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Spurs run out of juice late in close loss to Cavaliers

A barrage of three-pointers kept the Spurs in the game in the first three quarters, but unfortunately the shooters went cold at the worst possible time.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at San Antonio Spurs Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs were looking for a quality win to get back on track, and came close to getting one. San Antonio played energetic defense and shot the lights out for most of the game before going through a big drought late that doomed them to a close 114-109 loss against the Cavaliers.

The Spurs started the game looking like a team that hadn’t played together for a while, because that’s just what they were. The return of several players to the starting lineup was surely a good thing, but early on, there was some palpable confusion in the unit. The Cavaliers, meanwhile, had a red-hot Darius Garland and a gigantic size advantage that they could exploit in the half court offense any time they wanted, which gave them the edge in the first few minutes. When the second unit checked in San Antonio got to run more, which helped put points on the board, but the bench couldn’t really contain their opponent inside. Cleveland’s bigs were feasting by drawing double teams, shooting over smaller defenders or crashing the offensive board. When the dust had settled on the opening frame, the visitors were up nine.

As the second quarter opened, the Spurs’ struggles to create in the half court were exacerbated. Josh Primo was tasked to initiate, but the rookie looked out of his depth, forcing others to handle the ball more. While the offense struggled to find its way, the defense kept San Antonio in it while their leader rested. Once Dejounte Murray returned, he took over just like Garland had done in the opening period. His scoring outburst energized others, and suddenly the Silver and Black started to look like they had a lot more weapons. The threes were falling, and on one from the right wing from Keldon Johnson, San Antonio took the lead for the first time. Unfortunately the Cavs snapped out of their funk by attacking Bryn Forbes, and with a three at the buzzer by Garland, went into the break with a five-point lead.

The starting lineup had a lot more energy and focus to kick off the second half, but their efforts were not getting great results. The Cavaliers controlled the paint on both ends, contesting or deterring every Spurs attempt and having one of their bigs run the floor to establish position early for easy buckets. Eventually San Antonio tightened up its transition defense and did a good job of both preventing too many buckets inside and keeping Garland in check. With the threes still falling at a ridiculous level to make up for the lack of interior scoring, Murray having some success in the paint, and the Cavaliers missing free throws, the Silver and Black actually took control of the game, going into the final period up two.

The table was set for a close game, and early in the fourth, it seemed like it could be a shootout. Garland got going, the Spurs were scoring inside and the teams mostly traded buckets until around the halfway mark. Then the offenses went dry all of a sudden. The defenses deserve credit for remaining stout, but there were just bad turnovers and a lot of misses from both teams. Unfortunately, Cleveland used its advantage in the paint to recover first. A Lauri Markkanen dunk and then a Jarrett Allen alley-oop gave the visitors some breathing room. The Spurs had an opportunity to keep the score close, but three missed free throws with under two minutes to go kept it a two-possession game. A Garland layup and some free throws iced the win for the Cavaliers late.

Game notes

  • The Spurs did a lot of things right on this one. They tried to run, capitalized on Cleveland’s few turnovers, shots great from outside and did a good job of keeping the visitors from feasting on too many offensive boards. The problem was that the execution on the half court on both ends was lacking at times and the size advantage was massive. San Antonio normally dominates inside, but this time allowed 60 points in the paint and converted 40. That’s the game.
  • The return of most starters gave the Spurs bench some depth that was missing recently. San Antonio’s second unit played well, for the most part. The exception was Josh Primo, who simply looked unready for the responsibility of running the second unit. If Primo keeps getting minutes, he’ll need a playmaker next to him.
  • Doug McDermott had some good moments and some bad ones in his return to the court after missing seven games. He connected on three of his six three-pointers but missed all seven of his two-pointers and had four turnovers. Attacking the paint against the Cavaliers is hard and the mistakes seemed to come from a lack of rhythm, so he should be alright going forward.
  • Watching Allen and Evan Mobley was a great reminder of the value of athletic bigs who are lob threats. The Spurs should get one of those at some point. The game looks much easier when a guard can just throw the ball up and trust that his big man will get it.

Play of the game

Devin Vassell didn’t have a great game filling in for the still sidelined Derrick White in the starting lineup, but had a nice steal and dunk.

SVP awards

3rd place (1 point) - Jakob Poeltl | Zero points, 12 rebounds, two steals, three blocks

Poeltl had one of the most impressive zero-point games I can remember. He anchored the defense as well as he could, making plays and logging 11 rebounds on the defensive end. The Cavaliers’ bigs still had a good game, so there’s a case for Bryn Forbes (15 points, two assists) or Lonnie Walker IV (11 points, six assists) to get this spot, but without Poeltl the advantage Cleveland had inside would have been insurmountable. Jak had to leave the game at the end of the third with a back issue, but returned later. Hopefully he won’t miss time.

2nd place (2 points) - Keldon Johnson | 18 points, 4-for-9 from beyond the arc

Johnson is still hitting threes at a high level and being a reliable role player in general. He wasn’t afraid to get physical with Mobley despite giving up several inches and made some hustle plays. Many of us expected Johnson to make a leap into stardom this season, which obviously hasn’t come, but it’s important to focus on what he does well instead of what he still has to work on. Right now he’s a durable guy who can hit shots, move the ball and compete on defense, and that has value. He filled that role well against Cleveland.

1st play (3 points) - Dejounte Murray | 30 points, 14 rebounds, eight assists

In games like these, having a guard who can board is huge. Dejounte delivered on the glass, like he’s been doing for years, but also had some minutes in which he took over on offense, which is new and still exciting. His defense at the point of attack has taken a step back this season, which is understandable considering his increased offensive load, but his finishing at the rim has improved massively, he still has a deadly mid-range jumper and once a game he’ll fire up a pass that he was completely unable to deliver in past years. It’s been fun to watch Murray show more of his offensive repertoire even in losses this season.

Season leaderbaord

1st - Dejounte Murray - 65pts

2nd - Derrick White - 40pts

3rd - Jakob Poeltl - 34pts

4th - Devin Vassell - 27pts

5th - Keldon Johnson - 25pts

6th - Lonnie Walker IV - 17pts

7th - Bryn Forbes - 12pts

8th - Thaddeus Young & Doug McDermott - 9pts

9th - Keita Bates-Diop - 5pts

10th - Jock Landale & Josh Primo - 3pts

11th - Drew Eubanks - 2pts

12th - Tre Jones - 1pt

Next game: Vs. Clippers on Saturday

The Spurs will face the Clippers on a SEGABABA. Hopefully they’ll get Derrick White back and get the first win of this long homestand.