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Spurs season ends with play-in loss to the Pelicans

The Spurs fought until the end, but couldn’t come back to beat New Orleans in what could have been Gregg Popovich’s last game as head coach.

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

The 2021-2022 edition of the San Antonio Spurs ended in New Orleans. After falling behind by as many as 21 points and attempting a comeback that would fall short, San Antonio said goodbye to the play-in tournament following a 113-103 loss to the Pelicans, who will now face the Clippers for the final playoff spot in the West.

While the ending was close, it’s hard to overstate how in control the Pelicans seemed to be for most of the game. A strong start, featuring a couple of Devin Vassell threes, really ended up being what kept the Spurs in it early, as foul trouble for both Dejounte Murray and Jakob Poeltl limited what San Antonio could do on both ends. Zach Collins tried his best, but he simply didn’t command respect as a rim protector, so the Pelicans kept challenging him and succeeding near the rim. Luckily for the Silver & Black, triples were not falling for New Orleans, so staying in it despite a great performance by Brandon Ingram was possible. At times it felt like the home team had a big lead, but they never really got it over four points, which provided hope for what was to come.

Unfortunately, it wouldn’t take the Pelicans long into the second quarter to find the separation they couldn’t get in the first. CJ McCollum went on a tear, scoring eight in a row for his team, and a Jose Alvarado three-pointer with the Spurs in a zone put New Orleans ahead by nine, despite Lonnie Walker IV’s best efforts. A blowout seemed likely, but the good thing about the play-in is that it features two similarly flawed teams, so the door remained open for San Antonio, longer than it probably should have been, as a few mistakes by their opponents allowed the Silver & Black to get close again before the next big Pelicans run to end the quarter. Despite getting virtually nothing on offense from their two leading scorers, the Spurs were somehow only down 11 at the break.

For a while in the third period, it really felt like the Pelicans were finally ready to run away with it, as Herb Jones made his mark with hustle and the Ingram-McCollum-Valanciunas trio run roughshod over San Antonio’s defense. The lead ballooned to 21 points and the Spurs were lost, looking for someone to step up to fill the void left by an underwhelming Dejounte Murray performance. Keldon Johnson answered the call with a string of buckets, but it simply wasn’t enough to really put a dent into the deficit. It’s no secret that the Spurs have been a disaster this season while trailing after three quarters, so it was hard to be hopeful about a comeback when they went into the last frame down 17 points, and with a lot of core players struggling.

What has made this team so fun to watch all season, despite some glaring issues, is that they keep fighting even when facing adversity, so it was fitting that they showed their resolve one last time, even if it didn’t end in success. Jakob Poeltl showed his worth on both ends with big defensive plays, screens and rebounds while Johnson continued to attack, despite clearly having a cold night. The defense tightened up against a Pelicans team that faltered just when it seemed like they were about to prevail. Unfortunately that final push by the Silver & Black just wasn’t enough. New Orleans regained its composure on offense and kept a San Antonio team that couldn’t get buckets at arms length the rest of the way, to win the first of their two play-in games.

Game notes

  • Dejounte Murray had a really rough game. It’s not surprising for him to be out of rhythm after missing time with a respiratory illness, but some of the mistakes he made were a little worrisome. One of his biggest virtues is his decision-making, which just wasn’t good in the biggest game of the season. It’s another learning experience for a player that has already made a leap and should continue to improve, but it’s fair to be a little disappointed with his final performance of the year.
  • Two of the glaring issues the Spurs had all year long came back to haunt them in the play-in: the lack of size at the forward spots and their questionable backup center play. Any team that wants to play four perimeter player around a center is going to struggle a little with physicality, but the trade-off is supposed to be increased defensive versatility. That has not been the case for San Antonio, which often struggles with both. As for the backup center spot, in most matchups Zach Collins will do fine, but bigger centers like Valanicunas are going to give him trouble and his defense can be exposed by pull-up threats.
  • Another big issue? Shot creation. With Murray struggling, the Spurs had no one to turn to. Lonnie can create in a pinch, but his defense often prevents him from getting bigger minutes. Johnson tries to create at times, but he still has a long way to go before being reliable, as his 15 points on 20 shots showed. It’s fine to expect internal development to solve this problem, but it will take time.
  • They’ll need to win one more game before reaching the actual playoffs, but the Pelicans deserve credit for going for it during the trade deadline. McCollum didn’t turn them into a contender, but he’s the type of experienced scorer that can drop 32 points while also being a good distributor. They wouldn’t be where they are without him.
  • Will Pop retire? We don’t know yet, as he dodged the question after the game. Hopefully we’ll get an answer soon.

Play of the night

The stretch in the fourth in which the Spurs refused to go away was inspiring, and this Poeltl block is a perfect example of the mettle that has made this team lovable.

SVP awards, play-in edition

3rd place - Josh Richardson | 12 points, two rebounds, two assists

It’s crazy to think about it now, but if Doug McDermott had remained healthy, there’s a good chance Richardson wouldn't have cracked the rotation. The mid-season acquisition was relegated to a small role with everyone healthy, before becoming a key contributor thanks to his consistency. Against the Pelicans he once again looked like a seasoned vet who hits his shots and plays hard. He will have suitors on the trade market in the summer, but the Spurs might consider keeping him after his great end to the year.

2nd place - Jakob Poeltl | 16 points, nine rebounds, two blocks

The Spurs actually outscored the Pelicans with Poeltl on the floor by four points in a 10-point loss. Unfortunately he couldn’t be on the court for more than 31 minutes because of foul trouble, but when he was in, Jak showed his value. There’s nothing flashy about his game and he’s by no means a perfect modern center, but he almost always manages to be a positive. With just one more year on his contract, the front office might entertain trade offers for him, but it will likely take a lot of assets to pry away such a key part of the Spurs’ core.

1st place - Devin Vassell | 23 points, seven made three-pointers

Without Vassell hitting big threes, San Antonio would have been out of the game much earlier than the fourth quarter. The second-year wing showed that he’s ready for the big moments in his first postseason appearance as a starter by not only knocking down shots but also having some good stretches on defense. If Vassell can make a leap next year similar to the ones Murray and Johnson made this season, he could be the type of two-way player that starts for a decade on a playoff team.

What’s next: a lot more coverage

The season is over, but we’re are not going anywhere, The PtR staff will be here throughout the playoffs and the offseason, offering you analysis. It should be an exciting next few months for Spurs fans, so stick around.