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Spurs beat Trail Blazers in front of a sold-out crowd in Austin

The Austin fans didn’t get to watch Damian Lillard in the first of two games to be played at the Moody Center, but they did get to witness a fun, up-and-down matchup.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at San Antonio Spurs Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs and the Trail Blazers were missing most of their biggest names and playing for nothing on Thursday, but they still managed to give the Austin crowd who sold out the Moody Center a good experience. The Silver and Black prevailed in a matchup that didn’t feature particularly great execution but was close throughout and had a fun ending that made up for the lack of star power.

The battle of the centers looking for a revenge game against the former teams started early and Drew Eubanks was ahead significantly in the first quarter. The big man was one of the most energetic members of a Portland team that clearly was more focused in the opening minutes. Eventually the Spurs got their head in the game, with Zach Collins leading the way after waking up following a taunt by Trendon Watford. Collins became the offensive hub that he normally is by dishing dimes and doing damage in the paint, flanked by an aggressive Keldon Johnson, and San Antonio looked more in control. The second unit came in and had a good stint before getting a little sloppy on both ends, which allowed the visitors to retake the lead, but the Spurs seemed a lot more committed to fighting for a win as the minutes passed.

As the second quarter started Keita Bates-Diop had one of those dominant few minutes that seem to come out of nowhere to carry the offense, but the bench struggled at times. The Blazers continued to run whenever possible and were scoring at a high rate and with good efficiency, which under normal circumstances would have presented some big hurdles for the Spurs to overcome. Fortunately, on Thursday San Antonio was dominating the offensive glass and getting to the line at a surprising level which was enough to keep them in it even when the visitors were playing well. An inspired Julian Champagnie providing some much-needed outside scoring and the difference in talent and experience between the Spurs’ best players and the Blazers’ patchwork squad revealing itself were enough to give the home team an eight-point lead going into the break.

The win against a Portland group that feature very little proven NBA talent actually seemed in jeopardy in the third quarter, After a few more minutes of the Eubanks and Collins duel, first the starters and then the bench struggled with turnovers and transition defense. Some of those issues were caused by the inability to consistently attack the Blazers’ zone, but mostly poor decision-making, bad floor balance and lacking effort were to blame. Portland was routinely getting quick buckets even after made shots by the Spurs, which got Pop so enraged that he bench the entire unit that was on the floor at the two-minute mark. The starters’ return helped stimy what could have been a bigger run by the Blazers but couldn’t prevent the visitors from outscoring San Antonio by 10 in the third to go into the final period up two points.

Luckily, instead of resulting in a disappointing end of the night for the Austin crowd, that bad third quarter and the shaky few minutes that the second unit had in the fourth only created a closer, more entertaining game and set up a thrilling ending. After trailing by as many as nine with under six minutes to go, the Spurs woke up. Tre Jones hit a three, then Keita Bates-Diop dropped two outside shots of his own while the Blazers simply couldn’t get a bucket against a suddenly dominant Zach Collins, who was patrolling the paint like he was Tim Duncan. San Antonio went on a big run to regain the lead and not even a hot stretch by Kevin Knox could stand between them and the win. A fantastic reverse layup by Keldon Johnson put the Silver and Black up four with 10.6 seconds to go and Tre Jones iced the game from the line to give a fantastic everyone in the sold-out arena a reason to celebrate.

Game notes

  • Keldon Johnson’s outside shot failed him on Thursday but his willingness to drive to the basket made up for it. Sometimes Johnson passes up open jumpers, which is not a good thing, but it’s hard to complain too much about it when he’s as ferocious on his drives and as smart on his cuts as he was against the Blazers.
  • Julian Champagnie had a monster first half, dropping 19 of his total 24 points for the night in the opening two quarters. On a night in which Malaki Branham simply couldn’t buy a bucket and the rest of the team couldn’t hit threes for long stretches, Champagnie’s contributions were crucial.
  • Outside of Champagnie, the rest of the bench alternated between good and bad stretches. As mentioned, the biggest issues were turnovers and transition defense. It’s a problem that the entire team has struggled with, so it’s not something to be terribly concerned about at this point but can still be frustrating to watch.
  • Two of the upcoming free agents had big nights. Tre Jones continued his stretch of good play by having a double-double with 18 points and 10 assists while competing on defense as always. Keita Bates-Diop had those two consecutive threes that were huge but also showed off his ability to bully smaller players inside. Advocating for Jones’ return is easier than doing so for Bates-Diop’s because of their respective ages, but at this point no one would be too upset to see KBD back in San Antonio next season.
  • Someone who will surely be back? Zach Collins. The big man had 20 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and three blocks and he brought his normal intensity to the game. He’s proved that he can be a quality NBA player when he’s healthy and he will be a bargain next season.

Play of the night

A beautiful look at Keldon Johnson’s big late-game bucket to seal the game from one of the over 16,000 fans who attended the game in Austin.

Next game: vs. Minnesota Timberwolves on Saturday

The Spurs will host the Wolves in Austin in their second to last game of the season. Minnesota is fighting for a play-in spot so the Silver and Black could play the spoiler, which could be fun.