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Shorthanded Spurs collapse late in close loss to the Suns

Once again, the Spurs played really well for most of the game but couldn’t close strong.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Phoenix Suns Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

In a game that was eerily reminiscent of their previous matchup against the Suns, the Spurs were in control for the first three quarters only to struggle late and fail to complete the upset. The pain of this 115-110 loss is mitigated by the fact that San Antonio was missing Derrick White, Dejounte Murray and Jakob Poeltl, but it was still tough to see all the hard work done earlier go to waste in the final minutes, like it has many times this season.

While the struggles in the clutch are concerning, it should be noted that the Spurs came ready to fight from the start. For them to have a chance while missing their three best players, they were going to have to play hard and play together, which is exactly what they did to start the game. The ball moved well and the pace was high, as San Antonio took advantage of a lethargic Suns team that was missing some players of their own. Chris Paul was passive while Devin Booker was missing some shots he normally makes, which defanged a Phoenix offense that was predictable and slow in general early on. When the subs checked in, the Silver and Black had more firepower and remained more energetic than the Suns’ third stringers, which allowed them to actually lead after the first quarter.

Paul decided to look for his shot more aggressively to start the second period, which gave the Spurs fits. Fortunately, asides from Paul no one else got hot, as even the wide open outside shots were not going in for the home team, which prevented them from going on a big run. Both offenses slowed down as the minutes past, with San Antonio struggling to get the fluidity that characterized their early play. As Booker started to get some looks to fall, Phoenix took the lead and seemed to have some momentum going, but several of their players turned their focus into the officiating instead of the game, which halted their good stretch. The Spurs punished them for it, closing strong and going into the break up five.

At some point, the Suns were going to wake up, but it wasn’t the third quarter. The two teams mostly traded buckets while playing bad defense for a while, before the Spurs once again took control. Phoenix was simply missing too many open shots to keep up while not getting stops. The Spurs, meanwhile, were capitalizing on every opportunity they had to get ahead. A perfect sequence that illustrates how the game was going for both teams was a Suns’ fastbreak opportunity in which two players beat the Spurs down the court only to have Bismack Biyombo miss a layup and see Lonnie Walker IV get one going the other way seconds later. It really seemed like it was going to be one of those nights in which everything goes right for the underdogs and nothing does for the favorites.

Alas, the fourth quarter showed that wasn’t the case. Just like they did in their previous matchup with the Spurs, the Suns demolished them late, and that was enough to eek out a win. This time, Monty Williams deserves a huge part of the credit for the turnaround, as his decision to go small for the entire final period, with no bigs on the court, really turned the tide. San Antonio’s lack of size outside of the center position and tendency to get lost in transition defense came back to haunt them, as Phoenix made a push. A controversial sequence in which Devin Booker should have been called for traveling didn’t help matters either, as the star guard hit a three following the timeout that saved him from a crucial turnover. Overall, it was a great performance from the Silver and Black’s less heralded players, but one that simply wasn’t enough.

Game notes

  • Juancho Hernangomez got 15 minutes off the bench and finished with two points, five rebounds, an assist and a steal. He was fine. Nothing that suggests he should get playing time when everyone is back, but good enough to show that he can sop up some minutes when needed.
  • Josh Primo is fun. The rookie had 15 points, including a big three in the fourth quarter, and looked poised when asked to guard the Suns’ star guards. He also had five turnovers and looked completely out of control at times, but that’s what you’d expect from a 19-year-old rookie.
  • The centers played reasonably well. Defensive rebounding was an issue, but it wasn’t the reason why the Spurs lost. As mentioned, the big run from Phoenix came with neither Jock Landale not Drew Eubanks on the floor, so they get a passing grade.
  • If Devin Vassell, who had a quiet night, can turn out to be a Mikal Bridges type, the Spurs should be ecstatic. Bridges does a little bit of everything and does it all well, which is exactly what a good team needs from a starting forward. There are some similarities between the two, so they could definitely have similar developmental paths.

Play of the night

Close game against the team with the best record in the league. Primo is fearless.

SVP awards

3rd place (1 point) - Tre Jones | 15 points, nine assists, zero turnovers

Jones had big shoes to fill as the starting point guard and did well enough to inspire optimism about his viability as a rotation player. Jones is steady in the half court and quick to hit the boosters on the break when the defense is napping, which is a good combination. He’s not flashy and his lack of an outside shot could severely limit his potential, but he can provide some defense, leadership and the occasional drive without making many mistakes, as he showed against Phoenix.

2nd place (2 points) - Lonnie Walker IV | 22 points, five rebounds, two assists

Someone was going to be the high usage offensive player for this version of the Spurs, and Lonnie picked up the mantle. He was aggressive getting to the rim and using his athleticism to finish, and when the Suns took the drive away, he hit his mid-range jumpers. The only issue was that his outside shot failed him, as he missed all five of his three-point attempts. It’s been a problem all season, but it really hurt him on Sunday. Still, a good performance from a guy that needs to prove he can carry lineups as the sixth man.

1st place (3 points) - Doug McDermott | 25 points, 6-for-9 on three-pointers

In games with so many big absences, the veterans need to step up. McDermott knew that and came out firing. Whenever he got an opportunity to break loose, he wasn’t afraid to look for his shot, especially from beyond the arc. The Spurs needed scoring and McBuckets delivered, which is enough to claim the top spot this time.

Season leaderboard

1st - Dejounte Murray - 82pts

2nd - Jakob Poeltl - 48pts

3rd - Derrick White - 46pts

4th - Devin Vassell - 32pts

5th - Keldon Johnson - 28pts

6th - Lonnie Walker IV - 19pts

7th - Doug McDermott - 14pts

8th - Bryn Forbes - 12pts

9th - Thaddeus Young - 9pts

10th - Keita Bates-Diop - 5pts

11th - Jock Landale - 4pts

12th - Josh Primo - 3pts

13th - Drew Eubanks & Tre Jones - 2pts

Next game: vs. Warriors on Tuesday

Things don’t get easier for the Spurs, as they will face the second best team in the West after taking on the best. They should at least be at full force on Tuesday, as Gregg Popovich said the injuries of the three starters weren’t serious.