’s heartbreaking loss to the Pacers, however, the Spurs prevailed against the Hornets in the second game of a back-to-back and escaped Charlotte with a 104-103 win.
Dejounte Murray led all players with 21 points for the night while Tim Duncan filled the role of acting head coach, as Gregg Popovich was away tending to personal business. Terry Rozier paced the Hornets with 20 points of his own, but botched the last play, which could have given his team the win.
The game started in the most predictable way possible, with the tired Spurs looking lethargic and outmatched inside and the Hornets taking advantage of their youth, size and athleticism to dominate the matchup physically. They got offensive boards and drove for uncontested shots in the paint while giving San Antonio trouble on the other end with their length. LaMarcus Aldridge, who remains out with a shoulder injury, was sorely missed, as interior defense was an issue for the Spurs no matter who between Rudy Gay, Trey Lyles and Drew Eubanks was manning the center position. The hole inside, combined with a perimeter defense that lacked physicality, allowed a Hornets team missing its leading scorer to drop 36 points in the first 12 minutes.
In the second quarter the Spurs rallied, largely thanks to their edge in talent. Some of the Hornets players who had looked like world beaters early on faded, in part because their level was unsustainable and because San Antonio started to play with more of an edge on defense at the point of attack. A sense of urgency was enough to turn the tide on that end, while some inspired play by Dejounte Murray and Derrick White jump started the offense. Suddenly it became harder for the Hornets to generate good looks and keep the Spurs from getting them, both in transition and the half court. Charlotte reacted quickly enough to prevent a big run, but a lead that had reached 17 at one point was reduced to nine at the half.
Both teams traded buckets for a couple of minutes to start the second half, until Murray decided to take over. The young guard was as aggressive as he’s ever been hunting for his shot while also remaining a pest on defense to fuel a mini run that gave the Spurs momentum midway through the period.
San Antonio would actually take the lead for the first time on the night on a Bryn Forbes three-pointer with under seven minutes left in the third and seemed primed to create some separation, but once again the Hornets responded. The Silver and Black would carry a one-point lead to the final period but there was a sense that they had missed their opportunity to create a buffer to protect against the inconsistent fourth-quarter play that has become a staple at this point.
Fortunately they faced an opponent that simply lacked the talent to make them pay. Charlotte never went away, not even when San Antonio held a seven-point lead with a little over two minutes to go, but they also never found enough firepower and defensive consistency to get the win. Because these are the 2019/20 Spurs, however, of course the game would have a suspenseful ending. The Hornets kept driving and getting buckets late while San Antonio’s offense went dry. Terry Rozier cut the lead to one with 43 seconds to go and, after a DeMar DeRozan miss, had the opportunity to get the win in the last play. Unfortunately for Charlotte, instead of taking a tough layup attempt he tried to pass the ball but turned it over. His teammates didn’t react quickly enough to foul to extend the game, and that was it.
While it felt good to watch a team fail to execute late and not have that team be the Spurs, it’s hard to be too happy about such a close win against such a limited opponent, even while shorthanded. Other than Murray’s performance, there were not a lot of positives to take away from this one.
At this point, however, even unremarkable wins against bad teams are essential to keeping the postseason dream alive, so it would be pointless to focus too much on the bad. As long as the Ws keep coming, it doesn’t matter how uninspiring they might be.
- DeMar DeRozan was once again in distributor mode, finishing the game with just 12 points in 11 shots but tallying 10 assists. It’s good to see him share the ball so willingly but at some point he’ll have to go back to scoring like the star he is. In the past five games he’s averaging 15 points a game, and that number would be much lower if not for a 27-point outing against the Mavericks.
- Murray was terrific, finishing the game with 21 points on just 14 shots despite not attempting a single free throw. His mid-range jumper is elite at this point, and his three-point shooting is coming along nicely. All that’s missing now is more consistency, but hopefully that will come in time.
- Derrick White took five three-pointers, much to my delight. He also did a little bit of everything on defense, logging two steals and two blocks. At his best, White has an almost Ginobili-esque ability to affect the game without needing to score.
- Once again the Spurs really missed LaMarcus Aldridge and Jakob Poeltl. Drew Eubanks tries hard and can occasionally make plays on both ends, but he’s not a rotation-caliber player at this point. Going small is a better option, but Rudy Gay and Trey Lyles can only survive on the glass for stretches. Hopefully Aldridge will return soon because getting out-rebounded so thoroughly is not fun.
- With Marco Belinelli out, Coach Timmy gave Keldon Johnson some minutes, and the rookie looked like he belonged. Luka Samanic, however, didn’t get playing time at all.
- Patty Mills and Bryn Forbes combined to go 3-for-11 from beyond the arc but had 10 free throw attempts between the two. It’s always a big boost when shooters get to the line.
- This was my stance on Lonnie Walker IV missing bunnies or dunks by getting fancy two months ago:
Lonnie Walker IV sometimes misses layups because he gets too fancy, but I honestly don't care. Keep going for those pretty finger rolls, you magnificent weirdo.— Jeje Gomez (@JejeGomezNBA) January 3, 2020
I stand by it. Walker missed a dunk and a layup that should have gone in, but I’m not mad. At some point he’ll need to either make the fancy shots or stop attempting them, but for now I’ll enjoy the show.
Next game: @Nets on Friday
The Nets have not been playing well recently, but they can be dangerous. Hopefully the Spurs will be well-rested and ready to go from the jump.