The understaffed San Antonio Spurs came up just short of completing an improbable upset of the first-place Miami Heat on Saturday night as their mishmash of second and third-stringers went toe-to-toe with the hottest organization in the Eastern Conference. Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, and Tyler Herro dominated, but the good guys put forth an admirable effort.
Devin Vassell, Lonnie Walker IV, and Keita Bates-Diop paced the Silver and Black in scoring with 22 points apiece, while Tre Jones showed fans his best Dejounte Murray impersonation with 19 points, six rebounds, and 11 assists. The recently acquired Josh Richardson chipped in 10 points, four boards, and four dimes off the bench, and Jock Landale added 14 points.
Gregg Popovich has always run a team-oriented system predicated on ball movement and intelligent shot selection. And it should come as no shock that the next-man-up mentality translated as well as it did versus the Heat. San Antonio is still well within reach of the tenth seed, and the depth they put on display might get them into the play-in tournament.
- Tre Jones has been fantastic when Dejounte Murray doesn’t dress out, averaging 14.0 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 6.0 assists on 53.7% shooting across five games as a spot starter this season. Reading into a smaller sample size is usually ill-advised. However, aside from the putrid Pistons, the second-year floor general has faced stiff competition in most of these matchups, including the league-leading Suns, first-place Heat, and play-in-bound Toronto Raptors. Jones put up stellar numbers against Miami on Saturday night, proving himself more than capable of running an offense when rotation regulars need a siesta. The 22-year-old guard aggressively attacked the rim from the second the contest began, displaying a variety of veteran moves. Tre froze Tyler Herro with an in-and-out dribble before bursting to the cup for a left-handed layup. He trapped P.J. Tucker on his hip and drew contact on a floater for an and-one. The former Blue Devil also lost Jimmy Butler on a backdoor cut, utilized a dribble-handoff to get downhill versus Duncan Robinson, and pushed the pace in transition for a euro-step runner. Despite all the impressive scoring chops on his way to a career-high 19 points, his career-high 11 assists were the star of the show. Jones fired a few flawless outlets for a pair of fastbreak slams, delivered a two-handed skip pass for an above-the-break three, hit cutters in stride for easy buckets, and used the pick-and-roll to penetrate the heart of the defense for a couple of drive-and-kick assists on catch-and-shoot triples. This performance was arguably the tour-de-force of his burgeoning NBA career, and there should be little double that the Spurs have found their backup point guard of the future. Want a bold prediction? Tre Jones will be San Antonio’s first second-round pick to sign a second contract with the organization since Manu Ginobili.
- Devin Vassell got the rare opportunity to operate as the undisputed go-to scoring option for the Spurs with Dejounte Murray and Keldon Johnson on the injury report. And the 21-year-old swingman didn’t disappoint. Vassell was on a heater to begin the contest, knocking down his first six shots as he showed off an expanded offensive arsenal. The Florida State product went behind the back to lose Kyle Lowry before beating the rotating help defender with a floater that kissed off the top of the glass. He punished Dewayne Dedmon in drop coverage with a pull-up jumper, continued to get to his favorite spot around the nail, and posterized Duncan Robinson with a one-handed slam that put an exclamation mark on the first quarter. The second-year guard relocated without the ball for three corner threes, including a four-point play after Kyle Lowry bulldozed him on the follow-through. Devin eventually secured a career-high 22 points on a pair of free throws with 7:34 remaining in the third period, but he failed to score for the rest of the game. There were plenty of encouraging self-creation flashes from Vassell, but you could see how Miami adjusted and made him uncomfortable as the night progressed. When Bam Adebayo began switching onto him in the pick-and-roll in the second half, life as a primary scorer became much worse for Vassell. And even once attempts stopped falling, Devin forced the issue a bit too much down the stretch. Ultimately this was a promising outing from the young shooting guard. If he can cut down on silly mistakes like shuffling his feet or stepping on the sidelines, Vassell could become a reliable secondary or tertiary scorer down the road.
- San Antonio has witnessed a new-and-improved Lonnie Walker IV since they moved on from Derrick White and freed minutes, touches, and shots at the trade deadline. The 23-year-old has averaged 20.0 points and 3.4 rebounds while shooting 51.9% from the field and 40.7% from three over his last five games. He kept things rolling on Saturday night as he scored 22 points in 24 minutes, providing the Spurs with a much-needed spark off the bench when they started falling behind in the second half. Lonnie caught fire near the end of the third quarter with three buckets that gave the Silver and Black some hope heading into the final frame. The fourth-year guard hung in the air between two defenders for a double-clutch layup off the backboard, curled into the paint for a two-handed tomahawk slam, and walked into an off-the-dribble triple that tied things up at 97-97. And Walker wasn’t finished as he rattled home a pair of catch-and-shoot threes in the fourth period and converted an and-one while falling to the ground and shielding the ball from the outstretched arms of All-World defender Bam Adebayo. Lonnie is quickly changing the narrative around his contract season in San Antonio. If he sustains this elite level of play, general manager Brian Wright will have a difficult decision to make this offseason. There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of Lonnie, but doubt is fading with each passing performance.