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Spurs fight hard, fail to mount comeback against Jazz

The Spurs could never put together a run that seriously threatened the Jazz’s control of the game.

NBA: Utah Jazz at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

After easily dispatching an incredibly shorthanded Pistons team, the Spurs had a tougher challenge ahead, as a mostly healthy Jazz team waited for them in the second game of a back-to-back. The Silver and Black fought valiantly, but familiar issues put them in a hole early that they could never claw their way out of, en route to a 110-104 loss to a superior opponent.

As far as losses go, this one at least had some interesting moments and coaching decisions. Despite both teams having elite rim protectors and missing their main ball handlers, the start of the first quarter was characterized by the Jazz and the Spurs going at each other with drives to the rim. The perimeter defenses were struggling to contain opponents at the point of attack, which put the bigs in the precarious position of having to help almost constantly. Utah handled it better than San Antonio, as the size of the visiting team became a problem in the offensive glass. The game plans changed later in the period, once the benches checked in and starting to take more jumpers, but once again the Jazz had the upper hand. The Spurs settled for reasonably good short pull-ups, but the threes were not falling for them and did for their opponents, which allowed them to create some separation.

The constant pressure put on the bigs in the opening frame continued in the second period, and it resulted in foul trouble for both Rudy Gobert and Jakob Polelt. Gobert got his second whistle early in the quarter while Poeltl was limited midway through, when he racked up his third. While the defensive anchors suffered, the offenses stalled, so there was no scoring explosion. The Spurs managed to get some fastbreak points to offset their half court woes while the Jazz had a strong stretch that allowed them to build a bigger lead, but neither team looked sharp. Things got interesting when Gobert got his third foul and both teams went small, with five perimeter players on the floor to end the half, but there was no big run from either side then, either. Utah simply hit timely shot from outside and got the line and that was enough to secure them a double-digit lead heading into the break.

Foul trouble for the centers was the biggest thing to watch in the third quarter, and like in many other aspects, the Spurs just got the short end of the stick on Monday. Despite attacking Gobert early, the Silver and Black simply could get a fourth whistle, but the Jazz managed to do that with Poeltl. Jock Landale filled in well in his stead on defense, as Gregg Popovich adjusted and decided to keep his big man near the basket and rely on the perimeter defenders to stay in front of their men or recover in time. On the other end, Derrick White finally started showing aggression after a hesitant first half and there were some stretches in which the offense had more fluidity to it than it did earlier. Unfortunately, the Jazz always seemed to get a bucket or a stop when needed, which prevented San Antonio from actually evening things out.

That inability to make a big run was what doomed the Spurs in the end. The Jazz started the final period strong by hitting shots and tightening their interior defense, which seemed to spell doom for the Silver and Black, but a few threes went in and a comeback didn’t seem impossible if San Antonio could put together a dominant stretch. Alas, it never happened, even when at times it seemed like it was about to. The best way to exemplify how hard it was to figure out if the game was completely out of reach or there for the taking was seeing Pop try to clear his bench twice only to see a couple of good possessions and changing his mind before actually going through with it. Once he did, the third stringers managed to finally cut the lead under double digits, but it was too late by then.

Game notes

  • The first thing anyone would note about the boxscore is the massive free throw disparity, as the Jazz took 30 free throws to the Spurs’ nine. There were some questionably calls, but in general nothing shady or even surprising was going on. Utah ranks second in free throws per game and San Antonio last. Combine that with some struggles to box out that resulted in fouls that the Spurs normally don’t commit and it all makes sense.
  • Both teams shot rather poorly from outside but the Jazz hit a couple late in the first quarter to create separation. From then on they were in control. Then in the fourth quarter, after three San Antonio threes in a short span cut the lead to 11, Joe Ingles hit a crucial one. Sometimes threes have the added value of facilitating or stopping runs.
  • Jock Landale, who initially cracked the rotation the last time the Spurs played the Jazz, couldn’t show his worth on offense in this one. Landale missed four of his five three-pointers and had a couple of bad turnovers. It happens. He should definitely still be the first big man off the bench going forward, for now.
  • The Spurs seemed to miss Dejounte Murray in this one more than the Jazz missed Donovan Mitchell. Derrick White was not aggressive early on and Lonnie Walker IV settled for jumpers too often. Meanwhile, Jordan Clarkson and Joe Ingles handled the scoring load well for Utah.

Play of the night

Devin Vassell, from the rafters.

SVP awards

3rd place (1 point) - Devin Vassell | 13 points, six rebounds

Keldon Johnson has a case for this spot, but Vassell edges him out on efficiency and per minute production. There was nothing spectacular about Vassell’s performance (other than that dunk) but he was solid. Good defense, some shot making and help on the boards were enough for him to stand out on a night in which there were a few solid performances but no great ones.

2nd place (2 points) - Doug McDermott | 17 points, three three-pointers, four shots at the rim

McDermott making three of his six outside looks is not that remarkable, since he’s a three-point shooting specialist. What is noteworthy is that he was also effective inside. He’s a good cutter, but it was interesting to see him catch the ball on the move after a hand-off and aggressively attack the rim, even when Gobert was patrolling the paint. Good stuff from McBuckets on offense, which makes up for his other shortcomings.

1st place (3 points) - Derrick White | 21 points, eight assists, three steals

When he’s not looking to pass on every possession, White is such a well-rounded offensive player. He can run the pick and roll, hit floaters and pull up from three. He did all of those things against the Jazz, after a hesitant start, and was the one who kept delaying the clearing off the bench with buckets. If a three-pointer he launched late had gone in instead of rimming out, the ending would have had a lot more suspense. Hopefully White realizes that he has to play with aggression the entire game, especially with Murray out. If he does, he’ll be even more valuable than he already is.

Season leaderboard

1st - Dejounte Murray - 49pts

2nd - Derrick White - 34pts

3rd - Keldon Johnson - 23pts

4th - Devin Vassell - 22pts

5th - Jakob Poeltl - 19pts

6th - Lonnie Walker IV - 13pts

7th - Thaddeus Young, Doug McDermott & Bryn Forbes - 9pts

8th - Keita Bates-Diop - 4pts

9th - Jock Landale - 3pts

10th - Drew Eubanks - 2pts

11th - Josh Primo & Tre Jones - 1pt

Next game: Vs. Heat on Wednesday

The Spurs will end their three-game homestand against the Heat before embarking on a seven-game road trip. Miami is fourth in the East but is missing several key players, so it could be an opportunity for San Antonio to get a win against another good team.