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Shorthanded Spurs outclassed by the Rockets in blowout loss

The Spurs lost to the Rockets for the second time in as many nights in a pair of matchups that were hard to watch but should help San Antonio when it comes to lottery odds.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Houston Rockets Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

In theory, a Spurs - Rockets game should be fun. Two young teams pushing the pace while budding stars try to show their worth should make for quality entertainment. Unfortunately, the reality didn’t live up to expectations on Sunday, at least for San Antonio fans. Too many rotation players were out for either caution or tanking purposes for the Silver and Black, which left Devin Vassell, Keldon Johnson and a rag-tag group of fringe NBA guys and rookies fighting an uphill battle against one of the worst teams in the league in a 142-110 loss.

The start of the game saw the Spurs get ahead quickly, but the good stretch didn’t really last long. The offense was too stagnant, relying too much on one-on-one ball, before becoming sloppy and undisciplined and giving up fastbreak opportunities after bad shots and turnovers. As it happened on Saturday when different names were around, San Antonio was lost when it came to execution on both ends. Having so many new faces playing new roles didn’t help with cohesion at all, and the lack of depth that resulted from not having Zach Collins, Jeremy Sochan, Romeo Langford and Tre Jones available became apparent when the second units checked in. Houston dominated inside, hit some threes and found itself up 14 points after the first 12 minutes.

The bench looked a little more comfortable to start the second frame, with Sandro Mamukelashvili showing some value as a floor spacer and mobile big, but once again, the good stretch didn’t last long. Whenever Houston ran anything in the half court or pushed the pace even after Spurs’ makes, they got good looks inside. Eventually San Antonio started to claw back from a big deficit mainly because their opponent is almost as bad on defense as they are. After scoring just 24 points in the opening period, the Silver and Black dropped 39 in the second quarter and that was enough to narrow the gap despite allowing a lot of buckets on their own end. The visitors could have gone into the break just down seven, but a buzzer-beating three by Kevin Porter Jr. stretched Houston’s lead to 10.

The Spurs had their chances to make this one close in the second half. The Rockets looked unfocused to start the third quarter and fouled too much, putting the Silver and Black in the bonus early. Unfortunately, turnovers remained a problem and Houston made the visitors pay for every mistake. Making matter worse, Jalen Green heated up and dropped 13 in the frame while no one wearing a Spurs jersey seemed to have it going. The only reasons for optimism after the lead ballooned were the home team’s lapses in judgment and wavering energy, but the Spurs were simply too exhausted and shorthanded to actually make even a fake comeback attempt. The entire fourth quarter was garbage time, which at least featured a thunderous Gorgui Dieng dunk and fastbreak led by Boban Marjanovic.

The loss should help the Spurs secure the best lottery odds for the next draft, which seems to clearly be the goal at this point, for good reason. Games like this one are just the price to pay for a chance at a special talent. The plan in place makes perfect sense in the long run. In the short term, patience will be required for nights like this one, which feel like filler episodes on a TV show that hopefully will have an ending worth the wait and commitment.

Game notes

  • Johnson and Vassell just didn’t do well on Sunday. Keldon had eight points in 10 shots and as many turnovers as assists while Vassell hit just two of his eight three-point attempts. With all the absences, the Spurs needed both to have standout performances to have a chance and they couldn’t.
  • Charles Bassey got the nod as the starting center with Collins out and he did a solid job. The big man finished with 14 points, six rebounds, two assists and a block. Sandro Mamukelashvili tried his best as his backup and had a nice stretch in the second quarter, but he understandably looked a little lost. It’s still a good thing that the Spurs are taking a look at him by giving him some minutes even if he struggles, so no complaints.
  • If only Keita Bates-Diop could shoot. The veteran forward is elite at moving without the ball and he can punish small players by being physical with them on offense while being a solid, versatile defender. He’s good at so many things but his lack of range makes it so hard to make a case for him as a piece to keep around past this season no matter how well he does in individual games, which is a shame because he’s such a Spurs-y player.
  • Does anyone in the league go for a heat check as quickly as Devonte’ Graham? That man will let it fly with all the confidence in the world even after one make. It’s Jamal Crawford-esque. No one can blame him, really, since he’s enjoying the green light he clearly has from the coaching staff and he’s taking shots that others simply have no shot at making. Keep firing away, Devonte’.
  • The three rookies that suited up had decent games. Barlow just brought his usual energy. Branham scored efficiently and helped on the boards. Wesley made some mistakes but he looked like the quickest guy on the floor. He’ll eventually learn to use his speed wisely.

Play of the night

This sequence is nothing special — a pick-and-roll kick-out leading to a drive-and-kick and a corner three — but it shows how important having a big man with range can be. Someone has to make the defense pay for packing the paint and stopping those drives, which is something the Spurs often struggle to do.

Next game: vs. Denver Nuggets on Friday

After a grueling stretch in their schedule, the Spurs will get four full days off before starting a six-game homestand. Their next opponent will be the best team in the West, so a win seems unlikely, but if San Antonio is at full strength it could be a fun matchup.