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Shorthanded Spurs rally but fall short against the Bulls

Riding a career night from Tre Jones, the Spurs rallied back from 18 down and almost pulled out the win before running out of gas.

NBA: Chicago Bulls at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs came into Saturday’s matchup riding two-game winning streak after blowing out the Charlotte Hornets the night before, but they were short-handed without Victor Wembanyama, Zach Collins and Doug McDermott. The opponent was a Chicago Bulls team that was also on a SEGABABA but had the advantage of being fully healthy. After a rough offensive start, the Spurs rode a career-high 30 points from Tre Jones, 22 of which came in the first half to keep things from getting out of hand, and despite getting down by as much as 18 in the third quarter, they managed to rally all the way back and retake the lead before running out of gas, falling 116-122.

Billy Donovan was not happy with his team’s transition defense to start the game, as Jones hit two uncontested threes early and found Dominick Barlow, who got the start in place of Wemby, for a wide-open lob, forcing a Bulls timeout with the Spurs up 11-10. They responded by tightening up on defense, and everyone other than Jones struggled to score for the Spurs as they suddenly found themselves down 11 while the Chicago hit five of their first six threes. Unable to penetrate the Bulls defense, the Spurs found themselves down 35-23 after the first quarter.

Johnson and Osman hit a couple of threes to start the second quarter, but otherwise the Spurs still couldn’t stop the Bulls’ red-hot shooting on the other end. They got up by as much as 14, but Jones continued to have the best game of his career to keep things manageable. He ended the half with 22 points on 7-7 shooting (including a career-high 4-4 from three), and once the Bulls finally started cooling off on offense, the Spurs were able to make a run. Threes from Malaki Branham, Julian Champagnie and Devin Vassell helped them get as close as four before a buzzer beater by Ayo Dosunmo put the Bulls up 63-55 at halftime.

Jeremy Sochan scored six points to start third quarter (plus drawing a technical on Alex Caruso), getting the Spurs within three, but the Bulls responded with an 8-0 run to get back up by 11, forcing a timeout from Gregg Popovich. The run stretched out to 13-0 before the Spurs managed to get some free throws, but suddenly willing three-point shooter DeMar DeRozan dropped a couple from the corner against his old team to get the lead out to 18 midway through the quarter. Still, the Spurs kept fighting and led by the energy of Blake Wesley, tied things up at 94 all on a Johnson three heading into the fourth quarter. Wild as it was to get there, this marked the fifth straight game the Spurs won the third quarter after it had been a problem all season.

The Spurs scored the first four points of the fourth, and Johnson, who was the man of the second half with 19 of his 26 points, continued to be on a heater from three. Another three from Cedi Osman got the lead up to 8 before the Bulls fought back. Caruso was a pest on defense and hit a three to get them back within one before Zach LaVine retook the lead on a few free throws by plowing his way into defenders to force calls. By this time both teams looked pretty exhausted and couldn’t hit any field goals, and the score sat at 113-115 Bulls for several minutes before Coby White free throws made it 117-113 with under two minutes to go before Johnson finally broke the ice with a driving dunk. Vassell had a chance to tie things back up but missed a free throw, and a Nikola Vucivic three with 30 seconds left sealed the deal, ending the Spurs’ winning streak.

Game Notes

  • It was an especially tough night for Vassell, who finished with just 5 points on 1-13 shooting, including 1-8 from three. Even an okay game from him probably would have sealed things for the Spurs. It’s probably safe to say Wemby has passed him as the 1a on the team, and that’s perfectly fine and not wholly unexpected, but as 1b, he needs to find more consistency, especially on the nights Wemby sits. (And, eyes rolling, there will be at least one more next Saturday.) If it weren’t Jones’ career night and a big performance from Johnson, Vassell’s bad night would have stood out a lot more.
  • Without Wemby and Zach Collins, this was another chance for Sandro Mamukelashvili to make a case for himself. He had a rough first half as he was hesitant to shoot out of position on defense in the first half, to the point that Pop decided to suffer a few minutes of Sochan being in the unwinnable position of playing backup center against Andre Drummond. He seemed to have gotten the message and was much better in the second half, looking for his shot and being a pest on defense. Still, Barlow seems to cemented the third string center spot when he’s with the team.
  • Pop mentioned after the Charlotte game that Wemby would not play tonight or next weekend’s back-to-back but should be reevaluated after that. I’ve never been one to question Pop or the Spurs’ medical staff, but if his original scan showed something so serious that he has to be on a minutes restriction and no back-to-backs for over a month, no strings attached, would he have been better off skipping a few more games to heal sooner? It’s one of those cases where the Spurs keeping things tight to the vest hasn’t worked in their favor (a diagnosis was never actually revealed), and Wemby has said he’s pain free looked so spry the last couple of weeks that it begs the question, why wait to reevaluate? Obviously they are just looking out for his well-being, but the better he looks, the harder it is to just “accept”.

Play of the Game

It was his only field goal of the night, but Wesley’s posterization of White was a huge part of the Spurs’ late third quarter push to tie things back up, and it’s the type of play fans want to see more of from him.

Up Next: Monday at Atlanta Hawks

This Spurs will head to Atlanta try and get revenge against Dejounte Murray and the Hawks. It will be an early tip-off by weekday standards in Atlanta thanks to Martin Luther King Day at 2:30 PM CT on TNT.