The Spurs suffered another lopsided loss at home. After leading early and holding on for the first three quarters, they ran out of gas in the fourth and had no answers for a small-ball Jazz lineup that got whatever it wanted on offense. The 130-118 final score doesn’t reflect how comfortable of a victory it was for Utah.
It was a great start for Gregg Popovich’s new opening lineup, as Julian Champagnie immediately proved his worth as a floor spacer and cutter on offense. Things weren’t as copacetic on the other end, as the Spurs were matching Utah’s lack of effectiveness at getting stops. Still, San Antonio found success by being more active and energetic in general, moving the ball, and hitting outside shots in volume. The Silver and Black got a 15-point lead at one point but unfortunately, the second unit couldn’t keep it. Keldon Johnson didn’t have an auspicious first stint as sixth man while Jordan Clarkson got past his man with ease and Walker Kessler dominated the paint for the visitors. The Jazz closed the gap significantly and the Spurs only led by five after one.
The momentum continued to be on Utah’s side to start the second quarter, as San Antonio’s offense went dry despite Champagnie’s and Sochan’s best efforts. By the time the Spurs steadied themselves and started to find Victor Wembanyama inside the lead was already gone. The teams traded buckets for long stretches, with each side making good cuts and passes on one end and then allowing them on the other. They went back and forth until the home team struggled against a zone defense for a while, allowing the Jazz to get some separation. A center-less lineup deployed by Gregg Popovich was both interesting in theory and effective on the court to close the half, but Utah was in control heading into the break after dropping 37 in the frame.
A disastrous start to the second half from the Spurs threatened to take any fun out of an interesting matchup. The defense looked a step slow and the offense seemed aimless. It didn’t take long for the Jazz to grab a double-digit lead. Pop did his best to stop the bleeding by trying to bench Malaki Branham almost immediately but had to wait until a dead ball, and things didn’t stabilize until the attack started to involve Wembanyama more. A third-quarter collapse seemed imminent but the strangest thing happened: the Spurs actually tried on defense. Devin Vassell led the way and the duo of Tre Jones and Blake Wesley did better at the point of attack against Colin Sexton and Clarkson. Keldon Johnson had a huge offensive quarter as well, and the deficit going into the final period was just seven.
Unfortunately, the Spurs didn’t have another big push in them. Wembanyama looked gassed and had to sub out and the center-less lineup that worked for San Antonio in the first half was helpless against a small, five-out unit with Markkanen as the sole big. Markkanen’s defender had to respect his shooting and stay with him on pick-and-rolls, so the visitors got to the rim at will on drives. Then the Finnish big man started to hit shots even when Wembanyama returned, closing the door on an unlikely comeback. The energy spent in the third quarter was missing in the fourth, understandably. In the end, the more consistent, veteran team prevailed while the young Spurs were left to learn a lesson about maintaining intensity for an entire game that they have so far refused to grasp.
- Victor Wembanyama finished with 15 points, seven rebounds, four assists and five blocks but looked tired at times. Pop said the big man claims his ankle is fine but he didn’t look right to him. The coach also said that Wemby won’t play both games of the back-to-back in Portland.
- The new starting lineup had its moments, as Champagnie’s shooting seemed to complement the games of Sochan, Wembanyama and Vassell. Keldon Johnson struggled early off the bench but was great in the second half, helping the Spurs stay in it. The newest experiment could work.
- Will Malaki Branham remain in that starting unit? Pop wanted to pull him after a turnover in the first possession of the third quarter and once he was subbed out, he didn’t return. After the game Pop said that he will start demanding consistency from some players or make changes and it’s not a stretch to assume he was talking about Branham, who finished with zero points, four assists and two turnovers and struggled on defense.
- Zach Collins provided some good minutes but he also had issues on defense and the boards against the bigger Kessler. Cedi Osman and Doug McDermott didn’t play much and weren’t effective. Keldon carried the bench scoring, which makes sense.
- Tre Jones had a good game. His vision is needed in a lot of lineups and his effort helps set the tone for others. He found an unlikely partner in Blake Wesley when it came to putting pressure on ball handlers and pushing the pace in the third quarter. Those two did a lot to keep the Spurs in it.
- Will Hardy deserves credit for countering Pop’s center-less lineup so well in the second half. Playing Markkanen at center sealed the victory for the Jazz. Hardy should have a bright future.
Play of the game
The emphatic dunk is great, but the fact that Johnson cut at the right time in a game in which the Spurs stood around too much is what I like the most.
Next game: at Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday
The Spurs will face the Blazers twice, on consecutive days. Facing the second-worst team in the West gives San Antonio a good chance to end its five-game losing streak.