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Spurs use passing and pace to surprise Sixers for the back-to-back win

Behind solid bench play and big games from Keldon and Vassell, Spurs show they aren’t ready to tank just yet.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Philadelphia 76ers John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday’s early game between the Spurs and the Philadelphia 76ers featured a team working on tanking the season for Draft darling Victor Wembanyama and another team trusting a process to deliver big wins. The process worked, delivering the win on the way to a 2-1 early-season record...and the other team was the 76ers.

On the second day of a back-to-back, the Spurs could be forgiven for showing up to the Wells Fargo Center with no energy and letting the game slip away. Instead, the opposite happened. As boo’s reigned down from the home fans, the Spurs beat the Sixers by a final score of 114-105 behind 20+ point games from both Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell.

Fanbases from both teams might understandably be confused. The Spurs entered as 12.5 point underdogs after playing a game in Indiana less than 24 hours prior to tipoff. They traded away their MVP in the offseason and are fully committed to a rebuild. Meanwhile, the Sixers are in year...15? 20?...of The Process, a foolproof plan to rebuild their franchise around cornerstone Joel Embiid. Surrounded by a healthy James Harden, young upstart Tyrese Maxey, and always reliable Tobias Harris, Philadelphia seems poised to take a step up from the success of last season, which capped off with a playoff run to the East Semifinals. Instead, Philadelphia falls to 0-3 on the season as the Spurs showed their own process can still produce nightly wins against difficult odds.

In the first quarter, the Spurs did seem a little tired, starting the game scoreless over the first two minutes, and shooting only two for eight from the floor over the next three. To top it off, Tyrese Maxey came in hot with five early points, and James Harden seemed to be effortlessly anchoring the offense on the way to six first quarter assists. Then, around the seven-minute mark, Pop subbed in his bench, going with some early minutes for new free agent forward Isaiah Roby. Roby did not disappoint, with two rebounds and a block in his first minutes on the court along with some much-needed hustle and defensive play that doesn’t really show up on the stat sheet. Even with all the effort from the bench (a theme that presented itself throughout the game), the Spurs still trailed the Sixers by six points at the end of the first period.

The second opened with more Roby antics, as he quickly stole the ball from Danuel House, which led to a Vassell layup and not long after, a jumper from Spurs guard Josh Primo. The rest of the second quarter featured some familiar plays for fans of the 2014 Beautiful Game Spurs team. By the time the Spurs headed to the locker room at halftime, Vassell had scored 20 points on 80% shooting and the Spurs held a three point lead. Perhaps most importantly, they had managed to hold Harden to 2/10 shooting from the field and 0 additional assists in the second quarter. Likewise, Embiid had a relatively quiet 13 points (but more on him later...).

Coming out of the half, the Sixers rediscovered their offense behind a quick seven points from Embiid, and seemed to focus more on stopping Vassell, who had just set a new career high the night before in Indiana and seemed destined to break that record in this game. He would be held scoreless in the third on his way to 22 points overall (just missing his high of 23), but luckily the Big Body, Keldon Johnson, decided to take over the offense for the Silver and Black. He scored nine points in the third frame, and finished with 21 pts to go with eight rebounds. Most importantly, the Spurs played a deliberate team game, trusting their ball movement and a surprisingly fast offensive tempo to carry the lead. They also received a timely bucket or three from a pair of bench Spurs, as Jason Richardson and Doug “McBuckets” McDermott left their mark on the game. They ended the third up eight, 85-77.

By the fourth quarter, Embiid began to look for his shot more aggressively, and he proved an initial challenge for the Spurs. He scored 27 points in the second half and his aggression was rewarded by frequent trips to the free throw line, taking 15 attempts and making 12. Meawhile, McDermott continued to blow the lid off the basket for the Spurs in the quarter, scoring five points in a 60 second span that derailed a Sixer run. He would anchor some strong play from the subs with a bench-high 14 pts on four of five from the three-point line. His hot-shooting teammate, Richardson, would finish with 11 points. Embiid and the Sixers continued to hang with the Spurs until Jakob Poeltl took over underneath with tough physical play and a few big rebounds. He seemed to break the last of Philly’s resistance, and amid frequent booing from the Sixers fans, the remainder of the fourth ended with mostly a whimper from the home team. The Spurs left the court with a 114-105 win, and a surprising 2-1 start on the season.

Game notes

  • It is way too early to expect anything dramatic from this year’s Spurs team, but man this win was fun. If nothing else, it shows that they have a few really exciting building blocks as this team continues to grow over the next few years. Devin Vassell looks poised for a breakout season and Keldon Johnson has clearly taken on the mantle of team MVP, putting the team on his back in the third quarter when things started to look shaky.
  • It’s also too early to call the Sixers season over, but they really look like a hot mess in the making. Harden is coming off two strong games, so clearly this was just an off night, but he finished by shooting four for 18 from the floor, a less than ideal 22% shooting percentage. He did flirt with a triple-double, ending with 9 rebs and 12 assists to go with his 12 points, but shot one for six from deep.
  • The difference in the two benches was in full display tonight. The Spurs bench contributed 40 points to the win, whereas the Sixers subs mustered only 10. It’s quite a luxury to have talent like Josh Primo (who did have a quiet game tonight) and McBuckets coming off the pine for your team to provide a shot in the arm.
  • Jeremy Sochan ended up sitting the bench in this one, managing only about 10 minutes of playing time. This kind of inconsistency is totally to be expected for the rookie, and it’s unfair to put too much on him too early. Clearly he has much to offer as a defender, but so far he continues to be a bit of an offensive liability. With his choice of jersey number and dyed hair, not to mention his hustle and defensive focus, he invites comparisons to Dennis Rodman. Unfortunately so far this season, his shooting looks all too familiar for those who remember Rodman’s playing days with the Spurs. On one play early in the game, Sochan found himself wide open from three, and the Sixers made absolutely no attempt to close out on him. To his credit — you have to shoot if you’re open — he did take the shot, but bricked it off the back of the rim. We will miss wunderkind shooting coach Chip Engelland’s involvement in the rook’s development cycle this season as Engelland now sits as an assistant on the Oklahoma Thunder bench.

Play of the Game

This was a tough one but as Devin Vassell wins the proverbial game ball for his overall energy and explosive scoring bouts in this one, let’s go with this beauty of a “how the HECK did he do that?” layup:

Up next: Monday Oct. 24 at Minnesota Timberwolves, 7:00 PM CT