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Dreadful start dooms Spurs against shorthanded Pelicans

Jeremy Sochan had a fantastic performance but it wasn’t enough to help the Spurs overcome a horrendous start against a scorching hot C.J. McCollum and his Pelicans.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at New Orleans Pelicans Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs couldn't take advantage of a prime opportunity to get a win against a superior but severely shorthanded opponent, as they lost 126-117 to a Pelicans team that was missing Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram and others. C.J. McCollum went off for 40 points for the home team while Jeremy Sochan had his best performance as a pro with 23 points, nine rebounds and six assists.

It’s been rare for the Spurs to have a talent advantage this season due to their roster and their bad health, but on Thursday they were at the very least evenly matched. Unfortunately, that only made the struggles they had early on all the more painful to watch. Very little went San Antonio’s way in the first quarter, as they simply couldn’t stop an opponent missing its best two players from scoring or return the favor with any kind of consistency on the other end. The threes were falling early and often for the Pelicans, who also took advantage of foul trouble for Jakob Poeltl and Zach Collins to establish Jonas Valanciunas inside. Meanwhile, San Antonio couldn’t get anything easy in the half-court and had to rely on transition buckets. It was the type of poor performance that could be expected against an opponent at full strength but was a little surprising against such a shorthanded squad.

There were some good stretches and individual performances that at times made things more palatable in what was generally a bleak first half. Tre Jones had some good moments in the first quarter while Jeremy Sochan put together some of his best minutes as a pro in the second period, hitting a three-pointer and relentlessly attacking to either score or pass to an open teammate. Unfortunately, the good moments never lasted long enough and whenever the Pelicans were sloppily turning the ball over and making defensive mistakes, the Spurs did the same. There were simply not a lot of areas in which San Antonio actually outplayed New Orleans and no saviors that could carry the team through tough stretches, as Devin Vassell struggled to score. After trailing by 20 after one, the Silver and Black were down 19 at the break and the score seemed fair.

One of the good things about this iteration of the Spurs is that even in bad losses it has normally been easy to eventually find some silver linings. The play of Sochan was definitely one as the rookie forward continued to play with aggressiveness and confidence in the second half to put together the best performance of his career. In general San Antonio played better than their opponent in the third quarter and parts of the fourth but even with Sochan shining it was tough for the Silver and Black to dig themselves out of the hole they found themselves in after the first quarter. They did put together good stretches but the big runs they needed didn’t come in time to give them an entire final period to make it a game. Even with those issues, though, they managed to at least bring some suspense to the proceedings, at least for a while.

A comeback attempt led by Stanely Johnson at the start of the fourth quarter was thrilling to watch, even if it seemed destined to fail, as C.J. McCollum was just having one of those nights. Still, the Silver and Black got within single digits with a few minutes to go. With Johnson and Tre Jones resting the Pelicans got their lead back to 16 but once those two checked back in San Antonio got it back down to just 10. Ultimately it was impossible to steal a game in which Devin Vassell couldn’t hit shots and McCollum did a convincing Stephen Curry impersonation, but the Spurs did erase the terrible image their bad start had imprinted on anyone watching by not giving up and competing until the end with the help of some unexpected offensive contributors.

Game notes

  • The Spurs had a fun alternative broadcast squad on Thursday as Matt Bonner and Dan Weiss were filling in for Bill Land and Sean Elliot next to Michelle Beadle. It was the perfect fit for a game in which for long stretches banter was more welcomed than analysis. Rebuilding teams need entertaining broadcasts and the Spurs have a few configurations that work, which is great for the fans watching at home.
  • After eliciting some strong reactions by shooting free throws one-handed, Jeremy Sochan reminded everyone that while his quirks might draw the most attention at times, he’s a serious talent. The rookie played with terrific confidence on offense, getting a career-high 23 points and six assists. He also made seven of his 10 free throws, so maybe changing his shooting form was smart after all.
  • Devin Vassell had just 10 points on 13 shots in what was one of his worst performances this season. He did other things well, filling up the stat sheet with nine rebounds, five assists and three steals, but the Spurs need him to provide scoring and he couldn’t do it. Just another learning experience for a player who has already shown tremendous progress and the ability to adapt.
  • Jakob Poelt getting into foul trouble early really hurt the Spurs. Collins struggled with the size of the Pelicans inside and got in foul trouble as well and Charles Bassey couldn’t make an impact in his few minutes. Valanciunas is always a problem for the Spurs, it seems.
  • A few role players had good performances. Stanley Johnson has really made a case for more minutes in his two appearances. Josh Richardson got some buckets in his return. Malaki Branham had another strong showing that might make the coaching staff rethink whether he should go back to Austin. Tre Jones looked for his shot. After the atrocious first quarter, a lot of guys showed up, at least for stretches.

Play of the night

As mentioned, it wasn’t Vassell’s night, but this pass was still ridiculous. Props to Jones for being able to catch it, too, and having the body control to finish at the rim.

Next game: at Orlando Magic on Friday

The Spurs will travel to Orlando to play a red-hot Magic team on a SEGABABA. Don’t be surprised to see Pop rest some guys.