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San Antonio vs. New Orleans, Final Score: Spurs can’t complete comeback, fall to Pelicans in play-in

The Silver and Black’s season came to an end after early foul trouble led to a slow start.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at New Orleans Pelicans Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

The San Antonio Spurs’ season were eliminated from playoff contention on Wednesday, dropping their first-round play-in game to the New Orleans Pelicans, 113-103.

Six different Spurs scored in double digits in the game, Devin Vassell leading the way with 23 points. But San Antonio struggled to stifle the Pelicans’ stars, especially after Dejounte Murray and Jakob Poeltl ran into foul trouble.

Observations

  • Well, they really made it. The Spurs traded their best player before the season, they traded another starter at the deadline and still made it into the NBA play-in over a team that probably has four or five future Hall of Famers (or six if you’re a Malik Monk truther). San Antonio went all-in on the youth movement — with a few exceptions — picked up a couple of extra first-round picks and still finished in the exact same spot as they were a year ago. This year’s team even won an extra game! That’s real progress.
  • Something about seeing ESPN’s promo of the game, with Dejounte Murray’s face on it, just really got under my skin. Not because I was upset at seeing it, but because it was the FIRST time I’d seen it all season. Murray deserved to be a part of many more promo graphics. The Lakers led the league with 42 national games this year — the Spurs had none before tonight. Surely there’s more than enough to go around for both.
  • Some interesting pregame Spurs stats from NBA.com’s John Schumann. You could look at the last one as discouraging or you could look at it as this team being pretty unlucky this year:

  • San Antonio didn’t shrink under the spotlight in the opening minutes, going up 10-6 — six came from sophomore Devin Vassell. They did seem a little overeager though as Murray and Jakob Poeltl were whistled for two fouls each midway through the first quarter. Murray was a bit more understandable since he missed the last few games of the regular season. Not ideal either way, though.
  • Brandon Ingram got into a rhythm early and it almost seemed like Keldon Johnson had a tough time keeping up with him. He posted 11 points in 10 minutes on 4-9 shooting, which is not tenable if you’re hoping to keep your season alive.
  • Despite Ingram’s strong start, the Spurs managed to get back into the game by hunting shots in the lane (the same thing the Pelicans were doing on the other end. By the end of the first quarter, the teams had combined for 22 points in the paint, which is pretty on brand for San Antonio — the Silver and Black finished the regular season second in the league scoring 53.3 points in the paint per game and bottom-five in the league in 50.2 points in the paint allowed per game. They went into the second quarter down 26-22 after a well-executed two-for-one by New Orleans.
  • Murray picked up his third foul 93 seconds into the second quarter, bumping into CJ McCollum while he was shooting a 3-pointer. I don’t want to get too deep into the semantics of whether it was a good or bad call — it was ticky-tack and it was probably a moving screen before that and McCollum sold it but DJ didn’t let him land, whatever. But Murray does need to play smarter in that spot. Contesting that hard while playing with two fouls was risky, even if he hadn’t been called for it. McCollum, in turn, continued torching the Spurs, racking up 17 points by the 8:29 mark of the quarter.
  • A couple of empty offensive possessions had the San Antonio falling behind, which tends to happen when two of your top three scorers run into foul trouble. Hat tip to Herb Jones and Jose Alvarado, they clamped the Spurs’ guards. Lonnie Walker IV helped the team tread water, picking up nine points off the bench, but he was kind of the only one able to buy a basket during the cold spell. Vassell helped later on with two treys and a dime in transition to Tre Jones for a triple from the right corner to cut the deficit down to four.
  • Ingram picked up his third foul with 5:17 left in the second, the Spurs finally catching a break. The Silver and Black scored on each of the next two possessions, too, cutting the lead down to 45-43 and building some momentum. But without Murray on the floor to check McCollum, the Spurs just couldn’t keep pace as he scored 17 points in the second quarter alone, spurring the Pels on a 14-5 run. (Let’s be frank, I’m not sure Murray could’ve even stopped him the way he was playing.) And just like that, San Antonio went into halftime back down by double-digits. And yet, you still couldn’t count them out — to only be down by 11 with a bunch of things not going your way is very survivable.
  • Keldon Johnson shot 0-6 from the floor in the first half. I for one blame the knee-high socks, which I don’t recall him ever wearing before.
  • I was expecting a bit more of a fiery start to the third by the Spurs. But they just looked a bit panicky, like they were down by 20 rather than 11. It felt like a lot of the mistakes were uncharacteristic — giving up turnovers being slow to rotate on defense. They also gave up a bunch of second-chance points, but New Orleans already had a big edge in that category coming into the game.
  • It’s pretty unfortunate that Poeltl had to match up against Jonas Valanciunas in each of these past two play-in games. Plenty of guys in the league have the gall to try to get physical with Jakob, but few actually have to size to be successful doing it. Valanciunas is one of the few. He hung 23 points and 23 boards in the 2021 play-in game against the Spurs as a Grizzly. And he bodied San Antonio’s bigs for 10 points in the third quarter, keeping the Pelicans comfortably ahead.
  • An update on Keldon: After a thorough investigation, I confirmed that he switched shoes at halftime. It did seem to help, as he shot 3-6 to start the third quarter. So maybe it wasn’t the socks after all. It was the ugly mint green sneakers.
  • “They’re playing hard and they’re executing. You’ve got to do it the right way and you’ve got time to do it.” -Gregg Popovich, mic’d up.
  • San Antonio ended the third quarter down 92-75. Murray played the entire period and effectively slowed McCollum down (the Pelicans guard shot 2-8, scoring another five points). But it wasn’t enough to turn the tide. It does seem like he’s a bit rusty on offense after missing the last few games of the regular season, going 4-12 from the floor so far.
  • Keldon should’ve switched shoes a lot sooner. He scored a quick six points to start the fourth quarter and assisted Josh Richardson on another basket to cut the lead all the way down to 97-88 and forcing New Orleans to call timeout. San Antonio only has 7:25 left but they’ve got a shot to make a rally if they stay at this pace. Doris Burke also pointed out how much better the team was doing against Valanciunas, sending more help defenders inside so that the bigs aren’t going one-on-one. The Pels went five minutes without a point.
  • Huge, huge night for Devin Vassell, who canned a 3 to cut the deficit to six with five minutes remaining. He’s now 5-11 from outside, with all but two of his points coming from beyond the arc. NOLA went on a run to push the lead back to 12 and Vassell ended it with two more triples. The Spurs wouldn’t be in this game without him.
  • San Antonio didn’t have enough firepower to complete the comeback, ending the team’s season. But a reminder of how they got here: a squad that was somewhat set up to intentionally fail never gave up on itself and got a chance to return to the playoffs. That’s going to be an important characteristic to have moving forward — an identity these new-age Spurs can build themselves around. And it’s a reason that, no matter how this game went, they’d go down as an extremely memorable team for the franchise. This year was only the start.