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Spurs’ comeback attempt thwarted by Embiid, 76ers

The Spurs continue to collect moral victories and real losses.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

On a game that followed a pattern that is all too familiar this season, the Spurs played a superior opponent well, had a chance to win it in the fourth quarter, but ultimately came up short. On Sunday, it was the 76ers who closed stronger and got a 115-109 win, largely thanks to a 38-points, 12-rebounds, six-assist performance from their franchise center.

The Sixers had the Spurs on the back foot from the start, which is an advantage that having a generational star like Joel Embiid affords a team. San Antonio was sending help as soon as the All-NBA big man was putting the ball on the floor, but it wasn’t enough to fully contain him and it was affording others the opportunity to get easy buckets. The Silver and Black had their moments on offense, with Jakob Poeltl remaining aggressive and Dejounte Murray orchestrating things, but they were merely keeping up. Once the benches checked in, Philadelphia turned to its pick and roll attack to make up for the lack of a focal point and thrived against a Spurs defense that has been shaky at best defending the two-man game all season long.

The six-point lead the Sixers had after the first quarter quickly reached double digits as soon as Gregg Popovich went to the bench plus Derrick White unit. A few of the starters checked back in quickly, but from then on, San Antonio was playing catch-up. The offense regained some level of fluidity once Murray returned, and a couple of long balls fueled some optimism about a potential run, but Philadelphia could always count on Embiid to respond and on the Spurs’ own mistakes to come back to bite them. Some bad transition defense and a terrible turnover by White on what should have been the last shot of the half, which resulted on a breakaway dunk going the other way, undid the work done in the prior minutes.

Fortunately, these Spurs don’t give up easily, and on Sunday showed resolved at the start of the second half, despite trailing by 12. The defense was energetic and the offense had success by pushing the pace and attacking in transition or before the Sixers were fully settled in the half court. Alas, Embiid hit enough shots to keep the run from being truly game-changing and eventually the visitors regained their composure. The second unit did a better job this time around, so the team mostly traded buckets for the rest of the frame, but there were moments in which San Antonio got to set the pace and hurt Philadelphia. Going into the final period, the Spurs managed to cut the lead to single digits.

With Embiid resting, the Silver and Black did what they needed: put pressure on the Sixers to get within striking distance. They couldn’t really get a big run early, as Tobias Harris and Tyrese Maxey got enough points on the board for Philadelphia to withstand that first attack, but managed to get as close as down five before Embiid checked back in. Once he did, it seemed like the Spurs’ fate was sealed, as he continued to dominate. Yet once again, San Antonio refused to go away. Jakob Poeltl and Lonnie Walker IV hit some timely shots and down four in the final minute, White got a quick steal, Murray hit the layup, and the Spurs found themselves only down two. Unfortunately, some Embiid free throws in the following possession and a botched play on the other end allowed the Sixers to escape with a win.

Game notes

  • It’s a little concerning that past the halfway mark of the season, the Spurs’ rotation still isn’t settled. Lonnie Walker IV and Devin Vassell have set roles, but behind them, it’s hard to know what to expect. Right now Bates-Diop is getting regular minutes and Pop is not using a backup point guard, staggering White and Murray instead, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see him change his mind and go back to Tre Jones at some point. The center rotation is even more messy. Drew Eubanks was the first big off the bench, but in the second half, Jock Landale played. With the return of Zach Collins potentially adding even more confusion to the equation, we might not get much consistency after the top seven for a while.
  • Speaking of the bench, Vassell and Walker IV had great games, combining for 29 points and five made threes. The Spurs needed those two to step up, since Doug McDermott and Derrick White didn’t have efficient nights, and they did.
  • This game was eerily similar to the early season one against the Nuggets in which the Spurs got close in the fourth quarter with Nikola Jokic resting, then couldn’t make that last push once he checked in. Having a superstar makes everything so much easier. San Antonio’s roster from two to 12 on Sunday wasn’t much worse than the Sixers’, especially with the absences they had, but their number one guy is an MVP candidate, and that makes a world of difference.

Play of the night

Poetry in motion. Lonnie can have bad misses, but every once in a while, he’ll have an insanely pretty bucket like this one.

SVP Awards

3rd place (1 point) - Keldon Johnson | 17 points on seven shots, one block

Keldon had the type of efficient outing he could routinely have if he focuses on his current role. He hit two threes, got to the line for eight free throws and made three of his four two-pointers. He was mostly aggressive without forcing things and moved the ball when needed. He also had a no-look pass and recorded a block — just his sixth in the entire season — which shows that he was really confident and active.

2nd place (2 points) - Dejounte Murray | 19 points, nine rebounds, 12 assists

Murray was one carom shy of another triple-double and looked great on most aspects of the game, but he also did something that was more impressive than any arbitrary stat line: he got 10 free throws. The two things preventing Murray from reaching the next level of stardom are three-pointers and trips to the line. He’s often not aggressive enough or avoids contact in order to finish. Against the Sixers, he just attacked more and was rewarded for it, which was great to see.

1st place (3 points) - Jakob Poeltl | 25 points, 10 rebounds, four blocks

Aggressive Poeltl is the best Poeltl, especially when the opposing center is a big time scorer who will get buckets no matter how good the defense is. While Embiid scored 38, Poeltl held his own on offense and was impressive on the glass and protecting the rim. Murray could have gotten top billing, but the fact that Poeltl made three out of his four free throws, scored eight points in the fourth to Murray’s 10 and actually logged three of his four blocks in the final frame give him an edge this time.

Season leaderboard

1st - Dejounte Murray - 75pts

2nd - Derrick White - 46pts

3rd - Jakob Poeltl - 42pts

4th - Devin Vassell - 29pts

5th - Keldon Johnson - 26pts

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. Rockets on Tuesday

The last time the Spurs faced the Rockets, they let Houston set the pace off the game instead of trying to out execute them, and paid for it. Hopefully, they’ve learned from that mistake and will pull off a win this time.