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Spurs fight hard but rally falls short in 109-117 loss to Cavaliers

San Antonio’s road misery continued tonight in Cleveland, but the opponent offered a glimpse of what a more complete Spurs lineup could look like in future years

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Cleveland Cavaliers
Keldon Johnson more than held on his own tonight against the bigger and acclaimed Cleveland frontline
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs 13th straight loss covered all emotions. The Cleveland Cavaliers seized the lead almost from the tip-off — save for a brief 3-2 advantage for San Antonio — to claim an end-to-end victory 117-109. The got the lead as high as 21 before the never-quit Spurs fought back and got the lead within four points early in the fourth, but the Cavs recovered just enough to stave off their rally. The Spurs were paced by Keldon Johnson (25 points and 4 assists) and 19-year-old Malaki Branham (18 points on 8-for-11 shooting) and achieved its usual balance with all five starters hitting double figures.

In the win, the Cavaliers showcased their young stars — Donovan Mitchell (41 points and 5 assists), Evan Mobley (15 points, 10 rebounds, and 2 blocks), and Darius Garland (16 points and 7 assists). Despite both teams shooting over 50% for the game, Cleveland snagged their seventh straight victory, while sending San Antonio to its 13th straight setback.

The Cavaliers’ visible size advantage paid off immediately as Jarrett Allen outscored the Spurs by himself over the first half of the opening frame. Keldon Johnson was undeterred and attacked the basket liberally with success. Cleveland left the first period up 34-19.

Donovan Mitchell asserted himself in the second frame with his shot making (FIVE[!] 3’s in the half) and transition excellence to preserve a double-digit lead for the Cavs. The undermanned Spurs continued to battle throughout the latter part of the period but were unable to make a dent in the deficit with Cleveland up 65-49.

After a quiet first half, Darius Garland brought a more offensive presence to start the second half with a trio of buckets and assist to nudge the Cavs’ lead past 20. Jeremy Sochan and Branham steadied the Spurs’ offensive footing and the relentless youth kept nibbling at Cleveland’s heels throughout ther est of the quarter and left it down only ten.

In the fourth, San Antonio drew within four after a pair of highlight-worthy buckets from Blake Wesley. Cleveland smartly drew the inexperienced Spurs into the foul bonus with over seven minutes remaining to load up on free throws. The Spurs were unable to piece together enough buckets in crunch time to complete their comeback attempt.

Game Notes

  • Malaki Branham willed home a paint floater in the first and, after being run off of the three-point line, floated home one from the left box in the fourth. You could start to see that coming together for him as a tool to refine the second half of the season. Of course, on top of the catch-and-shoot ability that is eye-popping.
  • I’ve been itching to find a silver lining to this run of defeats... and I may have found one (possibly): Zach Collins and Charles Bassey’s (and Dominick Barlow?) abilities to space the floor or find different spots on the perimeter to attack and support the Spurs’ wings could open up wide swaths of paint for Tre Jones, Devin Vassell, and Johnson to operate with.
  • Cleveland found fertile first half success by employing side pick and rolls with either of their bigs as the roll man and got a dizzying variety of floaters, dunks, and layups from that simple action.
  • With the continued youth movement for the Spurs extending beyond this season, it will be important to have a backup ballhandler (like Ricky Rubio or Mike Conley) that can steady the bench and optimize possessions.
  • Barlow impressed on both ends in his first half action - and was the only deterrent for Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley on the roster.
  • I am loving the use of Johnson’s considerable body in the post all around the paint to do his bidding against smaller defenders. He uncorked two turnaround bankers on the right box in the third that would have made Tim Duncan proud.
  • Wesley, looking very much like the rookie most of the first three periods, mimicked his counterpart Branham with a lovely swish early in the fourth quarter and then stole the ball from an unsuspecting Garland to fly away with a soaring slam. He then found a cutting Bassey for a lay-up shortly after. Wesley will get ample minutes post-All Star break.

Play of the Game

In first quarter action, Devonte’ Graham found a baseline-cutting Johnson for a gorgeous reverse layup:

Next game: at the Charlotte Hornets on Wednesday

The Spurs take on Gordon Hayward and fellow cellar dwellers of the Eastern Conference, Charlotte Hornets, Wednesday night at 6:00 PM CDT.