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Keldon Johnson's career night not enough to propel Spurs past Hornets

Johnson scored 33 points and the Spurs kept pace with the Hornets for most of the night, but in the end they couldn’t close strong enough to get the win.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Charlotte Hornets Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

As it has been the case for most of the season, the Spurs fought valiantly until the end but couldn’t really impose their will late. Despite a career night from Keldon Johnson, the Charlotte Hornets were the ones who prevailed on a surprisingly intense battle, getting a valuable 123-117 victory that gets them closer to the play-in.

It was a high pace affair from the jump, as both teams tried to push the ball whenever they had a chance to catch the opponent’s defense before it could be set, to good results. The Spurs have struggled with getting back in an orderly fashion all year, and the Hornets were more than happy to punish them in secondary transition every time someone lagged behind. As for the Silver and Black, Keldon Johnson thrived in the chaotic environment and put together one of the best quarters of his career, scoring 17 points in the frame to carry the offense on his back while most of the other starters struggled. Not much changed when the second units checked in, with Charlotte looking more fluid in the half court but still pushing the pace, and San Antonio largely doing the same.

After a relatively quiet opening quarter, the All-Star point guards woke up to start the second, with Murray and Ball leading the charge from the perimeter. Unfortunately for the Spurs, no one else could match the energy Montrezl Harrell was providing inside for the Hornets, which gave them an edge. Thanks to the big man’s scoring, the home team was able to carve out a double-digit lead. San Antonio responded by tightening things up on defense once Harrell went to the bench and slowly chipped away at the deficit in part thanks to Jakob Poeltl, who found himself open in the paint often. Heading into the break neither squad was looking particularly sharp, but both had showed that they could find ways to punish their opponent’s mistakes to keep the game close.

The trend of one team having a good stretch and the other responding continued in the third quarter. The Spurs started strong with a couple of threes, but the Hornets were ready to answer with Terry Rozier leading the way on offense to help Charlotte stick around. There was parity for most of the period, as the two opponents traded buckets and leads constantly, but San Antonio had a golden chance to get separation going into the final frame. A couple of timely threes by Johnson and Josh Primo and a mid-range jumper by Walker put the Spurs ahead by six with 1:13 to go, but a mini collapsed followed. A Zach Collins technical foul and two turnovers in consecutive possessions allowed Charlotte to come back and regain the lead on a buzzer-beater.

A strange thing happened during the last 12 minutes. A high-octane game turned into more of an intense, if somewhat sloppy, half court battle that at times got downright chippy. The defenses started to show more activity and aggression, which resulted in a lot of fouls and and some dry spells for both squads. It was clear that it was going to come down to the final moments, where neither the Spurs nor the Hornets have been great this season, and the result was going to be determined by a key play or two. When San Antonio corralled three offensive rebounds in a row before Murray finally converted to get within two, it seemed like the momentum would be on their side. Alas, they simply couldn’t overcome their cold quarter from beyond the arc while Charlotte hit their free throws in crunch time to close it out.

Game notes

  • There were a lot of mini defensive breakdowns in this one, from both teams. Small things, like a late rotation, bad help at the nail or the occasional backdoor cut or blow-by allowed. It’s crazy how much those things matter, though. The Spurs can often mask the fact that they are a bad defensive team by turning up the heat and being disruptive, but they have a long way to go in terms of execution.
  • The Lonnie Walker IV streak of hot games ended in Charlotte. Walker scored five points in eight shots and looked a lot more passive than in past games at times. As a result the Spurs only had 26 bench points to Charlotte’s 39, which certainly didn’t help. If Lonnie struggles to score, the second unit will struggle to score. It’s that simple. Josh Richardson could help, but it seems like he’s the new Thaddeus Young, waiting on the bench to be moved.
  • Josh Primo did his best to make up for Lonnie’s cold night. Primo finished with 10 points, six rebounds and two assists and made big plays thanks to his athleticism and tenacity. Since he’s the rare Spurs’ prospect who can shoot threes, the next thing he has to work on is being more aggressive looking for his shot on drives. He always tries to pass and it sometimes gets him in trouble. Still, encouraging performance by Primo.
  • The Spurs are now 0-32 for the season when trailing after three quarters, which is just an insane stat.

Play of the night

The behind-the-back dribble to create separation is impressive, but the fact that it sets up Murray’s jumper perfectly is what makes this play. Aesthetically pleasing and effective.

SVP awards

3rd place (1 point) - Devin Vassell | 14 points, four rebounds, two blocks

Vassell had a really efficient first half, in which he scored seven points in four shots and had a really impressive block in transition on LaMelo. Unfortunately, he couldn’t stay hot in the second half, having to take nine shots to score seven points and missing some important three-pointers. Primo and Jakob Poeltl have a claim for the third spot, but Vassell gets the nod for doing work when other starters were not playing well.

2nd place (2 points) - Dejounte Murray | 25 points, nine rebounds, 10 assists, three steals

Murray had an up-and-down night, as he really struggled to make his mark in the first half but turned things around late. Normally having a bad start would prevent him from getting a spot in the podium, but stars are expected to show up when the team needs them the most, and that’s what Dejounte did. Murray scored 18 points in the second half, including 10 in the fourth quarter, and in the end came close to another triple-double. Can’t ask for much more.

1st place (3 points) - Keldon Johnson | 33 points, eight rebounds, two assists

Johnson set a new career high against the Hornets by doing what he does best: attacking in space and launching threes. It’s a testament to his activity level that he got as many shots up as he did, since the Spurs don’t normally run plays for him. He just couldn’t make buckets in the fourth quarter because he was guarded closely and he’s not a fluid shot creator, but if this play in which he split a double team is any indication, he could become one soon.

Just a fantastic offensive night for Keldon, who keeps showing untapped potential to go with his production and energy.

Season leaderboard

1st - Dejounte Murray - 96pts

2nd - Jakob Poeltl - 59pts

3rd - Derrick White- 51pts

4th - Keldon Johson - 45pts

5th - Devin Vassell- 42pts

6th - Lonnie Walker IV - 30pts

7th - Doug McDermott - 16pts

8th - Bryn Forbes - 12pts

9th - Thaddeus Young - 11pts

10th - Keita Bates-Diop & Tre Jones - 6pts

11th - Jock Landale - 4pts

12th - Josh Primo - 3pts

13th - Drew Eubanks - 2pts

14th - Devontae Cacok - 1pt

Next game: Vs. Lakers on Monday

The Spurs will kick off a seven-game homestand by facing the reeling Lakers, which are missing Anthony Davis and find themselves in play-in territory after coming into the season with title aspirations. Taking LeBron James and Co. down won’t be easy, but it’s definitely doable.