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Spurs hold off Thunder, go into the All-Star break on a positive note

The Spurs didn’t shine in their visit to Oklahoma City, but still managed to get the third win of the Rodeo Road Trip.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs closed the first leg of the Rodeo Road Trip with an unimpressive but potentially valuable win. They struggled more than they should have against a Thunder team that was missing Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Luguentz Dort and others, but avoided a second-half collapse to escape Oklahoma City with a 114-106 victory over a play-in rival.

Complacency was expected to be a bigger hurdle for the Spurs than their actual opponent on Wednesday. Facing a heavily depleted Thunder team on the last game before the All-Star break, it wasn’t surprising to see the Silver and Black look a little lethargic early on. They allowed a couple of looks inside and missed some open ones on the other end to let OKC get ahead in the opening minutes, before Keldon Johnson provided a burst of energy by crashing the offense glass. From then on, San Antonio was in control for the rest of the first period, just getting whatever they wanted on offense and keeping their shooting-deprived opponents from getting too many easy buckets. The lead reached double digits at one point, but ultimately sat at five at the end of the first.

The problem with not getting enough separation in the modern NBA is that with the emphasis on three-point shooting, no small lead is safe, as teams can get back in the game in a hurry. That was exactly what happened to start the second, with Theo Maledon and Josh Giddey hitting back to back outside shots after catching the Spurs sleeping to regain the lead. The defense was simply too lazy for most of the frame, going for unnecessary switches and featuring some players not sliding their feet and just trusting someone would bail them out. Fortunately, San Antonio could still get buckets consistently, so they could afford to have lapses in concentration. Once the Silver and Black started playing with more intensity, they easily regained the lead and stretched it, to go to the break up 15.

A good start in the second half was all that was needed to put the home team away and secure the win, but as we’ve seen often this season, the Spurs seem to enjoy the thrills of unnecessarily close games. The starters allowed buckets inside, just like they did in the first quarter, but this time it wasn’t just the defense that wasn’t up to par. Ball and player movement stopped for long stretches for San Antonio even when Dejounte Murray was on the court, but got much worse when he was resting. The Silver and Black still looked in control, but a huge offensive drought that lasted over three minutes allowed the Thunder to close the gap. If not for a sloppy end of the quarter by both teams, Oklahoma City might have actually taken the lead instead of going into the final frame down eight.

Luckily, these Spurs don’t let bad stretches define the team they are and always seem to have a response in them. The fourth quarter wasn’t pretty, but it did show that San Antonio has learned a few lessons from previous collapses. They carved out a 16-point lead against a Thunder team that looked willing to fight but lacking weapons, and mostly managed it the rest of the way. At one point the home team got within five after yet another offensive drought from the Silver and Black, but there were only 24 seconds to go in the game. A bad inbounds from Keldon Johnson resulted in a turnover providing more suspense than initially thought, but the Thunder missed, the Spurs went to the line, and then defended well to get the third win of the Rodeo Road Trip.

Game notes

  • Josh Richardson made his debut with the Spurs. The veteran wing looked good when the team was playing well in the first half, showing his defensive chops and hit a long three for his first points with his new team. It’s likely he only played because Tre Jones was out, however, and with how bad the offense looked without a point guard, it’s hard to imagine Gregg Popovich sitting Jones when he’s healthy. It will be interesting to see how the Spurs make room for a player that can definitely contribute this season, but is probably not in their future plans.
  • The Spurs only had nine fastbreak points, and allowed a very low seven. It’s a good thing to play slow against a team as limited as the Thunder are on the half court, but with no backup point guard, San Antonio needed to run more and couldn’t. OKC deserves credit for not turning the ball over much, but the Spurs probably needed to push the pace more, especially when the second unit was on.
  • It’s a little strange to say the Spurs settled for too many jumpers in a game in which they scored 60 points in the paint, but that is exactly what happened at times. Lonnie Walker IV, who had a good game in general, was one of the main culprits. With more responsibility now that he’s the sixth man he’ll need to figure out a balance between looking for his shot and picking his spots wisely on offense.

Play of the night

Every once in a while, these Spurs will have a sequence in which they look like the 2014 version that played incredibly beautiful basketball.

SVP awards

3rd place (1 point) - Dejounte Murray | 18 points, seven rebounds, eight assists

Murray didn’t have an efficient shooting night or a triple-double like Josh Giddey, but it was evident how important he is for the team. Without him on the floor, the Spurs looked lost more often than not. Devin Vassell (15 points and six assists) and Doug McDermott (an efficient 16 points) could have easily taken this spot, but Dejounte’s calming presence, more than his numbers, gets him the nod.

2nd place (2 points) - Keldon Johnson | 22 points, seven rebounds, two steals

Johnson really brought the energy that the team was lacking early with his work on the offensive glass and was disruptive on defense, which is always great to see. His outside shot wasn’t as reliable on this one and he did make a few mistakes, including that late-game inbound, but he also attacked the paint relentlessly and got himself to the line for seven free throws. Just a solid night from a solid player.

1st place (3 points) - Jakob Poeltl | 20 points, 17 rebounds, five assists, two blocks

Poeltl’s stat line looks like something Tim Duncan would produce, which is the biggest compliment any Spurs’ big can receive. Jakob took advantage of the smaller Thunder to dominate the paint and did a decent job whenever he was switched onto a smaller player. The front office did the right thing exploring his trade value before the deadline, but not moving him is looking like the right decision.

Season leaderboard

1st - Dejounte Murray - 93pts

2nd - Jakob Poeltl - 54pts

3rd - Derrick White- 51pts

4th - Keldon Johson - 39pts

5th - Devin Vassell- 38pts

6th - Lonnie Walker IV - 24pts

7th - Doug McDermott - 15pts

8th - Bryn Forbes - 12pts

9th - Thaddeus Young - 11pts

10th - Keita Bates-Diop - 5pts

11th - Jock Landale - 4pts

12th - Josh Primo - 3pts

13th - Drew Eubanks & Tre Jones - 2pts

14th - Devontae Cacok - 1pt

Next game: at Wizards, on Feb. 25

The Spurs will continue the Rodeo Road Trip after the All-Star break. In the meantime, everyone will get some much-needed rest except for Dejounte Murray, who will participate in the All-Star game.