The Spurs entered their home game against the league-worst Detroit Pistons already short-handed, with the announcement that Devin Vassell will undergo microscopic knee surgery. They were already going to have to step up as a team to find more scoring, but things got even harder with Keldon Johnson exiting just before halftime with a pulled hamstring, so Tre Jones stepped up and led his team to victory, falling one short of his career-high with 25 points.
The game started with both teams looking to get out and run in transition, and they were initially successful, but the Spurs started pulling away as the Pistons just couldn’t stop them from getting to the rim, forcing a Dwane Casey time out with the Spurs up 24-16. (To explain how thoroughly dominant the Spurs were around the rim in the quarter, 28 of their 31 points came in the paint, with the other three being a free throws.) Detroit was able to hang around by hitting four threes and responded with a 9-2 run, with Saddiq Bey hitting a buzzer-beating three to bring the Spurs lead down to three, 31-28 at the end of the quarter.
Neither team was as hot to start the second quarter, and the Spurs bench unit seemed to forget how the starters got the lead and started settling for jumpers. Other than a Doug McDermott three to start the quarter, the Spurs missed the other ten of their first 11 three-point attempts. Gregg Popovich had finally seen enough and called timeout with his team down 42-38 with 5:26 left following a 10-0 Pistons run. A Romeo Langford three finally broke both droughts (the one from three and the scoring one), and the Spurs went on a 7-0 run as the starters started coming back in and brought the intensity level back up, spotting them a 51-48 halftime lead.
The second half began with the bad news that Johnson had been ruled out for the rest of game. Isaiah Roby replaced him, and the Spurs looked sloppy to start the second half, ceding the lead again on a Pistons 8-3 run. Jones decided to take over and started looking for his own shot to bring the Spurs back and up the energy, and it worked as a 10-0 run got them their first double-digit lead of the game. After a fast paced first half, the third quarter was as real slog, mainly because the refs got extremely whistle happy, with the two teams combining for 25 free throws after just seven in the first half, but the Spurs maintained a 10-point lead heading into the fourth quarter, 86-76.
The fast pace and good flow of the game returned for the final 12 minutes, and the Spurs continued to do just enough to keep the Pistons at arm’s length. Every time they got within six or eight points, the Spurs would respond and push the lead back out 14. They would then get a little complacent with the ball and commit a turnover or two, and the cycle would repeat itself. Regardless, while it wasn’t a dominant performance by any stretch of the imagination, the Spurs took care of business despite missing their two best players and got a much-needed victory, 121-109.
- Pop said prior to the game that he predicts Vassell will be out until at least the All-Star break, and Romeo Langford will be his replacement starter going forward. He’s not the scorer Vassell is, but he brings a quiet intensity on defense, and his confidence is growing on offense. It’s anyone’s guess who will get the start if Johnson misses time, but if nothing else it could signal that it’s time to bring Blake Wesley back from Austin and let him work himself into game shape here.
- The Pistons came into the leading the league in both free throw attempts and free throws made. That seems odd for the worst team in the league since it would seemingly be a huge advantage, but it goes to show how much they struggle everywhere else. The Spurs did a good job of keeping them off the line in this game, holding them to just 17 attempts while getting 26 of their own.
- Isaiah Roby got the second half start in place of the injured Keldon Johnson, but once again Stanley Johnson was the one who made the most of the opportunity. After not playing in the first half, he came in and hit 3 threes to help spark the Spurs when they needed it in the second half. Maybe he’s earned the opportunity to start?
Play of the Game
The Spurs don’t produce a bunch of highlight real dunks, but Josh Richardson did with this beautiful reverse in the third quarter.
Coming up: Saturday vs. Boston Celtics
Not only are the Spurs on a back-to-back, but for some unknown reason it’s an early tip-off at 5:00 PM. (I thought the league was looking out for players’ health?) It will be a bittersweet affair as Derrick White will make is first return to the AT&T Center since being traded nearly 11 months ago, and what will already be a difficult game against the best team in the league likely got even harder without Vassell and possibly Johnson.