The San Antonio Spurs likely came into the night riding a whirlwind of emotions. There was the high of Monday’s thrilling OT victory over the surging Washington Wizards, but also the low of losing Derrick White likely for the season to a sprained ankle, putting a big dent in the chemistry the starters have been creating during their recent bounce back from a brutal post All-Star break stretch. Not only that, but timing couldn’t be much worse as they are now facing perhaps the most daunting stretch of schedule strength-wise, beginning with the Miami Heat.
The disruption of chemistry was on display early. With Devin Vassell moving to the starting line-up in the place of White, it was obvious the starting unit would need some time to get to know each other again. That issue was only compounded with Jakob Poeltl once again facing early foul trouble. It was a bad first quarter on both ends with the Spurs looking out of sorts and not sure what to do with the ball. They quickly found themselves down double-digits, and despite some substitutions to find a spark, it didn’t initially come has the lane remained wide open for the Heat, while the Good Guys couldn’t even buy a lay-up. They entered the second quarter down 31-20.
However, the bench finally showed up, starting the second quarter with back-to-back threes from Patty Mills and Lonnie Walker plus a bucket from Rudy Gay, kicking off a 19-7 run for their first lead of the game. Even though they ended up down 55-54 at the half thanks to a lucky banked three for Goran Dragic at the buzzer, it was still inspiring to see them respond after looking like they had nothing in the tank in the first quarter. Walker alone had 12 of his 18 points in the quarter to break out of his recent scoring slump.
Later in the third quarter, the starters seemed to be coming together and pulled off a 12-2 run to get their largest lead of the game at 74-67, including 7 confidence-boosting points from Devin Vassell after he started 0-4 from field. Unfortunately, in a reverse front the first half, the bench unit was the abysmal one in the third quarter. The defense instantly broke back down as Gregg Popovich started making substitutions, and anything resembling ball movement on offense stopped.
Almost the instant Poeltl was subbed out, the Heat started using former Spur Dewayne Dedmon to attack Drew Eubanks down low, and it worked. Pop eventually replaced him with Gorgui Dieng, but to not much better results. The Spurs went scoreless over the final four minutes of the third quarter while the Heat went on a 15-0 run to take an 82-74 lead heading into the fourth. These scoring droughts have been a common occurrence in most of the Spurs’ recent losses.
Dedmon would hit another shot to extend their run to 17-0 before consecutive threes by Gay and Walker broke the drought, forcing a Heat timeout. The Heat then did what they had done (and would continue to do) for the rest of the game: respond. Despite the Spurs finding their shooting touch again in the quarter, they couldn’t get any stops, and for a while the Heat managed to keep the lead between a relatively comfortable 6-10 points.
It initially felt like the Spurs would never string together enough stops to make a final push. When they went into a zone, the Heat had the shooters to work around it; when they played man-to-man, they couldn’t keep the Heat off the boards or avoid fouling. But, to their credit, the Spurs kept fighting. After getting down by 10 again with just over four minutes left, the Spurs went on a 7-0 run to make it a one-possession game with under two minutes left, but once again they couldn’t avoid the fouls and stop the offensive rebounds to truly threaten to force overtime, and they ended up losing 111-116.
Like several of the Spurs’ losses this season, this one wasn’t unexpected, especially with the loss of White, but it’s the way they got there — via an extended scoring drought and too many mistakes — that hurts. Fortunately for them, Portland laid one on Memphis tonight to keeping the two Southwest Division rivals tied at the 8th/9th seeds. A win would have been great to get the Spurs out ahead since Memphis owns the tie-breaker, but all they can do is regroup and take the remining games one at a time.
- For me, it’s a toss-up between the sleeved desert camos and the metallic silver uniforms as the ugliest in the Spurs history, but I’m not sure they hold a candle to these cotton candy uniforms the Heat were wearing. Not only are they an eyesore, but at the right angle and turned the correct way, they blended into the paint area. (Technically they’re inspired by Miami Vice, but I still just see cotton candy.)
- Despite missing his first four shots, Vassell showed his maturity in just the second start of his career and after inconsistent playing time of late. He was one of few Spurs who was almost never caught out of position on defense, and he kept taking the shots that were handed to him despite the early struggles. He ended up making four of his final six shots for 11 points. He’s not expected to completely replace White’s production, but he seems more than up for the job of trying.
- Pop called a mad timeout three minutes into the second quarter to yell at the refs after Bam Adebayo got away with both an offensive foul and travel all in one possession. His “lecture” initially appeared to work, as a couple of possessions later Bam was called for the same chicken wing on Dejounte Murray. (And honestly, he should have been called for a moving screen seconds before.) It almost worked again on the next possession when he was called for his third foul by charging into Poeltl, but Eric Spoelstra had it successfully overturned, instead giving Poeltl his third foul and sending him to the bench. Adebayo got away with at least one more chicken wing and travel later in the quarter, as well was a possible offensive basket interference, much to Pop’s dismay.
- Dedmon was really took it to his old ream tonight, scoring a season-high 18 points. (In fact, he and former Spurs draftee Dragic combined for all 36 of the bench points for the Heat.) Eubanks has been on a tear lately, but this game still showed what bigger centers with a good touch around the rim can do to him. Not many teams have that type of backup center, but the Heat is one of them.
- The Coach’s Challenge just isn’t Pop’s forte. With the Spurs trying to make a final run, he did not use it when they were down three with 1:29 left, and Dragic clearly shoved Murray into a Butler screen, but Murray was called for the foul. With the Heat in the bonus, Butler hit the free throws to make it a two-possession game once again. Pop finally used his challenge with the Spurs down three again, and Poeltl interfered with Butler’s landing space with 22 seconds left, giving him the game-icing free throws. While it was clear that challenge would be unsuccessful, and Pop was just using it because he had it, it would have been nice to see him use it on a call he actually could have won and played a roll in the eventual loss.
- How about ending on a high note? The fact that Murray somehow managed to have a triple-double consisting of 22 efficient points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists, and yet it was both surprising since it came so quietly but not a shocker to see such a stat line from him anymore is a testament to how far his game has come. There’s also this:
Dejounte Murray has four triple-doubles this season.— Jordan Howenstine (@AirlessJordan) April 29, 2021
Tim Duncan had 4 in his entire 19-year career. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili combined for 1.
Next up: @ Boston Celtics
The Spurs continue their mega-tough stretch of schedule in Boston against the Celtics on Friday, April 30 at 6:30 PM CT on BSSW. (If you’re wondering what makes it so tough, the next three games after that are at home against the 76ers before two consecutive games at the home the West’s leading team, the Utah Jazz. Yikes.)