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Spurs put up a fight but are outclassed by Cavaliers

The Spurs started the Rodeo Road Trip with a loss to a superior opponent.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Cleveland Cavaliers David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The start of the Rodeo Road Trip didn’t really go as the Spurs would have hoped. They started off strong in their visit to Cleveland, but eventually were outclassed by the superior Cavaliers, falling behind by as much as 23 and making a failed comeback attempt that resulted in a predictable but honorable 105-92 loss.

It was always going to be an uphill battle for the Silver and Black. The Cavaliers know who they are, and tried to established their bigs early on. Fortunately for the smaller Spurs, Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley were a little sloppy and missed some easy looks, which allowed San Antonio to get a lead thanks to the outside shooting of Keldon Johnson. Eventually the size difference started to be a factor, but an aggressive Dejounte Murray got the Spurs buckets when the defense struggled, and they managed to hold off the Cavs for most of the quarter. The bench was a little shaky after checking in and facing an opponent with a lot of weapons, but slowly got better and competed, despite not having a lot of shot creation. The game was close after one, but San Antonio had a small edge.

The talent and size difference became more noticeable in the second quarter. The Spurs had more points in the paint, but were often forced to foul the Cavs when they drove or their bigs got the ball close to the rim, resulting in a huge free throw shooting discrepancy. The three ball stopped falling for San Antonio at the worst time, and with Murray resting, the half court offense stalled. Meanwhile, Cleveland put together a good stretch on offense that resulted in a double-digit lead. Some fastbreak points and a good end of the quarter from Keldon Johnson kept the Spurs within striking distance heading into the break, but the Cavaliers looked very much in control despite only leading by nine.

Most of the negative trends that were present in the first half remained there for the Spurs at the start of the second, and the Cavaliers were ready to exploit them. The shots just weren’t falling and the defense struggled to both contain penetration and guard the three-point line. Cleveland’s lead quickly ballooned, and at its highest reached 23 points. It seemed like the game was essentially over, but with Derrick White getting to the free throw line a couple of times to stop the bleeding, a small unit playing disruptive, energetic defense, and Devin Vassell having an 11-point quarter to carry the offense, San Antonio clawed its way back. Their run wasn’t enough to get them on the driver seat heading into the final period, but it allowed them to cut the deficit to a manageable 11 points after three.

Even when the Cavs let the Spurs get back in it in the third, it felt like a superior team easing up on its intensity more than a real turn of the tide, so it’s not a surprise that San Antonio couldn’t complete the comeback. The silver lining is that it wasn’t for a lack of effort. One thing that this group does most nights is compete, and that was the case on Wednesday. At one point they cut the lead to seven, before Cleveland started to close the door on them. With the threes still not falling the Spurs simply didn’t have the firepower to break through the home team’s defense, and the size advantage was too much to overcome on the other end, as Mobley and Allen got buckets inside to keep the Spurs at bay. It was an honorable attempt that felt short, like many have this season.

Game notes

  • It’s hard to win while shooting 8-for-33 from beyond the arc and only getting 11 total free throws when your opponents shoots 43 percent from outside and gets 24 attempts from the line.
  • Dejounte Murray had a mediocre game, by his admittedly high standards. Murray finished with 16 points, six rebounds and nine assists, but it took him 17 shots to get there, he really struggled in the third when the Spurs needed him, and he got completely outplayed by fellow first time All-Star Darius Garland. Dejounte’s bad nights are better than most players’ good ones, but this group needs him in peak form to have a chance against better opponents.
  • Zach Collins had a decent second game. The five points and seven rebounds were nice, but his passing is what stood out the most. He had three assists, including a pretty one for a backdoor cut from Murray.

Somewhat surprisingly, he didn’t share the court with Jakob Poeltl at all, despite the Cavaliers playing two bigs. It seems the Spurs are still committed to their small ball identity.

  • The Spurs can normally survive one starter or one key bench player struggling, but not both. Unfortunately, both Doug McDermott (2-for-10, no threes made) and Lonnie Walker IV (0-for-3, only 11 minutes on the court) were no-shows, which really hurt the offense.
  • Josh Primo benefited from Walker seeing his playing time reduced, getting 22 minutes of run despite missing his five three-point attempts. Primo showed some flashes, like he normally does, but it’s good that he’s part of the rotation now even when he struggles. Unless something big happens at the trade deadline, it seems like his time in Austin is done.

Play of the game

Calling Devin Vassell deceptively athletic would be silly at this point, but he does sometimes surprise everyone with his hops. For example, Kevin Love clearly didn’t see this coming.

SVP awards

3rd place (1 point) - Keldon Johnson | 17 points, seven rebounds, three made three-pointers

Johnson gets in over Murray simply because of lower expectations. They both had great first halves and faded in the second, with Keldon going 1-for-11 from the field in the last two quarters. Still, his performance early on and his tenacity on the offensive glass were enough to get him a spot in the podium.

2nd place (2 points) - Derrick White | 17 points, four rebounds, three assists, two steals

A good Derrick White game includes am efficient shooting night, a few assists, a drawn charge or two and at least one made three-pointer. White checked all of those boxes against the Cavaliers, plus he threw in a couple of big trips to the line that he created when nothing else was working in the half court.

1st place (3 points) - Devin Vassell | 18 points, three rebounds, three assists, two steals

Vassell had 11 of his 18 points in the third quarter, a period in which he was perfect from the field. Normally a one-quarter performance doesn’t take the top spot, but without that scoring explosion from the second-year wing, the Spurs would have been down by 30 going into the final period. The timeliness of his buckets and his aggressiveness on both ends were arguably the best part of the game.

Season leaderboard

1st - Dejounte Murray - 84pts

2nd - Jakob Poeltl & Derrick White- 51pts

3rd - Devin Vassell - 37pts

4th - Keldon Johnson - 34pts

5th - Lonnie Walker IV - 19pts

6th - Doug McDermott - 14pts

7th - Bryn Forbes - 12pts

8th - Thaddeus Young - 11pts

9th - Keita Bates-Diop - 5pts

10th - Jock Landale - 4pts

11th - Josh Primo - 3pts

12th - Drew Eubanks & Tre Jones - 2pts

13th - Devontae Cacok - 1pt

Next game: at Hawks on Friday

The Spurs will visit Atlanta for the second game of the Rodeo Road Trip. The game will be played right after the trade deadline, so maybe there will new faces on both teams.