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Spurs close regular season with exciting but meaningless loss to resting Suns

NBA: Phoenix Suns at San Antonio Spurs Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

Against a Phoenix Suns squad that prioritized rest over chasing the West’s 1st seed, the near full strength Spurs failed to seize control of the game early. Despite heavy first half minutes from the team’s starters, with DeMar DeRozan, Dejounte Murray and Jakob Poeltl each playing 20 minutes in the first two quarters, the Spurs still found themselves down midway through the third quarter. With a playin game that actually matters looming in just two days, the Spurs relied on their bench the rest of the way, and though a late run made it interesting, they eventually fell 123-121.

Of course, in a game of no consequence to the Spurs, leaving the court with no serious injuries is the most important result, although they didn’t quite escape injury free. Drew Eubanks took an inadvertent elbow to the face in a rebounding scrum in the first half and didn’t return until the 4th quarter.

As for the actual basketball, the Spurs got off to a rough start. Whether it was the game’s lack of relevance or seeing Chris Paul and Devin Booker on the bench, the team wasn’t competitive on defense and struggled to attack on offense. The Suns, even missing their two best players, were clearly too good for the now 33-39 Spurs to take lightly, and took an early 11 to 5 lead. The Spurs’ struggled to make shots, but managed to stay close, finishing the quarter down just 4, 27-23, thanks to a Frank Kaminsky three pointer that didn’t quite get out of his hands before the buzzer.

The second quarter began with more of the same, as the Silver and Black just couldn’t get the Suns’ defense out of position. For the first few minutes, their drives always seem to run into help defenders and their passes arrived a half a moment too late to take advantage of rotations. But then Tre Jones got loose for a fast break layup that seemed to bring the Spurs to life. Keldon Johnson followed up with buckets on a pair full back dives that left Dario Saric on the baseline both times, once after trying to absorb the contact and once voluntarily after having learned his lesson.

Then Rudy Gay happened. He started off with a pair of three pointers, then jumped a passing lane and managed to hold off rookie Jalen Smith long enough to throw down a left-handed fastbreak dunk. He then closed out the Suns next possession with a rebound and brought the ball up the court, smiling the entire way, before finding Jakob with a nice over the top entry for a layup. His one-man 10-2 run took the Spurs from down 3 to up 5. Fortunately, he left his mojo on the floor when he subbed out less than a minute later and the Spurs continued the run, stretching their lead out to 12 at one point and ending the half up 61-52.

They were unable to carry that momentum into the 3rd quarter, though. The Suns opened the stanza with a 9-2 run of their own to get the game back to a 2 point margin after just over 2 minutes of play, and would eventually take the lead 70-69. After a little back and forth, the visitors began to open up their advantage, a process that was helped along by the Spurs decision to begin pulling their starters midway through the period.

As the game approached what might typically be called garbage time, it actually got more interesting. The Spurs reserves fell behind by double digits midway through the fourth, but then fought their way all the way back to take a 1 point lead with 10.1 seconds to go. Tre Jones had drawn a shooting foul and made his first freebie to draw within 1, but missed his second. Keita Bates-Diop tipped in the rebound, giving the Spurs the lead and a real shot at sneaking out of the gym with a victory. It wasn’t to be. E’twaun Moore hit a contested three from the top of the key with 2 seconds to go and the Spurs last second response was blocked.

Game Notes

  • Jakob did a great job of exploiting his advantages over the Suns’ big men in this game. He finished with 17 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocks, but his influence on the boards and at the rim was even greater than what those numbers capture. The Suns made several difficult shots in the lane over the big Austrian, but his ability to contest without fouling consistently turned open layups and floaters into difficult attempts that just happened to fall.
  • Only Patty Mills missed today’s game due to rest, but none of the Spurs played over 30 minutes. With a contest that actually matters in three days, it’s a little surprising the key starters played as much as they did, but after the marathon end to this season, less than 30 minutes of playing time with days off on both sides probably feels like a vacation.
  • Early in the broadcast, it was mentioned that DeMar was just outside the top 10 in the NBA in assists and had a chance to sneak onto the list if he racked up a good number in this game. Of course, that meant the Spurs bricked just about everything he set up. His first assist didn’t come until 8 seconds were left in the 1st quarter, when he was given a very generous helper on a Rudy Gay drive and pull up jumper. He finished the contest with 4 assists to go with his team high 23 points, which sadly won’t be enough to earn that particular meaningless honor.
  • Both teams relied on a significant amount of zone defense, and both were helped by equally significant amount of bad zone offense by their opponents. Missing their two superstar guards, the Suns obviously have a good reason for their struggles. Still, the Spurs zone defense did have a couple of solid stretches, most notably in the 2nd quarter when they took to trapping the ball handler on the wings in certain cases. One of those traps led to Rudy’s steal and slam.

Next game: Tuesday night against the winner of today’s Grizzlies/Warriors contest

As I write this, the Warriors lead the Grizzlies by double-digits as the 3rd quarter closes. If they hold on, the Spurs will travel to San Francisco for what will hopefully be just their first playin game on Wednesday. If the Grizzlies can come back for the win, the Spurs will travel to Memphis instead.