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Spurs’ comeback falls painfully short against Morant-less Grizzlies

Despite trailing for most of the game, the Spurs had a chance to win it in the end, but a missed layup prevented them from getting a valuable victory.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

After battling valiantly to give themselves a chance against one of the best teams in the league, the Spurs came as close as possible to actually getting the win without ultimately doing so. A Keldon Johnson layup with 2.7 seconds to go and San Antonio down one rimmed out, depriving the Silver and Black of a valuable victory that would have helped their play-in chances.

As painful as the ending was, the game was entertaining from the start. With Ja Morant out, it was Jaren Jackson Jr. who took it upon himself to set the tone early for the visitors, scoring seven of their first 11 points and looking like a matchup nightmare for the Spurs. Fortunately, Keldon Johnson was up for the challenge on the offensive end, getting San Antonio’s first six points to show that it wasn’t going to be easy for Memphis to run away with it. After those initial minutes, the game was unsurprisingly fast paced, but also a little sloppy, which hurt the Silver and Black more than their opponent. Coughing the ball up while also allowing too many open threes was not a recipe for good defense, and while the home team did hit some long balls of its own, keeping up was a problem. The defense did a better job of contesting shots, but the Grizzlies still eclipsed the 30-point mark in the first.

A problem with opponents like Memphis, which have youth, size, energy and shooting, is that they can take advantage of any bad stretches to get a big lead. After trading buckets for a while in the second frame, the Spurs had a rough couple of minutes, and suddenly they were down by double-digits. The threes kept falling for the Grizzlies and they were getting lucky on 50/50 balls and long rebounds (along with some questionable calls) while doing a good job of protecting the paint. The lead reached 17 at one point, and it was easy to imagine it ballooning even further. But San Antonio reacted in time to stay within striking distance. Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell led the way with some timely threes and the defense tightened up. Just like Desmond Bane had done earlier, Dillon Brooks took over on offense for the visitors for a while to secure them a 13-point lead at the break, but Memphis missed out on an opportunity to create more separation.

The third quarter followed the same pattern as the ones before it. One team would make a run, the other would respond. The Spurs would threaten to make it close, the Grizzlies would get a couple of timely buckets to keep them at bay. The ebb and flow made every possession seem more important than it would normally be, and gave the team a playoff vibe. A missed open look, a turnover, a jump ball, a technical foul, a deflection — they all seem like they could spark the next big run. Dejounte Murray would hit a big shot, but then Tyus Jones and Dillon Brooks would respond. I such a hard-fought game, whoever closed the period on a high note was going to get momentum on its side, and luckily, it happened to be San Antonio. The home team went on an 11-3 run to end the period that allowed them to go into the final frame down just seven.

All the ingredients were there for a fun, close ending, and that’s just what fans got. The Spurs cut the deficit quickly in the fourth to tie the game, but couldn’t get ahead for the first time on the night. After the initial shock, Memphis once again regained control, but wouldn’t be able to get the lead back to double digits in the entire frame. San Antonio just refused to go away despite allowing too many offensive rebounds and not looking all that sharp on offense at times. The Grizzlies really missed Ja Morant, as they simply couldn’t close it out. A Murray pull-up got the Silver and Black within four with just over a minute to play and a Johnson putback with 27.8 seconds to go got the win within the Spurs’ grasp. The defense did its job in the following possession and Gregg Popovich crafted a fantastic play for the game-winner. Unfortunately, Johnson’s contested layup rimmed out, and the the comeback fell short.

Game notes

  • Lonnie Walker IV returned to action after missing four games with back spasms. He played only 13 minutes and finished with just six points on eight shots, but hit a couple of tough buckets. It might take him a while to get back to form, but it’s good to have him back.
  • Josh Primo played just 15 minutes despite starting, which has a lot to do with how great Josh Richardson was on this one, on both ends. This game serves as an argument both for keeping Richardson and for moving him in the offseason. Having a veteran who plays with tremendous energy on defense and moves the ball and hits his shots is something every team could use, but if there’s someone like that around, it’s hard to give minutes to more inconsistent youngsters. Tough decision are ahead for the front office.
  • Offensive rebounds and turnovers were a problem. Giving a team that is as relentless as the Grizzlies extra opportunities makes it extremely hard to beat them. It’s the little things that the young Spurs need to figure out.

Play of the game

Gorgeous play, devastating result.

SVP Awards

3rd place (1 point) - Josh Richardson | Nine points, five assists, five steals

Devin Vassell and his 19 points on 14 shots have a strong case for this spot, but Richardson’s disruptive defense and smart plays on offense give him the edge. The Spurs’ deadline acquisition has been better than anyone could have expected at acclimating to the team and what it needs. Against the Grizzlies, that was tenacity and unselfishness. Richardson delivered on both, so he gets a spot in the podium despite pedestrian numbers.

2nd place (2 points) - Keldon Johnson | 23 points, seven rebounds, four assists

Johnson missed the layup that would have given the Spurs the win, but he did so much to get the team to the point of actually having a chance to steal this one that no one could be upset about the ball not going in at the end. He forced a couple of threes, but in general got what the defense was giving him by aggressively looking for his shot. He also competed despite being at a height disadvantage at times. Another solid performance from a dependable player.

1st place (3 points) - Dejounte Murray | 33 points on 20 shots, six made three-pointers

When the threes are falling for Murray, you can see the outline of a top five point guard. Not having to always be on the ball should give him more energy to spend on defense, where he can be a difference-maker, and would allow others to expand their playmaking horizons, as well. Dejounte had five turnovers to just three assists, an aberration by his standards, but the scoring and especially the outside shooting get him the top spot.

Season leaderboard

1st - Dejounte Murray - 121pts

2nd - Jakob Poeltl - 65pts

3rd - Keldon Johnson - 58pts

4th - Derrick White - 51pts

5th - Devin Vassell- 47pts

6th - Lonnie Walker IV - 37pts

7th - Doug McDermott - 16pts

8th - Bryn Forbes - 12pts

9th - Thaddeus Young - 11pts

10th - Jock Landale - 10pts

11th - Tre Jones & Josh Richardson - 7pts

12th - Keita Bates-Diop - 6pts

13th - Josh Primo - 3pts

14th - Drew Eubanks - 2pts

15th - Devontae Cacok, Zach Collins & Joe Wieskamp - 1pt

Next game: vs. Trail Blazers on Friday

The Spurs will face the Blazers on the first of two consecutive matchups. They need to win both to stay alive in the play-in race, since the schedule gets harder after.