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Spurs dominate early, suffer late in thrilling win against the Cavaliers

The Spurs played a fantastic first half and managed to hold off a late comeback attempt to win their third game in a row.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs are on a three-game winning streak. After dominating the first half, San Antonio held off a furious comeback attempt by the Cavaliers to escape with a close but fun 112-111 victory over one of the best teams in the East.

It was hard to imagine the team with the second-worst offense in the league, by the numbers, dropping 65 first-half points on the best defense in the league, but that’s exactly what an inspired Spurs team did through a combination of planning and effort. San Antonio tried to attack in transition or early in possessions whenever possible and it caught the Cavaliers off guard. Even when Cleveland’s bigs could use their length to bother shots inside, there was a Spur ready to chase the miss, as the Silver and Black dominated the boards. Everyone from Isaiah Roby to Josh Richardson was looking completely confident in their ability to score and no one was deterred from attacking when they got their shot blocked or scared of letting it fly after misses.

Despite the offense looking sharp, it took a big 14-0 run for the Spurs to finally get a comfortable lead because, despite their good effort on defense, they still struggled against the Cavs’ raw talent. The plan on that end was to pack the paint and hope that the visitors would miss shots, and it generally worked, as Cleveland made only three outside shots in the half. The problems came when Donovan Mitchell or Caris LeVert simply decided to use their scoring prowess to get buckets. For a while that was enough for one of the best teams in the East, but eventually the Spurs' relentless energy seemed to bother them and the misses started to come more often, even on what should have been easy buckets. With little rhythm on that end as a team, the Cavaliers struggled to keep up and found themselves down 16 at the half.

The Spurs were surely bracing for a push from their opponent in the second half and didn’t have to wait long for it, as Cleveland quickly cut the lead to 10 in the first few minutes of the third quarter. Whether San Antonio could hold them there for a while or let them get closer felt like it would determine the outcome of the game. Fortunately, the Silver and Black reacted quickly by simply doing what they had done in the first half: swarm on defense and move the ball or attack quickly on offense. They did rely more on individuals at times, but they still had the type of flow to their attack that Cleveland lacked for most of the game. It was huge that going into the final frame the Spurs had a 14-point buffer, thinking about the inevitable second push the Cavaliers would make.

The lead started to disappear fast in the fourth quarter and it was easy to assume that the team that is statistically the worst in the league in the last 12 minutes was eventually going to falter. But these Spurs feel feistier and more confident than the version that dropped 11 straight not long ago. Things got dicey several times but someone always responded. Even when mistakes were made the focus never wavered. The Cavaliers had opportunities to take it late but San Antonio was not going to just hand over the win to them. That conviction that was present throughout the game was in full display in a key play with six seconds left and the Spurs up one point, when Keldon Johnson rose for a game-saving block on Donovan Mitchell to secure the third victory in a row for the Silver and Black.

Game notes

  • After scoring just three points on seven shots against the Heat, Josh Richardson rebounded against Cleveland to the tune of 24 points on 13 shots. The Spurs wouldn’t have won this one without J-Rich hitting jumper after jumper, often when it was needed the most. Doug McDermott had a much quieter night but he also made a couple of timely buckets and played hard. Good contributions from the veterans.
  • Jeremy Sochan returned to action after missing five games and looked a little rusty but moved well. Devin Vassell once again came off the bench and hit some shots as he works to get back into ideal shape. Keldon Johnson was questionable with an illness but played and did it well. The Spurs are slowly getting healthy again and they can be scary when they are whole.
  • So many players had their moments on this one. Isaiah Roby had a strong first half. Romeo Langford’s defense at times was simply elite. Tre Jones had a stretch in which he took over on offense to get San Antonio points when they were needed the most. Depth was definitely a strength for the Spurs on Monday.
  • Zach Collins has been clearly frustrated recently. The big man fouled out for the third time in five games and made a mistake by setting a moving screen late in the game, as he did against the Heat. It was painful to watch how hurt he was on the bench after it happened. Fortunately Charles Bassey could give the team some good minutes.
  • Notorious Spurs killer Darius Garland continued to go through a bit of a slump, struggling with efficiency on this one, but when he got the ball in the corner after the Johnson block it was hard to imagine he would miss. The Spurs deserved the win but it’s fair to say that luck was definitely on San Antonio’s side on Monday.

Play of the night

Keldon Johnson had blocked just two shots the entire season so it was a bit of a surprise that he was the one to come through with the winning defensive play, but it’s always great to see one of the core players deliver in the clutch.

Next game: Vs. Trail Blazers on Wednesday

In theory, the Blazers are the superior team, but recently the Spurs have looked good enough to beat anyone if they play with energy, so four in a row is not out of the question.