Relief. What a word. How can you even quantify the feeling?
And yet, watching San Antonio’s players in the midst of their post-game interviews and various end-game interactions, it was hard to think of another word.
Tuesday evening’s victory over the Jazz had carried an air of jubilance, and exhaustion; Keldon Johnson’s face serving as a sweaty frontispiece of barely contained glee.
But this? This one felt different. Not different in the way that critical season-defining wins feel for teams about to make a surge into the postseason, but somehow more revealing. After sixteen consecutive losses (And the second 10+ losing streak of the season, also a Spurs first) on-court and off-court player sentiments had been defined by a desperation to win. Last night’s victory seem destined to be defined by a desperation not to lose.
In the absence of their buoyant team leader, with the Pacers in the lead after the first half (something that has not boded well for the Spurs against any team this season) there was a visible agitation emanating from the silver and black.
Even prior to the this purposeful disaster of a season, the Spurs have struggled coming into the second half since the retirement of the last of the Big Three. Put simply, the Spurs just don’t close, and especially not since the DeMar DeRozan trade.
In a season full of surprises and baffling new lows, this was something new. Not the air of leadership one would expect from Johnson or the newly returned Devin Vassell.
No, for one night, this was Jeremy Sochan’s show. And the Silver and Black responded with (for this season, at least) a rare show of force.
With Sochan authoring a 10pt/6reb/2ast/1stl third quarter (on 50% shooting), the Spurs dictated the speed and force of play in-and-around the rim, owning the glass while doubling up the Pacers in rebounds and points.
It might have been their most impressive stretch of play all year.
But it was the fire that stood out, infecting every Spurs as they manhandled a Pacers team that’s no slouch in the post, and coordinated by a legendary tactician of their own.
Counting stats aside, Charles Bassey played like a man who never wants the hear the words ‘G-League’ ever again, while Keita Bates-Diop almost slithered across the court as he hunted and smothered the sharp-shooting Buddy Hield.
Zach Collins was seemingly everywhere that Sochan wasn’t, troubling every shot he could near, and for once not sticking out like a sore thumb as he continued to chase rebounds like his life depended on it.
Even Devonte’ Graham and Tre Jones’s efforts somehow overshadowed their typically timely distribution, as they challenged every switch and snaked a couple of rebounds as well.
And there, at the center of it all, was Jeremy Sochan. Doing all the little things, per usual, but a bunch of the big things now too; his already considerable confidence growing as he started to call things out and gesture aggressively to his teammates.
Except this time they looked like they were listening. Desperate not to fail, they were placing their faith in an oddball rookie and sheer adrenaline, and it worked. And at the end, you could sense the relief.
In a season in hell, you take all the wins you can get. Tomorrow is another day, but for one more night, no one had to think about losing. Sometimes that’s the best you can do.
- On a night that might have served as Jeremy Sochan’s coming-out party, Devin Vassell looked mostly himself, which is about as much as you can really ask after such a long layoff. While he still seems to be lacking just a trace of the lateral speed that will shore up his defense, Vassell was an ideal asset off of the bench, and in spite of going 2-7 from three still managed to be his efficient-shooting self to the tune of 53% shooting on the night. It’s enough to wonder how much of a blowout the game would have been had all his shots been falling, and also to wonder if a 6th man role might be an ideal role for a player who requires seemingly no rhythm to get (and stay) hot as a shooter. In any case, it was nice to him not aggravate his injury any further, especially in Keldon Johnson’s absence.
- It would also be remiss of me not to mention the efforts of one Blake Wesley on the night. While he’s been in a bit of a slump over the last 10 games (35% shooting), Wesley’s defense keeps from ever becoming a net negative, as he swallowed up any player in front of him in the almost five minute he got in that critical third quarter. Of all of San Antonio’s draft picks, I was most unmoved (and a bit vexed) by his selection, but it turns out that I may not in fact have a furute in NBA front offices, because I definitely didn’t realize how good he is on the defensive end. If he manages to zero in on that shot, the Spurs will have gone 3-3 in last years draft. I think we all might want to leave the scouting to the professionals. (Not that that’s even going to stop me from opining on everything either)
Playing You Out – The Theme Song of the Evening:
Heroes performed by Peter Gabriel