To say the Spurs were short-handed coming into Sunday’s game versus the Western Conference-leading Phoenix Suns was an understatement. In addition to big men Jakob Poeltl, Jeremy Sochan and Dominick Barlow, forward Doug McDermott was a late scratch. Over on the wing, Josh Richardson joined Blake Wesley on the bench. By game’s end, Romeo Langford would join the group in street clothes with a right ankle sprain sustained late in the first half, but more concerningly, Devin Vassell went to the locker room late in the fourth and did not return. Even the coaching staff was thin, with head coach Gregg Popovich remaining sidelined as he recovers from a minor medical procedure.
Coming into the game, the Spurs were mired in a 10-game losing streak, and one can imagine the players are getting a little tired of all the losing. They certainly played like it at first. In the opening minute, Vassell hit a jump shot followed closely by a three, and Tre Jones stole the ball and hit a running layup for a quick 7-0 lead.
However, things slowed down quickly from there, with Phoenix leaning on a dose of Mikal Bridges, Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker to put the ball in the basket. Booker in particular has been on a tear of late. Over the last three games, he has averaged 45 points a game while shooting better than 60% from the floor (something only Wilt Chamberlain has also done in the same stretch). Booker would score 11 in the first and propel the Suns to a five-point lead by the end of the frame.
With so many big men in street clothes, staying out of foul trouble was going to be critical for the Spurs. Unfortunately, they must not have written that on the white board, as both Zach Collins and Charles Bassey earned three fouls — and a spot on the bench — by early in the second quarter. As a result, we got a dose of Alize Johnson and Gorgui Dieng much sooner than usual. This, spoiler alert, is never ideal, but it wouldn’t have mattered much against the West-leading Suns anyway.
In the second, the Suns used excellent ball movement to open up lanes to the basket and wide-open shots from the arc. The Spurs looked lost on defense, an issue that has plagued the young team frequently. Rotations came way too slowly, or not at all, leaving players wide open for painfully long moments. In addition, they did not take care of the ball well, coughing it up 11 times while only forcing three Suns miscues. By halftime, the Suns had shelled the Spurs and led by 30, 71 to 41. Bridges and Ayton both had 17 for Phoenix, while Keldon Johnson led the Spurs with 11. Mired in a long shooting slump, Johnson relied more on physical inside play, using either post moves or cuts to the basket to try and finish at the rim. This is a bit of a shift from earlier in his cold streak, where he would shoot three after three in an attempt to get himself going. He seems to be doing all the right things and by game’s end, Johnson would score a team-high 27 points on 48% from the floor. He also shot 1/5 from the arc, so his outside shot still isn’t falling right now, but hopefully this can be the start of a turnaround for him.
It was more of the same in the second half. The Spurs continued to be outmatched by almost every Suns player on the floor. The losing seems to be weighing on them a bit too, which is only natural. Players at this level don’t just want to play - they want to compete and win. It’s in their DNA. At various times in the third period in particular, players seemed frustrated as teammates missed cuts, set screens late, or tried to occupy the same space as another player during a play. One wonders if at some point the Spurs coaching staff let up on the Race to Wembanyama gas just long enough to get a win or two under the players’ belts and restore some confidence (say by not sitting players for minor bumps and bruises, for instance). Sure, these are all adult professional players, but they are young and there is a point where losing can become endemic.
Regardless, after losing 133-95 to the Suns, the Spurs chalk up loss number 11 in a row. Coach Pop likely returns to the bench Thursday as they face the bottom-dwelling Houston Rockets in a game that is sure to set viewership and attendance records across the league.
- Great pregame stat: 24% of current NBA coaches were once coached by, or played for, Pop. What a remarkable statement about his coaching success, longevity and talent for mentoring those around him throughout his career.
- New Spurs call-up Alize Johnson made the most of his playing time, showing decent footspeed, physicality and some strong drives to the basket. He would finish the game with 5 points, 4 rebounds and a steal in 15 minutes, and was the only Spurs player with a positive — well, technically neutral 0 — Plus/Minus rating, which probably had more to do with his limited playing time then any massive impact he had on the game during his stint on the floor.
- Ex-Spurs big Jock Landale came to town with the Suns and had a low-key revenge game. He scored 12 in 14 minutes (4/6 FGs) against his former team. He’s definitely not in their plans now but it would have been nice to have another body in Silver and Black for tonight’s game. Then again, Tim Duncan was in the building for Beer Night, so...
- For close to two decades, the Spurs were known as a very, very good defensive team. Their yearly stats may have fluctuated, but teams understood that defense was always going to be a focus. That’s what makes the massive mistakes, rotation failures, and general confusion so frustrating to watch this year. We all get this team is designed to struggle its way to a high lottery pick, but I don’t know that most expected any Pop-coached group of players to be this poor at basic defensive rotation work. It may simply be a byproduct of a team of young players, many of whom are still learning the game, but it feels like more than that. I don’t know if there’s been a shift in the message, new defensive schemes, or a lack of available practice time to get everyone on the same page, but something really looks broken. Opposing shooters have enough time to read War and Peace before putting the shot up. Against hot-shooting top tier teams like the Suns, scores are going to get ridiculous as a result. But, Viva la Tank, right?
Play of the game
Devin Vassell started the game hot before cooling WAY down and finishing with 14 points on 5/12 shooting before his early exit due to injury in the fourth. Let’s hope his injury doesn’t cause him to miss too much time as he’s one of the few reasons for fans to tune in most nights. Before slowing down he scored seven of the team’s first nine points, capping it off with this really impressive slam:
Dev on a hot start pic.twitter.com/fr7T4nDubP— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) December 4, 2022