The shorthanded San Antonio Spurs defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday night behind an all-around team effort that depended on decisive drives to the basket, unselfish ball movement, and players sacrificing their bodies for extra possessions. Although the youngsters nearly relinquished a 19-point lead, they hunkered down in the clutch and pulled out a dub.
After stumbling into last place in the Western Conference with an 11-game losing streak that lasted more than three weeks, the Silver and Black have turned their fortunes around with three successive victories. Lottery odds might be on the minds of some fans, but Head Coach Gregg Popovich has this group playing competitive basketball against playoff contenders.
- Devin Vassell has made tremendous strides as a scorer this season, and San Antonio has asked him to self-create points more often in late-clock situations as he has become more comfortable with the ball in his hands. Although the Spurs didn’t have many opportunities to participate in close contests during their 11-game losing streak, their last two wins were nail-biters, and they leaned on Vassell in the clutch. The third-year swingman sealed the deal in Miami with a pair of step-back jumpers in isolation over Bam Adebayo and Caleb Martin. He continued operating as San Antonio’s closer at home against the Cavaliers, draining a midrange shot over Evan Mobley that would ultimately be the deciding bucket in a one-possession outcome. The 2020 lottery selection is still at his best getting to his spots with help from teammates, but he is the only player on the roster with the combination of size, length, handles, and footwork off the bounce. Those physical tools and composure in the face of pressure make it easy to see why the Silver and Black have asked Vassell to be their go-to guy option down the stretch of tight matchups.
- Three days off paid dividends for San Antonio. Losing 11 straight games in 21 days can take a psychological toll on a young franchise, and its laundry list of nicked and bruised players finally had the time to focus on recovery without the additional stressor of plane rides to and from numerous cities around the nation. The Spurs crammed two practices, a few film sessions, and a shootaround into their downtime, which gave them a much-needed opportunity to evaluate their shortcomings and strategize how to improve them. Aside from occasional defensive miscommunications and expected scoring droughts, head coach Gregg Popovich has watched his team play 12 consecutive quarters of commendable basketball. San Antonio upset the third-place Cavaliers by continuing to pass the rock, battle for extra possessions, and defend with a palpable sense of purpose. The good guys have now strung together three wins in a row for the first time since October, which should have fans reasonably excited. Anything is better than tuning in for blowout after blowout, and while the Spurs will likely slip up from time to time, they seem well-positioned to compete night in and night out when healthy.
- You will probably never catch a national outlet covering this, but the Cavs and Spurs will always remain linked because of the 2019 NBA Draft. While that might sound insane, give me a chance to explain. Fans are well aware San Antonio passed up Keldon Johnson for the opportunity to bet on Luka Samanic with the 19th overall pick. That gamble failed, but the front office escaped relatively unscathed, rectifying their blunder by selecting Keldon with the 29th overall pick. With that said, PATFO came within moments of losing out on Johnson altogether, and that’s where Cleveland sneaks into the equation. Despite Shams Charania reporting that the Cavaliers chose Keldon with the 26th overall pick, he issued a speedy correction, tweeting the franchise pivoted towards Dylan Windler at the last second. That flip-flopping from their at-the-time General Manager Koby Altman opened the door for the Spurs to snatch Keldon, and he gently reminded Cleveland of their misstep on Monday night. The 23-year-old combo forward recorded 21 points and a game-saving block on Donovan Mitchell while Windler sat on the sidelines with another injury-related setback. Windler has missed a whopping 166 out of a possible 247 games since entering the league, and you have to imagine the Cavs wonder what Keldon might look like next to a young core laden with All-Star talent.