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Victor Wembanyama’s standout performance not enough to carry Spurs past Nuggets

The Spurs suffered another third-quarter collapse and are now losers of 12th straight games.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs‘ losing streak now stands at 12 after a 132-120 loss in Denver that was more one-sided than the final score suggests. After a decent first half, San Antonio simply couldn’t keep up with Nikola Jokic and an aggressive Nuggets offense that attacked the rim relentlessly on their way to an easy win.

Things weren’t looking so bad early on. Victor Wembanyama was the Spurs’ offense to start the game, logging the team’s first seven points. On the other end, Zach Collins was being physical with Nikola Jokic inside, which allowed San Antonio to keep the score close. Unfortunately, the issues with a lack of shot creation in the half-court only reared their head after that Wemby domination stretch and the Silver and Black slowly started to fall behind. The three-ball was falling for the home team and when Collins took a break, Jokic started to more aggressively look for his points. A fantastic few minutes from Devin Vassell off the bench and the solid play of the second unit that pushed the pace were the only reasons the Spurs managed to stay within reach, but being down by only four after the first period still gave fans reasons for optimism.

Wemby picked up where he had left off, scoring the Spurs’ first five points of the second quarter before committing his second foul and heading to the bench. That’s when things started to go south for San Antonio. After sitting for a few minutes while DeAndre Jordan held down the fort surprisingly well, Jokic checked back in. At the same time, the Silver and Black started to turn the ball over too much, fueling the Nuggets’ transition offense. Zach Collins got into foul trouble, and an opponent that was already dominating inside got an even bigger edge. Jokic went to work and there was no one who could challenge him. It took Wembanyama returning and manning the center spot for the Spurs to regain their composure. The star rookie immediately made an impact on defense and transition and led the charge for a run that would cut a lead that at one point reached 20 to just 12 at the break.

The two big problems with these young Spurs are that they simply can’t maintain a high level of play for more than a few stretches and they don’t know how to adapt within a game. The third quarter collapse wasn’t surprising, because we’ve seen them happen through the year. A new starting lineup that featured Tre Jones starting at point guard, as Jeremy Sochan sat the second half with knee soreness, and Julian Champagnie starting at shooting guard in place of Malaki Branham had a few good minutes, but the Nuggets quickly went back to dominating inside with drives and cuts while San Antonio’s offense relied on outside shots that weren’t falling. The stops were few and far between and the bench had no shot creation without Jones. Wembanyama finished the quarter well, but when the dust had settled the Spurs were down 23 points and the game was essentially over.

There’s nothing wrong with losing to a contender, even one missing two starters, but the problem with this game is that it was simply too reminiscent of past losses. It’s hard to feel like the Spurs are actually getting better as a team, which is a little discouraging. Hopefully Sochan will not miss time and Vassell will return to the starting lineup soon, so the core will get more time to gel.

Game notes

  • Victor Wembanyama only played 25 minutes and he still had 22 points, 11 rebounds, six steals and four blocks. The Nuggets seemed almost unaware of how much length he has and kept trying to get the ball past him with some lazy passes that he just snatched away. Great game on both ends for Wemby.
  • Jones got to start at point guard in the second half. Did the offense look better? Yes, but a few minutes of good play are surely not going to be enough to change Pop’s mind about the Point Sochan experiment. Outside of any debates about the starters, hopefully Sochan will not miss time, because this team doesn’t have the depth needed to make up for all that he brings to the table.
  • Keldon Johnson was invisible for most of the game. In 26 minutes in the first three quarters, he had three shot attempts, one rebound and two assists. Even on nights in which Victor has it going and Vassell’s shot is falling, the Spurs need Johnson to provide slashing and overall energy and he couldn’t against the Nuggets.
  • The perimeter defense was atrocious overall, so calling out anyone as the main culprit makes no sense. Guys were slow to rotate, got blown by too often and fell asleep on cuts. No one can blame the bigs for not being able to slow down Nikola Jokic, arguably the best player in the league, but even they had some bad moments containing or contesting drives. The struggles on offense get most of the attention, but there is a ton of work to do on the other end as well.
  • Branham came off the bench in the second half while Champagnie started in his place presumably so that Branham could serve as the backup point guard. He did check in when Tre Jones sat, so that seems to have been the idea. But wouldn’t it make more sense to just use Devonté Graham when the team needs an extra ball handler? Graham is not part of the future and he’s more streaky than steady, but he’s on the books for a year after this one and he’s clearly a better creator than Branham. If Sochan does miss time, hopefully Pop will give Graham at least a few minutes.

Play of the game

This has to be one of the most fun sequences of the season.

Next game: vs. Hawks on Thursday

The Spurs will be back in San Antonio to take on the Hawks after a three-day break. Will Pop grab the mic again if the fans boo Dejounte Murray?