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Spurs play hard, can’t keep up with the Suns late

The Spurs played well against last year’s NBA finalists, but their mistakes and Phoenix talented backcourt prevented them from pulling off the upset.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

The AT&T Center crowd is used to watching a contender let a young team hand around only to step on the gas late to put them away, but this time they got to experience the other side of it. The Spurs played the Suns tough for most of the game, looking impressive for long stretches, but couldn’t hang around in the fourth and lost 121-107.

Despite the final result, the game was fun from the start. It was a hectic, high octane affair early on, with both teams trading buckets. Devin Booker was scorching hot in the first quarter, scoring 18 of the Suns’ first 22 points, but the Spurs were not only finding ways to hang around, but actually took control for a stretch. Things got trickier when Derrick White got into foul trouble and the bench checked in, as Booker continued to pour in points and the second unit struggled. Phoenix ignored Keita Bates-Diop to pack the paint and the outside shots stopped falling. Meanwhile, the Suns were getting buckets inside. After trailing by as many as eight, the visitors closed the first quarter strong and took the lead with a 12-1 run.

White returned to lead the bench alongside Keldon Johnson to start the second period, and the results were good for San Antonio. The entire unit looked energized and managed to cobble together enough good possessions on offense to counter a stretch in which Chris Paul toyed with them in the pick and roll on the other end. Once the starters returned, both teams saw their attacks stagnate a little and neither could really carve out a big lead. Considering how many of their open threes didn’t fall and the few mistakes they made that resulted in open looks from outside that did fall for Phoenix, it was impressive that San Antonio only went to the break down three.

After a close first half, the Spurs were the ones to get separation. The starters played fantastic basketball, with the guards being aggressive and Jakob Poeltl dominating the paint and making the Suns miss the sidelined Deandre Ayton. The defense was sharp, the offense was precise, and the lead reached double digits. Unfortunately, Chris Paul and Devin Booker helped Phoenix whether the storm and the second unit once again struggled greatly. Jock Landale had a dreadful stretch in which he coughed the ball up and looked lost on defense, no one stepped up to carry the offense, and the Suns pounced. The Spurs still carried a small lead to the final frame, but it was clear that they had missed their opportunity to put Phoenix away.

It took the Suns a while to find that extra gear they needed to seal the win, but eventually they did. Their defense tightened up and there was no savior for the home team, as Dejounte Murray went quiet. Phoenix got to run off turnovers and when they were forced to play in the half court, they had one of their stars bail them out. If it looked all too familiar, it’s because that’s what the Spurs did to opponents for decades. In the end, it was just another lesson about executing for 48 minutes for the young Spurs. With the lead mounting and time running out, Gregg Popovich emptied his bench, Monty Williams did the same, and the only person in the arena that seemed truly unhappy and surprised was Devin Booker, who didn’t get the two points he needed to get to 50.

Game notes

  • The Suns did something that other teams might try to copy in the future. They put Mikal Bridges on Dejounte Murray and hid Booker on Doug McDermott. It didn’t work that well on defense — Booker lost McDermott a couple of times — but it had an impact on the other end, as Derrick White, who was being guarded by Chris Paul, had to run back desperately to find Booker, who was his assignment on defense. Just a small thing that shows the Suns are well coached.
  • Pick and roll defense continues to be an issue for the Spurs, but it’s good to see them try new things. This time, they were switching often when Paul or Booker were the ball handlers, to deny them clean looks coming off the screen. Jakob Poeltl did a good job on some of those switches and got burned on others. The problem is that it leaves a guard to battle the opposing center under the basket for rebounds, which is not ideal. Still, interesting wrinkle.
  • Pop once again decided against playing Bryn Forbes. With Josh Primo back in Austin and Tre Jones out, Forbes is the only guard left off the bench besides Lonnie Walker IV, but the Spurs simply staggered White and Murray at point guard and played Bates-Diop. The results were mixed, since the Suns ignored KBD on offense, which hurt spacing. It will be interesting to see if Jones gets minutes when he’s back.
  • Speaking of the subs, the bench was a mess on this one. Lonnie and Devin Vassell just didn’t have it on offense, Bates-Diop had no role to play and Landale was out hustled by Bismack Biyombo. Bad games happen, but the Spurs need more from the second unit.

Play of the night

This might seem like the most pedestrian play in the world to a lot of people, but the fans who have been around to see Murray’s development from the start know that seeing him pull up off the dribble from beyond the arc with that level of confidence is special. If that shot becomes a part of his arsenal, another leap is possible.

SVP awards

3rd place (1 point) - Derrick White | 14 points, seven assists

Having White back is big for the Spurs in part because he’s the only other shot creator they have, besides Murray. White led the team in assists with seven, all of which resulting in a shot in the paint or a three-pointer. His assignment on defense went off for 48 and his shot was not falling, but White did a good job of setting up others while remaining aggressive.

2nd place (2 points) - Doug McDermott | 15 points, 4-for-5 on two-pointers

McDermott’s defense is a problem. Opponents hunt him on switches and hide liabilities on him. But when he’s playing like he did against the Suns, you live with his limitations. He hit a couple of threes, which is not that noteworthy, considering he’s a specialist, but also did a good job of scoring even when chased off the line by defenders and of moving without the ball for cuts that resulted in buckets inside. Hopefully now that he’s back and has more chemistry with his teammates, games like this will be the norm for Doug.

1st place (3 points) - Jakob Poeltl | 23 points, 14 rebounds, four assists, two blocks

Against the Cavaliers’ imposing front line, Poeltl went scoreless. Facing a Suns team missing their starting center, he scored over 20 for the third time this season. Poeltl is a defensive player first and foremost, and he was great at it against the Suns, but it was also good to see him look for his shot occasionally, like he did on a pretty up-and-under against Biyombo. Jakob is a very limited offensive player, but he’s developed enough weapons as a scorer to complement his above average passing and elite screening. Hopefully he will show them off more often.

Season leaderboard

1st - Dejounte Murray - 67pts

2nd - Derrick White - 44pts

3rd - Jakob Poeltl - 37pts

4th - Devin Vassell - 27pts

5th - Keldon Johnson - 25pts

6th - Lonnie Walker IV - 17pts

7th - Bryn Forbes - 12pts

8th - Doug McDermott - 11pts

9th - Thaddeus Young - 9pts

10th - Keita Bates-Diop - 5pts

11th - Jock Landale - 4pts

12th - Josh Primo - 3pts

13th - Drew Eubanks - 2pts

14th - Tre Jones - 1pt

Next game: vs. Thunder on Wednesday

We’ve seen this story a few times this season. The Spurs play a good team close, then let their guard down against an inferior opponent. Hopefully they’ll avoid that mistake against the Thunder.