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Spurs squander 17-point lead in loss to Knicks, still clinch play-in spot

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San Antonio failed to punch their ticket to the play-in tournament with a win, but Sacramento does it for them.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at New York Knicks POOL PHOTOS-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs failed to take control of their destiny in New York, losing to the Knicks 102-98 in a game in which a win would have clinched them a spot in the play-in tournament. Ultimately it didn’t matter that they failed to capitalize on their second-half 17-point lead, as a Grizzlies victory over the Kings secured them the chance to fight for a spot in the playoffs.

There was enough at stake to make this game entertaining, but not to make it pretty. With the Knicks fresh off a long trip home from Los Angeles and the Spurs on a SEGABABA, it wasn’t surprising to see some ugly basketball early on. Both offenses struggled greatly, in part because of shot selection. There were too many wild drives and contested jumpers being launched, as neither squad seemed to be operating at anywhere near their best level. The Knicks have an edge on offensive rebounding and Julius Randle provided them with some scoring, which is why the home team led for the majority of the first period, but were never really able to create separation until early in the next quarter.

The edge New York worked hard to create in those initial minutes of the second frame didn’t last, as the Spurs’ bench eventually made a run to erase what at one point had been a nine-point lead. San Antonio did a good job of containing Julius Randle in that period, which on a night in which Derrick Rose was resting would have meant hamstringing the Knicks’ offense. Unfortunately for the Silver and Black, Alec Burks went off for 14 of his total 30 points in the second to carry the scoring load. Ultimately both teams traded buckets after that original run by the home team, looking a little sharper than they did in the first 12 minutes, but never showing great execution.

The Spurs had more on the line, since the Knicks had already secured a playoff spot, and they showed it by playing with more urgency in the third quarter. It also helped that they literally couldn’t miss for a long stretch, starting the second half with 13 consecutive makes. Everything was falling for Silver and Black while New York struggled greatly, and the result was a 17-point lead, mostly built by the starters. When the bench checked in, however, things changed. The offense suddenly went cold, as the Knicks upped the pressure, and the defense couldn’t get enough stops to sustain the lead, which stood at only four going into the final period.

The momentum swing going into the final period proved to be huge. The Knicks started the fourth quarter attacking, making the Spurs’ defense collapse, and finding open shooters in the corners that didn’t miss. As he typically does late in games, DeRozan did his best to keep San Antonio in it, but Burks had another massive stretch to carry the offense for the home team. The game came to the final minutes, and the issues in the clutch that the Spurs have been having for a while now reared their ugly head. A Keldon Johnson and-1 with 10 seconds left to get the deficit to just one provided some momentary hope, but the Knicks hit two free throws to get back up three and then fouled, knowing the Spurs had no more timeouts. DeRozan tried to miss the second free throw, but didn’t even hit the rim.

Fortunately for the Spurs, the Grizzlies saved the day, so the loss didn’t really cost them anything. They’ll go into the final two games of the season with no pressure and might even get to rest some of their veterans.

Game notes

  • DeMar DeRozan was the only scorer to have an efficient shooting night for the Spurs, finishing with 28 points in 17 shots, thanks to his seven made free throws. Dejounte Murray and Lonnie Walker IV both had more shots than points, although it needs to be said that Murray did dish out seven assists. In general, the offense is not going to do well when at least two of those three struggle, unless the bench goes nuts.
  • The bench didn’t go nuts! Rudy Gay and Patty Mills combined to make just two threes in nine attempts and Gay wasn’t feeling it from inside the arc, either. Devin Vassell wasn’t a factor at all and saw his second half minutes cut, as Pop went back to DeRozan when the Knicks were making their comeback. It was just a bad night on offense in general, which is to be expected against a great defense.
  • Keldon Johnson tried his best against Randle and at least in the first half forced him to take jumpers. In the second half the entire defense struggled to handle Randle and Burks, so it’s hard to blame Keldon for Randle dishing out six assists. On the other end, Johnson hit a couple of threes and generally did his job. Solid performance despite a tough matchup for the young forward.
  • The centers, Jakob Poeltl and Drew Eubanks, had eight points and nine rebounds each, and Jakob had three blocks to Eubanks’ two. The stat line is decent, but Poeltl struggled on the defensive glass at times and Eubanks was not as efficient as he tends to be on offense, despite some great work on the offensive glass. A mixed performance by the big men.
  • Three-pointers were the difference on this one. The Knicks had 14, with Alec Burks and RJ Barrett having five each. Part of why they got good looks was just good execution on offense and smart passes by Randle, but the Spurs’ defense was not great at staying with shooters. Definitely something to work on, thinking about the play-in.

Next game: Vs. Suns on Saturday

Will the Spurs rest players, knowing they are locked in to the 10th spot, or will they prioritize working on their execution in the last two games of the season? The former seems like the more likely scenario, but if this loss left a bad taste in his mouth, Pop might decide to focus on improving before the play-in.