There was a moment early in the Spurs’ 118-102 loss in Utah on Saturday where I propped the door open for something different — a fighting chance at a win if the visitors, up 33-24 and holding for the final possession of the opening quarter, could take a double digit lead into the 2nd frame. No numbers or precedent behind it, of course — just one of those blind hunches that congeals in the addled brain under the sediment of 15 straight losses. Sure, the bumps would still come in the next 36, even against a Jazz team that’s taken its foot off the accelerator after the trade deadline, but who knows the psychic effect a healthy lead might have on either side.
The quarter ended nearly with one final blow by the Spurs, as rookie Jeremy Sochan rose to putback a missed three-pointer, punching it home as the horn sounded. The bucket didn’t stand upon review, because what better way to sum up this season than an objectively cool play by a rookie that does not improve the team’s chances at competing, and San Antonio put up just 37 points in the 2nd half.
And the Spurs did compete in the beginning of this one, as they have through stretches of many of their games. Sochan, who had a team-high 22, was decisive on offense and a pest on defense, playing a part in All-Star Lauri Markkanen’s slow start. Newly promoted starting center Zach Collins went 3 of 6 from deep and had at least one nifty assist to a cutting teammate; if you’re a +6 in an 18-point blowout you must be doing something right. Rookie Malaki Branham continued to show he belongs. The Spurs collectively hit 8 of 18 from beyond the arc in the first 24.
Pop postgame: "We played really well in the first half. Get off my ass."— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) February 26, 2023
There are nights when the threes fall and timely poke-aways and opponent miscues compound and set you up for a serendipitous result, and there are others in which they simply delay the inevitable. Saturday night was the latter.
Improving to 20-12 at home, the Jazz got just enough from peripheral pieces, including journeyman Kris Dunn, to wait for Markkanen (27 points, 20 in the 2nd half) to get going. San Antonio is the league’s worst 2nd half team; Utah’s at its best statistically (+4.6 net rating) at home in the 2nd half. By the time the 4th quarter rolled around, it simply felt like both teams were playing to their strengths.
- Short-handed once again in this one, San Antonio was without Tre Jones (left foot - “strange injury”), Devin Vassell (left knee procedure), Romeo Langford (left adductor), Isaiah Roby (right ankle) and Khem Birch (right knee), which is an easy way to cobble together funky rotations and bleed away a double-digit lead at high altitude.
- Sochan only averages one more point in the 1st half (5.6) than in the 2nd (4.6), but it feels like he’s fairly prone to hot starts and muted finishes. It doesn’t help that those 2nd halves typically take place with the game out of hand.
- Keldon Johnson was upgraded to available late in this one after being originally listed with a stomach illness. We can perhaps chalk up a spirited but not especially impactful night (18 points on 22 shots) to not being 100%, but it would be nice to see him close this season on a high. He went 0 for 5 from beyond the arc.
- Keita Bates-Diop’s aggressiveness in attacking the basket was rewarded with a new career high in FTAs (10) and makes (9).
Next game: at Utah, again, on Tuesday
This is more time than most people typically spend in Salt Lake City. For what remains of the now-8th seeded Jazz, it’s a chance to bank another W and continue to scrap in the play-in race.