The Spurs dug themselves a gigantic hole by playing an uninspired first half, but after trailing by as many as 35, they managed to make it a game after the break in their visit to Atlanta. Their comeback ultimately fell short, as the Hawks secured a much-needed 109-99 win at home, but Victor Wembanyama and Trae Young put on a show for the national broadcast on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
It was clear from the start that the Spurs were not ready for their matinee matchup. Their opponents were more focused and energetic early on, with Dejounte Murray leading the way early on offense. Atlanta’s playmakers were finding every hole in a very porous San Antonio perimeter defense and there was only so much Victor Wembanyama could do to protect the paint. Conversely, the Spurs were settling for jumpers because no one could get going downhill. As the starters headed to rest, Trae Young did what he always does against the Silver and Black and caught fire and the visitors had no answer. The Hawks were getting whatever they wanted on offense while Jeremy Sochan was having to do more heavy lifting than he should to create for others because Devin Vassell and Keldon Johnson were passive and ineffective.
The Spurs were down 19 after one, which was bad enough, but also went into a five-minute drought to start the second that put them behind by 29. Wembanyama forced shots, as he tends to do when the offense struggles, and there were some bad turnovers during that stretch. Young, meanwhile, continued to eviscerate the defense. He almost seemed like he was toying with a helpless young opponent who had no idea how to guard a pick and roll. San Antonio needed someone to provide a spark to at least attempt to trade buckets to mitigate their lack of effort in transition and incompetence in the half court on defense, but no one could do it. Sochan tried and Jones had a good stretch, but the Spurs looked outclassed by a team that wasn’t forgiving any mistakes they made and was disciplined enough to take away easy buckets. The lead at the break was 35.
Things were so bad in the first half that Gregg Popovich decided to bench Wembanyama, Jones and Vassell to start the second, sending in Dominick Barlow, Blake Wesley and Cedi Osman in their place. The energy shift was apparent from the start. Wesley started full-court guarding Young to disrupt his rhythm and force Atlanta to start its offense later in the clock. It worked, as Young cooled down. On offense that group lacked shot creation but managed to get some threes from Champagnie and attempted to run whenever possible. When the original starters checked back in with six minutes to go, the Hawks were still up 30 but they were looking more vulnerable than they did at any point in the first half. The Spurs continued to outhustle them and take advantage of their atrocious transition defense, with Wembanyama leading the way. A major push cut the deficit to 20 going into the final period and, improbably, we had a game.
The first few minutes of the fourth, before Wembanyama took a break, were crucial and the Spurs won them, getting the home team’s lead to just 14. A centerless lineup was tasked with keeping the score close while several key players went to the bench and it did well, despite struggling on the defensive board. When Wemby checked back in, the Hawks were ahead by just 11 and the big man teamed up with Sochan and Jones to cut it to just six. Unfortunately, youth and inexperience prevented San Antonio from completing an epic comeback. Every time they had an opportunity to make their opponent pay for a mistake or to build on a good stretch of play they squandered it with bad shots and turnovers. Normally a loss resulting from poor execution would be frustrating, but it’s hard to complain about it after such a gutsy second-half performance.
- Wembanyama went scoreless in the first half but finished with 26 points. He did it all in those final two quarters, showing that he’s going to be unguardable. His teammates are starting to throw lobs to him more often and he’s capitalizing for easy points, but he’s showing more self-creation as well. On defense he was as imposing as ever and he even showed some patience and vision as a passer on the block. He’s a joy to watch.
- Jeremy Sochan was everywhere. The forward was one of the few players who could sustain a high energy level throughout the game, no matter if he was asked to defend guards or try to create for himself or others. Sochan’s versatility and motor could make him a special player in the future.
- The fact that the Spurs were close to the win in a game in which Devin Vassell and Keldon Johnson combined to go 3-for-22 from the floor with no made threes is surprising. Those two need to be a lot more consistent to cement their place as core players next to Wembanyama.
- Tre Jones had six points in eight shots and was benched at the break for not pressuring Young enough, but he also had 12 assists and three steals. The Spurs need him, especially since he’s always looking to find Wemby and can find corner shooters. Jones is not perfect, but the good outweighs the bad.
- Julian Champagnie hit his shots and defended well. The young wing knows his limitations and plays within himself and that alone could secure him a long career in the NBA. Cedi Osman and Doug McDermott hit three outside shots between them, so they also did their job.
- Blake Wesley is coming for those Malaki Branham minutes. Wesley is normally out of control on offense but he’s so fast that he can get to the rim and he’s tenacious, quick and long on defense. His skill set seems more necessary than Branham’s right now. Ideally both young guards would continue to get playing time and share the floor a lot, but neither can shoot from outside so it could be hard to make it work.
- Dominick Barlow is doing his best to give the team 15-20 good minutes but he’s a little too small against the bigger centers so he can struggle on the glass. It’s hard to blame Pop for going with the centerless lineup that provides more versatility, even for those of us who are still intrigued by the young big man.
Play of the game:
You can watch the many, many Wemby dunks and blocks in our highlights post tomorrow. Instead, we’ll use this space to highlight this pretty inverted pick and roll, with Wemby as ball handler and Jones as screener, that shows that the fun ways to use Vic are endless.
Next game: at Boston Celtics on Wednesday
After visiting Dejounte Murray and the Hawks, the Spurs will visit Derrick White and the league-best Celtics.