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Spurs overcome slow start but can’t close in loss to the Clippers

Another career night by Devin Vassell wasn’t enough for the Spurs to overcome poor first and fourth quarters.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at San Antonio Spurs Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time since the fourth game of the season, the Spurs had both of their top two scorers available in Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell. With the Clippers missing Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs having the added motivation of coming off their worst home loss in franchise history, it seemed like a prime opportunity to steal another win. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. After the Spurs managed to overcome an early 17-point deficit and take a double-digit lead in the second half, they fell apart in the fourth quarter for the 115-104 loss.

Johnson returned from a sore calf to score the Spurs first 4 points, but he was otherwise off for most of the night, putting up 16 points on just 7-19 shooting. The Clippers quickly jumped out to a 25-8 lead before a Vassell three stopped a 16-0 run. That triggered Spurs 7-0 run, but they were still down 28-18 at the end of the quarter, although it felt like it could have been much worse.

The Spurs started the second quarter on a 7-1 run but soon found themselves back down by double digits, 41-30, on a Nicolas Batum three. After a scoring lull for both teams (conveniently while I had lost interest connection), the Spurs caught fire and ended the quarter on a 28-13 run and went up 58-54 at halftime thanks to some hot shooting from Johnson, Vassell, and Keita Bates-Diop. For his part, Vassell looked like he hadn’t missed a beat, hitting all seven of his shots, including 3 threes, for 17 points in the first half.

The Spurs kept the momentum to start the third quarter with five quick points from Tre Jones, who also hit his first 3 threes of the game, triggering a Clippers timeout. The Spurs extended the lead to ten a couple of times, but Paul George, who had 35 points on the night, kept the Clippers within striking distance, and the Spurs lead sat at just 86-62 heading into the fourth quarter.

Vassell got five more quick points to start the fourth quarter and reach .3a career-high 29 points, but he then hit his minutes-restriction of 25 points and sat rest of the game. Without him, the Spurs offense fell apart. After San Antonio had gotten the lead back up to seven at 94-87, the Clippers took over with on a 14-3 run thanks to a slew of Spurs errors — a few even comically bad — that forced a Gregg Popovich timeout. Unfortunately, the miscues continued while the Clippers kept gradually pulling away, eventually handing the Spurs the loss.

Game Notes

  • Malakai Branham got his first career start in this game, with Vassell’s career night coming off the bench. Branham didn’t look bad in his 14 minutes. Although he only shot 1-3, he didn’t look lost on either end and contributed three rebounds and an assist. Vassell should return to the starting line-up soon, maybe even Saturday against the Nuggets, but it is interesting that he hit his 25-minute allotment so early in the fourth quarter despite coming off the bench. Either he was too hot to substitute earlier in the game, or Pop wanted to make sure he was fresh for the SEGABABA.
  • In the first quarter, everyone’s favorite not-quite-Spur Marcus Morris horse-collared Zach Collins, wrapping his arm around his neck and pulling him down as he was going up for a layup. It was unnecessary since Collins was called for a travel, but he took exception and shoved Morris, and both were called for the infamous double-technical. The refs then went to video review to check for a “hostile act”. I assumed they were looking at Morris’s tackle, but apparently not, and ultimately they stuck with the double-T. Had Collins not traveled, it would had been a definite flagrant foul on Morris since he made no play on the ball, so why can’t they call the dead ball flagrant? Was that not reviewable? Some NBA rules don’t make any sense.
  • Jakob Poeltl has made some big leaps this season, but Ivica Zubac still seems to have his number. While Poeltl had just 4 inefficient points and 7 rebounds tonight, well below his season averages, Zubac owned him on both ends on the way to a very efficient 17-point, 15-rebound double-double. Every player has their kryptonite, and Zubac is Poeltl’s.
  • For the record, so far this season the Spurs are 5-0 when I don’t do any game coverage, and 0-4 when I do. So pro-tankers, I’m your best friend, and pro-winners, I’m your worst nightmare.

Play of the Game

As previously mentioned, this wasn’t Johnson’s finest game, but he still played a big role in their first half comeback, and his three just before the buzzer — which bounced off the glass and all sides of the rim before going in — made it seem like the basketball gods were on his side for this game. Maybe he used up all their good fortunes on this one play.

Up next: Saturday @ Denver Nuggets

The Spurs are briefly headed out on the road to start an away-home miniseries with the Nuggets on a SEGABABA. That’s not much time to adjust to the altitude, so hopefully the Spurs will have the energy to keep up.