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Spurs control crunch time for a hard-fought win over the Pelicans

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The Spurs won a game that wasn’t always pretty at the free throw line.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at New Orleans Pelicans Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs battled through a rough and uneven contest against the Pelicans to limp away from New Orleans with a 110-108 victory. Despite leading for nearly the entire game and building multiple double-digit leads, the Spurs were never able to put their hosts away. Only a late 14-4 burst saved the Silver and Black from dropping a game they could have had well in hand, and one that would have been especially costly given the two teams’ relative standing in the Western Conference playoff race.

Instead, the Spurs managed to eke out the win thanks to their unbelievably lucky free throw defense, as the Pelicans hit just 53.1% from the line. The two teams took the same number of freebies, 32, but the Spurs made 27 to the Pelicans’ 17, a 10-point swing that more than made up for the Spurs’ struggles from deep (9/31) and uncharacteristically sloppy play (17 turnovers).

Midway through the first quarter, the game seemed headed in a different direction. After a bit of a slow start, the Spurs went on a quick 12-0 run to take a 14-6 lead and seemed well on their way to eviscerating the Pelicans’ 27th ranked defense. Unfortunately, the Spurs couldn’t sustain that easy flow, and after a little back and forth, descended into a stint of haphazard and careless offense, a pattern that would repeat itself several times.

The Pelicans’ physical defense had a lot to do with that, as did the struggles of the Spurs’ bench. As the fouls and turnovers mounted, the Spurs’ lead dwindled to just 1 point midway through the 2nd quarter. But the good guys righted the ship, stretching their lead back out to 9 with some timely shooting from deep and a DeMar DeRozan and-1 to build the margin they would take into halftime.

Early in the third quarter, the Spurs looked to be on the brink of breaking the game open as their leaded see-sawed around the double-digit mark. But once again they stumbled into a cold spell, and the Pelicans clawed their way all the way back to tie it up at 82. After trading a Derrick White three and a pair of Zion Williamson free throws, the Spurs snuck into the 4th quarter with just a 1 point lead.

With the game well within reach, the Pelicans attacked. Williamson played all but 44 seconds of the the final stanza, scoring 12 of his 33 points on the night as the Pelicans seized control of the game just over halfway through the quarter. Williamson was all but unstoppable, bullying his way inside with his unique combination of size, strength and explosiveness. Tasked with defending the undefendable, Keldon Johnson matched him second for second and, along with a team-wide defensive scheme focused on sending extra bodies and crashing the defensive boards, managed to make life difficult on the young star.

Still, the Pelicans held a 5 point lead with less than 4 minutes to go when the Spurs finally strapped in for a stretch run. White drilled a three and made life difficult on Brandon Ingram, Johnson and Jakob Poeltl protected the rim and glass, and DeRozan made big shot after big shot to close the game. He started with an and-1 over Williamson before earning and making a pair of free throws, and then knocking down back to back difficult 17-footers. After Lonzo Ball missed a three on the ensuing possession, the game was basically over.

Game Notes

  • For such a choppy game, there were an inordinate amount of highlight reel plays. From Poeltl’s block that turned into a magical Dejounte Murray mid-air catch-and-release for a Johnson dunk, to Luka Samanic cutting out of the corner when DeMar broke free from backcourt pressure for a sweet two-handed jam, White’s two-handed stuff of Jaxson Hayes at the rim in the 4th quarter, you really need to catch the highlights of the game if you can, or at least check PtR’s Twitter feed.
  • Speaking of blocks, Jakob ended the night with five and was visibly altering shots all night long. Clearly jealous of Jakob’s impact, Drew Eubanks tried to stuff the stat sheet a little after blocking a shot and grabbing the rebound. He immediately gave the ball away on a poorly considered outlet, but then blocked the ensuing layup attempt and grabbed that board as well, a sequence that perfectly encapsulates the Eubanks experience. You might get the outcome you want, or you might not, but either way, you’re going to enjoy the ride.
  • In addition to closing the Pelicans down with authority, DeMar finished the night with 32 points, including a perfect 12 of 12 from the free throw line, to go with 8 assists and 7 rebounds. White added in 22 points and Johnson chipped in 14 points and 9 boards.
  • Defending Williamson is a nightmare. The Spurs were extremely aggressive about not allowing a small to get switched onto him and sent help constantly. They were so concerned with his drives that they were leaving a guard to deal with Steven Adams on the offensive glass so Jakob could be ready to double Williamson on the drive. And even with all that attention, there was a stretch of the 4th quarter where it just didn’t matter. Aside from Williamson’s incredible physicality and touch, he is also extremely adept at using his power to draw fouls. Several Spurs suffered the horrible fate of taking a Williamson shoulder directly to the chest, which collapsed their vertical position, allowing Williamson to draw light contact on his way up. Fortunately for the Spurs, he hit just 7 of his 13 free throws, which proved to be the difference in the game.
  • The Spurs’ lucky free throw defense couldn’t have come on a better night, because they couldn’t hit anything from deep. Derrick White made 4 of his 8 attempts, while the rest of the team combined to hit just 5 out of 23.

Next game: @Wizards on Monday

The Spurs will be back in action in Washington D.C. on Monday evening to face the Wizards. As both teams sit on the precipice of the lottery, each needs every win they can get as they fight for a chance to play in the postseason.