Maybe it was jitters from this being the first game with fans in the AT&T Center in over a year. Or maybe it was getting used to yet another jumbled rotation, with Trey Lyles starting in place of DeMar DeRozan, who was away from the team to attend his father’s private funeral. Whatever the reason, the loyal fans who showed up expecting the San Antonio Spurs to come out on fire and give them a treat right off the bat were just going to have to wait a bit because that’s how this team rolls.
The final score of 104-77 may not indicate it, but that first quarter was really rough. With the Spurs returning home on a two-game losing streak, things didn’t look promising at the start. Despite facing a severely short-handed Orlando Magic team, the Spurs spent the first quarter looking jittery, unsure of themselves, and just not ready to play. Derrick White had two fouls in the first two minutes. Dejounte Murray had another cold start, going 1-6 from the field during his first stint on the floor. The defense was horrible, the shot selection left much to be desired, and just like that the Spurs were down 29-16 at the end of the quarter (and frankly fortunate it wasn’t more after a late Magic three was removed between quarters once video review ruled it a shot clock violation).
However, if this squad has taught us anything this season, it’s not to judge a book by its cover — or in this case, a game by its first quarter. It’s gotten to the point that you almost expect this team to get down in the first, and as the previous games showed, if they don’t something will go wrong later. If it’s a typical Spurs win, the game goes something like this: bad first quarter, world-beating second, meh third, and a good/great fourth, and that’s exactly how this one played out.
The Spurs finally started fighting back once the clock was reset to 12 minutes, and that was pretty much the ball game. White — who as mentioned two nights ago typically needs a game or so to find his footing after long layoffs — was desperate to see something fall, and it finally did in the form of two straight threes as part of 10-0 run to tie things back. Murray came out of his funk with 10 straight points and 13 overall in the quarter. The defense tightened up, forcing 6 turnovers, and overall they outscored Orlando 31-10 to take a 47-39 halftime lead.
Then comes the “meh” third quarter. The Spurs stayed hot to start the second half and stretched their lead to as much as 14, but a SIX-point play (you read that right) swung the momentum back in the Magic’s favor, and they got within three points on a 22-7 run. But the Spurs bench did what they do, thanks to two threes from Devin Vassell and one a piece from Rudy Gay and Patty Mills, and the Spurs stretched the lead back to 74-64 leading into heading into fourth.
And now the good/great fourth quarter. The Spurs opened things up on a 9-0 run, including seven straight from Gay, and they never looked back or needed any crunch time miracles as they outscored the Magic 30-13 for the comfortable blowout and allowed Gregg Popovich to empty his bench relatively early. Here’s how the four quarter splits came out, and although the 2nd and 4th quarter differences are a pretty extreme, it still follows that classic trend of a Spurs win this season:
- 1st: 16-29 (-13)
- 2nd: 31-10 (+21)
- 3rd: 27-25 (+2)
- 4th: 30-13 (+17)
They’re going to have to keep performing like this against inferior opponents, especially with the daunting schedule to come. That’s especially true this upcoming week, when starting on Sunday in Philadelphia, the Spurs will have five games in seven nights, all on the road and with travel in between each game. They’re all against East Coast teams, and at least three of them should be very winnable (Pistons, Bulls, and Cavaliers sandwiched between the 76ers — who may be without Joel Embiid — and Bucks), but it will require all hands on deck and putting teams away early so they don’t have to spend a lot of energy playing catch-up or staving off runs.
DeRozan should rejoin the team for the road trip, and the roster should be as complete as it’s been possibly at all this season (sans LaMarcus Aldridge). The gauntlet begins now, and they’ll need more team efforts on both ends of the court like tonight’s to keep pace. And if that requires waiting through a classic bad first quarter before they work their second quarter magic, then so be it. Just win, and don’t take too long to get there.
- The aforementioned six-point play started when Keldon Johnson got called for a flagrant foul early in the third quarter after Chuma Okeke landed on his foot on a three-point attempt. The contact was extremely minimal — if anything Okeke sensed it and pulled his heel up after barely touching Johnson’s foot but made sure to fall to show there was contact — but as Spurs fans know all too well, defenders just can’t impede a player’s ability to safely land, no ifs, ands or buts about it. Okeke hit all three technical free throws, and then another three on the ensuing possession to achieve the six-point play. (That has to be rare enough, but I’d love to know how many players have actually accomplished one of those on their own, not through a “team” effort where one player shoots the FTs and another scores the bucket).
- Second-time All-Star Nikola Vucevic was the only bright spot for the extremely shorthanded Magic, scoring 26 points on 12-18 shooting and 2-2 from three. It’s like he was out to show everyone who says he’d be a repetitive talent to Aldridge wrong. He could also be seen chatting with Pop after the game. Is there anything to that, considering the Spurs have been rumored to be interested in him? Probably not, but it’s fun to speculate since that’s all we have.
- Vassell was the last Spur to return from COVID 19 protocols, and it’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly a month since he last played: on Valentine’s Day against the Charlotte Hornets. (There was something else going on that night — oh yes, that was when the White Walkers arrived at Texasfell and brought winter with them, and just like Game of Thrones itself, everything went bad from there. Wait, I’ve gotten way off topic, back to Vassell.) Interestingly, Vassell’s three field goals in this game marked his first made shot in exactly a month since he didn’t score in that Charlotte game, so you have to go back to Atlanta on February 12 for the last time he hit a bucket.
Next up: Spurs at Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday, March 14. Tip-off will be a 5:30 PM CT on FSSW and NBA TV.