The Spurs, missing three starters and a rotation player, hosted the 76ers on Friday, and the game went as expected. The visitors struggled more than they probably should have to get a comfortable lead and once they did they had a scare in garbage time, but eventually prevailed, taking home a 137-125 win. Malaki Branham set a new career hight, but Joel Embiid was simply too much for San Antonio to handle.
With so many absences and facing an elite opponent, it seemed like the Spurs not being able to keep up was going to be a question of when and not if. As this group has shown throughout the season, however, they do have some fight in them, so it wasn’t too surprising that they came out with energy on defense, doing a good job on the two 76ers superstars early on. Some jump shots were falling, a few drives resulted in buckets, and suddenly a game that, on paper, shouldn’t have been close at any point, had San Antonio and Philadelphia trading leads. As the second units checked in, the Spurs’ lack of depth due to injuries became even more noticeable, but the bench held on. It was a gutsy first quarter that ended all tied up.
Eventually the 76ers realized that they were bigger and better but also that the Spurs were not simply going to fold and that it would take Philadelphia some energy and execution to take the win. With Tyrese Maxey and Embiid spearheading the effort, they slowly started to create a small lead that eventually ballooned to double digits and got dangerously close to 20 points after consecutive San Antonio turnovers that resulted in dunks. But the Silver and Black regained their composure in time to avoid being run out of the building in the first half. The veterans did their thing and Keldon Johnson willed his way to the line to keep the visitors at arm’s length, with the 76ers heading into the break only up 12.
As the second half started, it was clear that the 76ers were locked in and hoping to put the pesky Spurs away for good, but as hard as they tried, San Antonio’s starters kept at it and the lead stay within the 15-point range. Unfortunately, the big run that the Sixers needed to leave no doubt about what the end result would be came when the benches checked in. Philadelphia had 12 unanswered points after San Antonio had cut the deficit to just nine, and that was it.
The rest of the game would be garbage time, at least for the Spurs, who emptied the bench and let the rookies run things. They did too good of a job of it, cutting the lead to 10 and forcing Doc Rivers to send his starters back in, but Pop stuck with the deep bench group that simply had no answers against better-quality opposition but got some valuable experience out of the matchup.
- Malaki Branham set his career-high for points with 26 in just 16 shots after dropping 22 in 13 shots against the Kings in the previous game. His midrange game has translated to the pros and is already a weapon and on nights in which the threes are falling, he can be hard to defend. Great stretch for the rookie.
- All five starters reached double digits in scoring for the Spurs but the bench understandably struggled to contribute much and was on the court for the run that decided the game. Missing three starters means having to rely on guys that rarely get minutes for a reason, but at least we got to see Blake Wesley get some shots up and Dominick Barlow get some playing time. This season is all about development, so the blowouts don’t hurt as much.
- Embiid was unstoppable for the Spurs, but Jakob Poeltl wasn’t the main reason why and he did have a productive night, finishing with 16 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. It’s a good thing that he has become more than just a defender and tries to counter star big men on the other end or take advantage of matchups against reserves.
- The Sixers shot 41 free throws to the Spurs’ 15. There were some questionable calls, but not enough to explain away the discrepancy. San Antonio is normally good at keeping opponents from the charity stripe but needs to get better at getting to the line.
- The Spurs bringing former players to home games and having them be a part of the broadcast for a segment has been great, but sometimes the guys who join understandably struggle a little with finding a rhythm on air. Not Friday’s guest. Gene Banks was just a delight even when he was encouraging Sean Elliott’s curmudgeon act. Probably my personal favorite alongside Ian Mahinmi.
- Stanley Johnson wants to be in the NBA. Most people who can make a living playing pro ball do, I imagine, but Johnson really wants it. It wouldn’t be surprising for a former lottery pick who didn’t pan out to lack the motivation to be a bench guy on a tanking team, but that’s not a problem for Johnson, who doesn’t care what his role is, what the score is or who the opponent is. He just plays hard, no matter what, which sets a good example for the younger guys.
Play of the night
How many times have opposing guards punished the Spurs' drop coverage with an elbow jumper over the years? It’s good to see opponents go through it and Branham should be able to get that shot that he loves whenever he wants, which is exciting.
Next game: at Bulls on Monday
The Rodeo Road Trip begins with a visit to Chicago.