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Spurs use strong bench play to blow out the Houston Rockets

With the win, the Spurs move out of the basement of the West division standings.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

When San Antonio faced off against the Houston Rockets in a battle of two of the worst teams in the Western standings, the Spurs proved that the Rockets are worser. I’m not proud of that sentence, but it’s a long season and there’s not much to be proud of (unless you’re Stanley Johnson - more on him later).

With Keldon Johnson on the sidelines with a slight bruising of his tanking muscle, Devin Vassell started out the game on a tear, scoring or assisting on five of the team’s first six buckets to push them to a 10-point lead. That was just about the high point for the first half, as Houston looked like they were going to use their strong inside game to split the season series. Alperen Sengun, a very mobile big man who played strongly against the Spurs when they met earlier this season, scored 14 first half points. Rockets TikTok hype man Jalen Green dropped 11 before the break, and the Juniors (Kenyon Martin and Kevin Porter) both scored eight. Combined, the four players were 15-of-21 from the floor and looked to be capitalizing on a rash of Spurs turnovers (they would have 13 to Houston’s four at half) and Jakob Poeltl’s early foul trouble.

Still, the Spurs kept it close going into the halftime break, trailing by only two points thanks in part to a buzzer-beater from new Spur signee Stanley Johnson. Johnson had a stellar showing against the Rockets, playing with pace and intensity on his way to 10 pts, 3 rebounds, 3 assists and a block in 19 minutes. He’s clearly going to be another reason to tune into Spurs games as the season chugs along toward its midpoint.

One other reason for the close score was Houston’s complete inability to hit a three-pointer. Coming into the game, they were directly underneath the Spurs in the team rankings at 33.0%, good for 25th out of 30. Ranked 24th, it’s not like the Spurs have a lot to crow about in that department either, but at least this night, they would dominate that category, finishing the game 17-of-34 (50%) from behind the arc. Houston would shoot an ugly 5-for-24 (20.8%), including one for six in the first half.

In the third, the Spurs would break the game open behind Vassell, Tre Jones, and a very balanced effort from the bench. Vassell really steps up in games that KJ sits the bench, and tonight he would finish with 26 points (5/8 from 3), 4 rebounds and 5 assists. He also got his own buzzer beater as he drilled a tough three as the shot clock ran down to end the Spurs’ final possession of the frame. The Spurs would lead by sixteen at that point and never looked back from there.

With the Spurs up by 26 late in the fourth, Coach Popovich went to the bench and fans who stuck around enjoyed three minutes of Charles Bassey trying (and mostly succeeding) to keep Boban Marjanovic out of the paint. Unlike the final minutes of their first matchup, there would be no Bobo revenge game tonight, as he managed only two points in his time on the floor. His game is woefully misplaced in the modern NBA but I still miss that guy and his crazy hijinks. When the buzzer sounded, the Spurs won 124-105 and (for now) are not the worst team in the West.

Game Notes

  • If you’re keeping score, the season is now 36.6% over. I am keeping score.
  • Currently shooting just 46% from the free-throw line, Jeremy Sochan caused some waves online by breaking out his new free-throw...form, I guess? It was something:
  • One of the fun aspects of a team in the midst of a rebuild is getting to see some of the surprise performances from players that in a typical Spurs season would be buried near the end of the bench. Stanley Johnson, Romeo Langford and Charles Bassey have showed flashes of high energy, exciting basketball and one can’t help but think at least one or two will stick on this roster next year. Hey, you gotta take your wins somewhere. Season’s only 36.6% over, remember.
  • Don’t look now but Malakai Branham is heating up. After a strong showing last game in Mexico City, he scored 14 pts on 2/4 from the arc. He had a rough start to the season, but it looks like he’s starting to figure out the jumper. Hopefully these games build his confidence so the Spurs can have another weapon on nights KJ and Vassell end up with more “DNP - oh I don’t know, a pinkie-bone tickle” games.
  • This seems like a good time to highlight the overall very strong bench play. Aside from Branham and Johnson, other notable contributors included Sochan (who was moved back to the bench this game) with 12 points and 7 rebounds, and Doug McDermott with 16 points on 4/6 from three. Overall, five of the seven Spurs who scored in double digits were bench players. Fun side note: We almost had nine Spurs in double figures. Starters Keita Bates-Diop and Poeltl finished with nine and eight, respectively.
  • I loved seeing Keldon on his feet cheering for the team on multiple occasions. Reminded me of Patty Mills and his years of towel-waving from the corner of the bench. This team may not be winning a championship, but they seem to genuinely like each other and root for team and individual success (unlike the Rockets, who may like each other just fine for all I know, but really don’t seem to be enjoying playing together).

Play of the Game

This was a tough one. There were some genuinely fun highlight-worthy moments. Johnson’s halftime buzzer beater was arguably the more “meaningful” of the two as Vassell’s came with a few seconds left on the overall game clock. Tre Jones also had another great moment in the third where he demonstrated his blazing foot speed by going baseline to baseline around all five Rockets defenders to lay it in. But I still have to give it to Vassell as that third-quarter buzzer beater broke the back of the Rockets and more or less clinched the game:

Up next: Thursday at New Orleans Pelicans