The San Antonio Spurs survived a furious last-minute comeback attempt from the Oklahoma City Thunder as they leaned on their defense to shut the door on the contest. Although they allowed a 16-point cushion to fade into a single-digit deficit during the fourth quarter, the good guys ramped up their intensity and found a way to escape with a dub.
Keldon Johnson led the Silver and Black with 22 points and seven boards. Jakob Poeltl recorded a dominant double-double on his way to 20 points, 17 rebounds, five assists, and two blocks. Dejounte Murray ended with 18 points, seven rebounds, and eight dimes, as every member of the starting lineup scored in double figures on Wednesday night.
Head coach Gregg Popovich and company enter the All-Star Break a few games back of the Portland Trail Blazers for the final Western Conference play-in spot. San Antonio is also a couple of games away from securing a shot at a top-five pick in the upcoming draft, so they have a lot to ponder as they navigate a tricky rebuilding process.
- The Spurs have given Devin Vassell more ballhandling opportunities since promoting him into the starting lineup after a bevy of trade deadline deals sent Derrick White to the Boston Celtics. And with Tre Jones stuck on the sidelines with right knee soreness versus the Thunder, head coach Gregg Popovich asked his second-year swingman to run the offense for a couple of minutes here and there when Dejounte Murray took a seat. Vassell took advantage of his newfound playmaking duties, recording a career-high six assists while making simple reads and cutting down on mistakes. The 21-year-old found Dejounte in transition, connected with Lonnie Walker IV on a cut to the basket, hit Keldon Johnson in his shooting pocket for a wide-open three, and delivered a couple of precision passes to Jakob Poeltl for his trademark pop-a-shot. Most draft night projections had Devin Vassell pegged as a 3&D specialist in the NBA, but the Florida State product has shown enough flashes of self-creation to give fans hope he might exceed those expectations. His pull-up jumper is effortless, and if he gains more comfortability dribbling the rock up the court and getting San Antonio into their sets, the Silver and Black could have another two-way stud in the making.
- Lonnie Walker IV has been among the biggest beneficiaries of the Spurs moving on from Derrick White. Although the fourth-year guard struggled in his first game as San Antonio’s newest sixth-man, he has flourished as a spark off the bench in his last three contests. Walker dropped 17 points against New Orleans, scored 21 points versus Chicago, and put together another strong performance on Wednesday night. The 23-year-old guard slashed towards the hoop on fastbreaks and in the half-court, confidently rose into catch-and-shoot three-pointers, and embraced contact to get to the free-throw line. He fell into a slump down the stretch and committed a costly turnover with less than a minute remaining in regulation. With that said, Lonnie was a net positive when on the court. Many expected Walker would have a breakout campaign after DeMar DeRozan, Patty Mills, and Rudy Gay signed with new teams this offseason. Instead, Lonnie was a disaster on the offensive end from the get-go. But a switch has seemingly flipped. The hesitancy and second-guessing have turned into the sort of inspired play you would expect to see from someone hoping to stay in the league during a contract year.
- Before we go any further, Oklahoma City is not a basketball team that you celebrate defeating by three possessions, especially when Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Lu Dort don’t suit up. Although the Spurs are only a couple of games ahead of the Thunder in the standings, they reasonably should have been capable of putting away a shorthanded Western Conference bottom-dweller without any dramatics. Regardless, San Antonio picked up a much-needed victory before the All-Star Break, and they can thank their defense for holding it together when their offense floundered in the second half. The Silver and Black haven’t lived up to expectations on the defensive end, but their defense has often shined when they walk away victorious this season. Jakob Poeltl, Dejounte Murray, Zach Collins, and Lonnie Walker IV forced their defensive assignments into shooting 18-of-57 from the field (31.5%) on Wednesday night. And the good guys should do their best to lean into a stronger defensive identity during the final leg of the season. Devin Vassell, Josh Richardson, Keita Bates-Diop, and Josh Primo offer versatility as stoppers, so hopefully, San Antonio comes back from their nine-day hiatus inspired to lock down their opposition.