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Spurs narrowly avoid late-game collapse in win over Jazz

It was closer than it should have been after being in control for three quarters, but a great performance in the clutch by Tre Jones allowed the Spurs to hold off the Jazz.

NBA: Utah Jazz at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs returned to action after their Christmas break with a win. Despite almost collapsing at the end after leading by as many as 20, they managed to narrowly avoid disaster and beat the Jazz 126-122 thanks to some clutch Tre Jones buckets.

It was close to a perfect start for the Spurs, who had a game plan and the focus to execute it. With the Jazz going big with Jarred Vanderbilt at one of the forward spots, San Antonio had someone it could ignore beyond the arc to send more bodies to the paint. As Jeremy Sochan did a good job on Lauri Markkanen and others roamed, there was not a lot of room for anyone on a bright yellow jersey to take open looks. On the other end, the Silver and Black was just keeping things simple, cutting with purpose and attacking the rim whenever possible. Things improved for the visitors when Collin Sexton checked in to provide more scoring, but the threes simply weren’t falling for the Jazz and the Spurs were running and being opportunistic on offense. Had it not been for a couple of lapses to end the frame, San Antonio would have probably led by more than five points after the first 12 minutes.

All those threes that were not going in for Utah earlier eventually started to fall, and the Jazz started to chip away at a deficit that had gotten large, but the Spurs didn’t flinch. As center Walker Kessler was limited by foul trouble, the Silver and Black made its living near the rim, where there were no shot blockers. There were some moments where the frenetic energy that was present on defense in the first quarter waned, and at times there were some painful turnovers, but San Antonio continued to outplay an opponent that was stronger on paper. Even when Markkanen started heating up and Mike Conley remained a threat, the young Spurs kept their composure. The big names always delivered when needed and a second unit that heavily featured Malaki Branham provided some freshness. Going into the break up only seven after leading by double digits wasn’t ideal, but it was hard to be unhappy with San Antonio’s performance in the first half.

With Kessler in severe foul trouble, Will Hardy went smaller to kick off the second half by inserting Malik Beasley into the starting unit, with poor results. Not having size inside hurt Utah on defense, as the Spurs dominated the paint on both ends, and the threes didn’t go in for the visitors. The execution wasn’t great on offense by San Antonio in the half court, but being able to run solved a lot of issues that could have presented themselves. Turnovers became a problem at times, as they resulted in buckets for the Jazz, but even through stretches of bad spacing and poor floor balance, the Spurs managed to hold and even extend a double-digit lead. Partially because Utah was sloppy and unimaginative and partially because San Antonio was always ready to capitalize on mistakes, the home team went into the final period up 14.

It should have been a comfortable win, but these young Spurs still haven’t learned how to close out games. All the Jazz had to do was stick around and hope for a collapse which almost happened. For a while, Jakob Poeltl and Doug McDermott did enough to keep things copacetic but midway through the final frame they were subbed out. The Spurs still held firm for a little while but some questionable decisions by Jeremy Sochan, who fouled Markkanen on a three and didn’t use much clock in a key possession, and some misses from the line and a bad foul by Zach Collins allowed Utah to cut the lead to just four points with 1:23 to go. Fortunately a three by Beasley that danced on the rim before spilling out and two huge clutch buckets by Tre Jones prevented the comeback from being completed.

Game notes

  • Josh Richardson received a DNP-CD while Malaki Branham logged a season-high in minutes. It’s possible it was just done thinking of the SEGABABA against the Thunder on Tuesday, but Branham had the type of impressive performance that could make the change permanent, logging a career-high 20 points while doing a decent job of being the ball handler for the second unit.
  • Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell combined for 45 points and 13 assists, which was great to see. Those two can still force things at times or make some questionable decisions, but they have shown tremendous growth on offense.
  • Jones was a killer in the clutch, but even before late in the fourth he was important because of his ability to push the pace and find open teammates. The entire team did a good job of trying to run but few players made the right decision on the break as often as Tre.
  • Jeremy Sochan had an up-and-down game. At times he did a great job on Markkanen and offered some secondary ball handling, but he made a mistake that made Pop bench him for a while in the third period and then had a bad stretch to close the game out. Every game is a learning experience for Sochan, so hopefully he’ll find takeaways from both the good and the bad.
  • Against an opponent with no real backup center and a starter that couldn’t stay on the floor because of foul trouble, the Spurs’ bigs feasted. Poeltl and Collins combined for 26 points in just 10 shots and helped San Antonio get a whopping 72 points in the paint. Collins has to keep his fouling under control but the big man depth San Antonio has is a luxury.

Play of the night

There was no way Devin Vassell could have done this last season. His progress as a ball handler and shot creator has been shocking to see and if he continues at this pace, he should be a serious candidate for Most Improved Player.

Next game: At Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday

The Spurs will travel to OKC to play the second game of a back-to-back against Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and a feisty Thunder team.