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Spurs lose tight thriller to Mavericks behind 51 from Luka Doncic

The ball was definitely dropping in a high scoring New Year’s Eve showdown

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at San Antonio Spurs Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

Dallas came to town on New Year’s Eve for what is surprisingly the first meeting between the two Texas rivals this season. The Mavericks arrived on a five-game win streak. MVP candidate Luka Doncic has been on an absolute tear of late, averaging 44.3 ppg, 12.5 rpg, and 10.5 apg over the last four games and owns the highlight of the week in an earlier last-second bucket off his own intentional missed free throw against the Knicks (more on that later). With Devin Vassell missing a second straight game, the Spurs were going to need to both figure out how to bottle Doncic up and generate enough offense to win the game.

One key to victory, outlined by a tongue-in-cheek Coach Popovich prior to the game: keep Doncic to under 50 points and maybe they’d have a chance. Let’s just get this out of the way now: (spoiler alert) they were not successful. Doncic would score 22 points in the first quarter en route to 51 by game’s end. What the Spurs DID get was a top-tier balanced offensive effort from the squad, with five players in double figures.

To start the game, Luka absolutely shredded the Spurs with his signature deliberate offensive play. To get to those 22 first-quarter points, he shot a very efficient 8 of 11 from the floor (including 3/3 from deep). The Spurs sent Jeremy Sochan and Keldon Johnson at him, but it didn’t seem to make any difference who he faced. It wasn’t that the Spurs played poor defense—quite the opposite in fact—but the Maverick guard is just hooping at another level right now.

Dallas coach Jason Kidd would sit Doncic for the first six minutes of the second period, and the Spurs were able to keep the game close but not quite break away. The Silver and Black would get some nice offensive production from Sochan (8 first-half points) and Johnson (17 on six of nine from the floor) but entered the locker room trailing by four, 68 to 64.

Coming out of halftime, the Mavericks threatened to put the game away, driving the lead up to 17 at one point. The Spurs would close out the quarter behind strong bench play and closed within 10, trailing 103 to 93.

And now we come to the fourth period...and what an insane quarter it would prove to be. Remember that highlight from Luka Doncic against the Knicks on Tuesday? This game would see not one, but TWO successful executions of the same play. Before the stars aligned to give fans this thriller end to the game, the Spurs would first need to close the gap and hold Doncic to something approximating a normal offensive production. He would drop 9 in the period, and the Spurs held the Mavericks to 23 points in the quarter. Keldon Johnson and Sochan continued to fight their way to the basket, and combined with some yeomen-like post work from Jakob Poeltl, would lead the team to a virtual tie in the closing moments of the game. What happened next would end the 2022 half of the Spurs’ season in spectacular fashion.

With 20 seconds to go, Sochan hit two free throws to put the Spurs within one. The Mavericks inbounded to Doncic, and a terrifically executed corner trap by the Spurs forced him to cough the ball up to Tim Hardaway Jr. Surprisingly, the Spurs managed to avoid a foul call as they played some very physical defense on Hardaway, causing him to lose the ball near midcourt to Sochan, who was asked to do a little bit of everything this game. Sochan drove to the hoop against Doncic, but the layup rimmed out with 4.5 seconds to go and the game seemed all but over.

After a Dallas time out, the Spurs fouled Doncic, sending him to the line for his 50th and 51st points. With the ball headed back to the Spurs, they drew up an inbound play intended to open up Doug McDermott at the arc, but Dallas played off the screens and the Spurs were forced to burn a timeout. The second play led to a desperation pass to Tre Jones cutting to the basket, who was fouled and sent to the line. Now down two points with only 3.6 left on the clock, Jones attempted to repeat Doncic’s highlight from Tuesday night by intentionally missing his second free throw. Incredibly, he was more or less successful, grabbing his own rebound away from former Spur big man Davis Bertans. Unlike Doncic, he was fouled on the shot and sent back to the line with the chance to tie the game and send it to overtime.

Unfortunately, Jones’ second free throw bounced off the front of the rim, and ended up in Doncic’s hands. After a timeout and a Spurs intentional foul, Doncic was left with a choice: make both free throws, or miss the second and hope time ran out on the Spurs. After missing the first, he went with the second option, and history sort-of repeated...Doncic’s heave off the rim came straight back to him just off the free throw line, and he was able to secure the rebound and hold on to the ball in the corner as time expired, sending Dallas home with the 126-125 victory. Thus ends the 2022 portion of the Spurs’ season, with the team sitting in 14th pace in the West — Happy New Year, Spurs fans! At least it was a thrilling game and one more loss toward a high lottery pick.

Game Notes

  • My notes for the first quarter just read: LUKA LUKA LUKA LUK@^$#! That guy looks like the next-door neighbor you’d share a beer and some wings with during a block party and not the potential MVP of the league. But no question, he’s got my vote this year. Just look at tonight’s stat line: 51 points (62% FG), 6/10 3-pointers, 6 rebounds, 9 assists, 4 steals, 1 block and ZERO turnovers.
  • Jeremy Sochan really impressed this game. He scored 20 points on 58% from the floor (and more impressively, 67% from the arc) and was absolutely in Doncic’s gourd most of the game. He played harassing, physical defense and even seemed to be in his head a bit toward the end, but there’s just not much Sochan (or anyone else in the league) can do to slow him down. More and more, Sochan is starting to prove why he was picked ninth in the draft.
  • All season long, the Spurs have been bringing former Spurs players to the broadcast mic in the second quarter. This game was James Silas’ turn. He highlighted how much the league has changed from his era to now, moving from an inside-out, grind it out style to a fast-paced 3-point focused offensive barrage. I couldn’t help but see elements of the old style in Dallas’ game though. They rarely score fast break points, and many of their plays involve isolations on Doncic’s defender, where he frequently attempts to back the player into the paint before driving or shooting a fade away. Not really apropos of anything, but they are 4th in the West.
  • During a second quarter timeout, the Spurs ran a video showcasing Josh Richardson’s new year’s resolution suggestions. At one point he mentioned “stopping smoking” and the Spurs flashed up a picture of the DARE lion. Um...what kind of smoking did their media team think he meant??

Play of the Game

OK so this isn’t the play of the game, but Tre Jones deserves the award after he missed a heart-breaking second free throw at the end of the game. The only reason he was IN that situation was due to his own hustle in securing the rebound off his intentional miss, so here’s a play showing Tre hitting it in virtually the same spot earlier in the game. You got this brother (Side Note: It was nice to see Pop come out after Tre missed that free throw to reassure his young point guard. Jones will have many more opportunities to hit free throws to seal—or steal—the win in his future, and it’s important that he shake this one off and move on).