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Spurs avoid late-game collapse against Pacers, get their first win of the season

After playing well for most of the game, the young Spurs predictably struggled late before narrowly avoiding a painful loss.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Indiana Pacers Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

A blowout loss followed by one of the most chaotic endings of a win possible. The Spurs really seem to be making sure fans know what’s in store this season. After almost squandering a lead that at one point reached 21 points, San Antonio escaped Indiana with a 137-134 victory that could have easily slipped away.

We’ll get to the comedy of errors that were the last few minutes soon enough, but it would be unfair to ignore what was a really fun game for three quarters. The Spurs bounced back from their opening night loss, looking more energetic and focused than the Pacers early on. Their switching defense and length were bothering Tyrese Haliburton and, with Myles Turner out, Jakob Poeltl dominated the center duel against an outmatched Jalen Smith. The execution and decision-making weren’t great on offense by either team, but a higher pace, a couple of good individual performances, and a more cohesive game plan were enough for the Spurs’ starters to carve out a lead. The second unit looked shaky initially, but the ball kept moving, Zach Collins hit some shots from inside and out, and that was enough for the visitors to end the first period up 10.

As the second quarter started, the Pacers seemed to settle down a bit on both ends, and with rookie Bennedict Mathurin leading the charge, they started to chip away at the deficit. It was suddenly harder for San Antonio’s offense to catch Indiana’s defense out of place early when the shots were actually falling on the other end, and some expected miscommunications on defense yielded some good looks for the home team. Fortunately, a barrage of outside shots in the final six minutes of the half not only allowed the Spurs to keep the Pacers at bay but extend the lead. Going into the break, the Silver and Black had put 70 points on the board and sunk 12 threes, with four of those coming from Josh Richardson off the bench. Fun was had by all.

Things remained the same for most of the second half, with San Antonio in control. In the third period, it seemed like the Spurs were going to run away with it, since the threes kept falling and the Pacers kept making unforced, surprising mistakes on both ends. With a back-to-back against the Pistons waiting for them, no one could have really blamed an Indiana team that knows it’s probably not making the playoffs for folding after San Antonio got up by 21, and it seemed like they were going to. The Spurs’ bench checked in and had a few bad possessions, but in the end managed to still carry a 17-point lead to the final quarter. All that seemed required to secure the win after that was to trade some buckets for a while in the fourth quarter, which the Silver and Black managed just fine, and then run the clock out. But Rick Carlisle had other plans.

The Pacers started intentionally fouling Jakob Poeltl down 11 with just over five minutes to go. The strategy prevented the Spurs from running and taking three-pointers, but Poeltl was making enough freebies to keep Indiana at arm’s length as the clock ticked down, so it seemed like a more frustrating than effective plan. At the two-minute mark, when the strategy was no longer viable, San Antonio led by 11, and a win seemed inevitable. Then in those last 120 seconds, the Spurs turned the ball over five times while facing a full-court press and fouled Haliburton on a three-point attempt. Every fear anyone could have had about the extremely young squad closing out games came true. The Pacers actually had a chance to tie the game with just under four seconds left, but fortunately a well-contested three missed.

Game notes

  • Wins aren’t supposed to matter this season, but it would have been a little sad to see San Antonio lose like that, especially since the team looked good for most of the game. That said, it’s possible to make the case that the ugly ending was worth it after all, since dealing with adversity late is an important learning experience.
  • The Spurs were scorching hot from outside. They finished the game with 17 made threes in just 31 attempts. The Pacers’ defense happily surrender a bunch of those, but some were good looks that the offense created. Josh Richardson went nuts, making six out of his eight attempts, while Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell had four makes each. All three wings finished with over 20 points.
  • It’s interesting to see how the coaching staff is handling the early development of Josh Primo and Jeremy Sochan. With Primo, they try to have at least one extra ball handler alongside him at all times, seemingly to not overburden him with point guard duties. With Sochan, they send in Keita Bates-Diop for a handful of minutes when the rookie struggles, likely to try to keep his confidence up. Bringing them along slowly seems like a smart strategy.
  • Jakob Poeltl finished with 21 points on just six shots, which is absurd. He took 21 free throws and made 13, seven more than he had ever converted in a game. It was a good decision by the Pacers to send him to the line but he did enough to not lose San Antonio the game, which is all that can be asked of him.

Play of the game

It has to be so annoying to play against Tre Jones. He draws offensive fouls, plays physical defense, uses his speed really well, and seems to always be trying to make things happen. His motor is always running, and he’ll make opponents pay for being careless around him.

Next game: at Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday

The first SEGABABA of the season awaits. Could the Spurs get a winning record after three games? We’ll see.