Going into the season many thought this team would be at the bottom of the barrel, rebuilding with young players and collecting losses along the way. But like always, the public opinion about the Silver & Black were wrong, and now the San Antonio Spurs are heading to their second straight play-in tournament. They did so courtesy of a convincing win against the Denver Nuggets and the Suns beating the Lakers which meant the Spurs officially clinched their spot.
The game didn’t start the way the away team would have liked as the Spurs preferred defender on Nikola Jokic, Jakob Poeltl was called for two fouls in the first 90 seconds, sending him to the bench. Fortunately, the rest of the defense started well, collapsing on the Serbian center and helping each other out on rotations. They were also being super assertive on offense making it a point of emphasis to get into the paint. Devin Vassell got into a groove in the first hitting ten straight for the visitors — including two triples and a put back slam on the reigning MVP. Mike Malone switched it up by utilizing a 2-3 zone to try and slow San Antonio down, and it worked. The Nuggets went on a 7-0 run filled with a whole bunch of great Jokic plays — who ended up with 17 first quarter points. It was the Spurs bench, especially Josh Richardson, who helped break them out of their little scoring rut which led them to a two-point first quarter advantage.
Tre Jones was starting for the third consecutive game in the absence of Dejounte Murray, and he continued his exceptional play by making decisive decisions. He would attack off the catch and would either put up his patented floater or make the right read to a teammate — this helped open up a three possession lead. The Spurs were playing great defense without fouling, and after a possession where they got multiple extra opportunities, Vassell hit his third three of the game to give them a double-digit lead. San Antonio were frustrating Jokic by pressuring him when he caught the ball in the post, the frustration eventually led to two Nugget technicals — one on Coach Malone and one on their MVP candidate. All in all it was a great second quarter where the Silver & Black only allowed 14-points and went into the locker room with a 64-44 lead.
A few turnovers in the opening minutes of the half had Gregg Popovich calling a timeout to regroup before the lead dwindled any further. They were still working extremely hard on defense, but their shots on offense had stopped falling due to Denver’s increased intensity on that end of the floor — which helped the home team decrease the deficit to ten. Keldon Johnson who was on a run of six straight 20+ point games, responded with three buckets at the rim when attacking Jokic. For San Antonio this was the quarter of timeouts, because Coach Pop would go on to use another two in a one minute span because of the lack of patience the Spurs were showing on offense and their poor transition defense. Overall, the Nuggets clawed their way back and only went into the fourth down six.
The Spurs like they have done all season weren’t going to just roll over and let the better team steamroll their way to victory. They upped their focus and this led to some incredible shot-making with four of the first five field goals being absolutely ridiculous. Two were highly contested threes, another was a one on two finish at the rim in transition and the last being a tough and-1 layup on Austin Rivers. As time started to tick down both teams were slowing, with neither looking to rush the ball up the court thanks to multiple players looking gassed after a highly intense, competitive game. San Antonio would end up putting the dagger in the contest due to two ludicrous sequences. The first was the “Tre Jones”, on a crucial offensive possession he lulled Jokic to sleep in the pick-and-roll before slipping the ball to Poeltl for the slam. On the pass, Tre turned his ankle and was limping back down the court, but instead of fouling to get him out, he continued to play, and when he was put into the PnR on the other end he forced a charge to give the ball back to his team (His ankle ended up being okay after quickly checking out of the game). Next was the “Josh Richardson”, after multiple defensive efforts to stop Jokic at the rim the Spurs got the rebound and pushed the ball up the court where they found J.Rich on the wing who nailed the dagger triple to put the game away. Oh, there was one more killer play a few moments later, but let’s leave that for the “Play of the Game” section. In the end, the Spurs came into Denver and blew the roof off in a 116-97 win.
- Competitors. Every player on this roster is the ultimate competitor, they have fought all season long even when the luck and wins weren’t going their way. In several games they have been on the wrong side of the stick in terms of talent, yet they play those games close and make those teams work for the wins. It’s nice that the effort they have put in all season is finally coming to fruition, they have won seven of their last eight contests and they no longer seem nervous when they are trying to close out games. The “never die” mentality they play with is going to be a major pro come the play-in next week, future seasons and hopefully playoff matchups for years to come.
- Defense. San Antonio sit 8th in offensive rating and because of Pop’s system they have not struggled consistently on that end of the floor. It’s actually been the defense that have let the Spurs down this season — currently sitting 24th in defensive rating. But in this contest, playing against the reigning and current favorite for this year’s MVP, Nikola Jokic, their defense stepped up big time. They gave up under 100 points and made Jokic work for every single bucket. After the game, Popovich said they were happy with Nikola taking every shot and that they were not going to allow him to get his teammates involved and the Spurs executed that game plan to perfection. It took the Joker 35 shots to get his 41 points and he only had four assists on the game (he averages 8.0 a contest). Denver only had one other player with double-digits points with the rest struggling without the creation of their MVP center.
- Play-In Update. San Antonio CLINCHED the play-in with 3 games to go.
Play of the Game
The cherry on top.
Spurs Valuable Player (SVP)
Unfortunately, this was a game where more than three players deserved SVP points, so here are a few honorable mentions: Keldon Johnson continued his 20+ point streak as he was in attack mode all night long, he also played some strong, stifling defense on Aaron Gordon. Jakob Poeltl & Zach Collins were both phenomenal on defense against Jokic, moving their feet, contesting without fouling and frustrating him into uncharacteristic misses, and on most nights they would make the rankings but they do deserve a massive shout-out for their contributions to the win.
3rd place (1 point): Josh Richardson | 25mins, 18 points, 2 steals, three 4th quarter triples
What an acquisition J.Rich has been for this team. He has been so good for this group of young players and most importantly he has done his best work in the closing stages of games. He hit another few big threes for the Spurs when they needed to pull away, including this dagger:
2nd place (2 points): Devin Vassell | 34mins, 20 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 triples
Devin Vassell stepped up and made a huge impact on this game, he was aggressive from the first minute, wanting to shoot the ball and looking confident when rising up. He makes the extra hustle plays whenever he can and is constantly doing whatever it takes to win his matchup. You can see how much he wants to win in the emotion and passion he shows throughout these games.
1st place (3 points): Tre Jones | 33mins, 14 points, 10 assists, 4 rebounds, 0 turnovers
Talk about stepping up in the absence of your All-Star point-guard. Tre Jones has been terrific these past few games and has been this way every time he is asked to deputize in the starting 5. He controlled the game from start to finish, and to have zero turnovers to ten assists is unthinkable numbers. Oh and don’t worry, his defense didn’t drop one bit, he was hounding his opponents throughout, forcing tough shots and turnovers. The ultimate competitor.
1st - Dejounte Murray - 121pts
2nd - Jakob Poeltl - 65pts
3rd - Keldon Johnson - 64pts
4th - Derrick White & Devin Vassell - 51pts
5th - Lonnie Walker IV - 37pts
6th - Doug McDermott - 16pts
7th - Bryn Forbes & Tre Jones - 12pts
8th - Thaddeus Young - 11pts
9th - Jock Landale - 10pts
10th - Josh Richardson - 8pts
11th - Keita Bates-Diop - 6pts
12th - Josh Primo & Zach Collins - 3pts
13th - Drew Eubanks - 2pts
14th - Devontae Cacok & Joe Wieskamp - 1pt
Next Game: @ Minnesota on Thursday
The Spurs head to play the Minnesota Timberwolves in a revenge game after KAT scored 60 points in the AT&T center the last time these two met.