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Spurs’ lack of consistency costs them a winnable game against the Hornets

The Spurs had plenty of opportunities to get a win without Victor Wembanyama available, but their inexperience once again doomed them.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Charlotte Hornets Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

The Wembanyama-less Spurs couldn’t close it out in Charlotte. On a streaky matchup that saw both teams put good stretches together and then squander them, LaMelo Ball’s brilliance carried his Hornets to an ugly but hard-fought 124-120 win.

The Spurs were hoping the return of Zach Collins could help mask Victor Wembanyama’s absence, but Collins showed how rusty he was by turning the ball over twice in the team’s first possessions. A third mistake on offense in as many trips forced Gregg Popovich to call an early timeout, surely hoping to also address a distinct lack of effort on defense early. It worked, as the Silver and Black got more physical, forcing some turnovers from the Hornets to propel their transition attack. With Tre Jones touching the ball more and a smaller, centerless lineup providing flexibility, it seemed like San Antonio was finding its bearings, but it was the individual brilliance of Keldon Johnson that got them back into it after trailing by 11 in a sloppy first quarter that featured poor defense and execution from both sides.

Turnovers weren’t as big of an issue for either team in the second frame but the game remained poorly played, for the most part. Neither squad had a lot of rim protection, with the Hornets going extra small to make up for their absences and Collins dragged away from the paint. The result was a lot of drives, some of which were wild and forced. The bad decision-making on offense was not as big an issue as it should have been because the defenses were just as poor. Jeremy Sochan and Dominick Barlow tried their best, but team cohesion just wasn’t there. The Spurs had success when they attacked early and Blake Wesley made life hard for LaMelo Ball at times but they couldn’t keep up on trips to the line and three-pointers and fell behind, and that was enough for the Hornets to carry a six-point lead into the break.

After a couple of steady, auspicious possessions going to Collins inside to get P.J. Washington in foul trouble, the Spurs went back to the highs and lows that plagued them all game. Bad effort and execution were followed by a great stretch in which the threes started falling, the defense was stingy and the Hornets looked lost. Unfortunately, those good minutes were squandered by a stint in which San Antonio turned the ball over and allowed easy buckets. The same things happened a few times in the first half and twice in the third quarter. There were plenty of opportunities for the Silver and Black to grab the lead but they couldn’t play well for a long enough period of time to do it. Then late in the frame, LaMelo Ball caught fire and Charlotte finished the quarter strong, taking an 11-point lead to the fourth.

The pattern continued in the final frame. Tre Jones outplayed Ball and got the Spurs close and eventually Keldon Johnson got them their first lead of the game. A good stretch then resulted in a poor one, as the same issues with shot selection, turnovers and transition defense reared their head. The Silver and Black once again made a push but ultimately couldn’t close it out. In a battle between two teams that seemingly didn’t know how to win, not having Wembanyama was too big of a handicap for a San Antonio squad that was maddeningly streaky. Consistency is arguably the Spurs’ biggest issue and it was once again on display in a matchup they could have won. The hope is that at some point the message about playing a full 48 minutes that has been repeated ad nauseam by both coaches and players will stick, if that’s even possible with such a young group.

Game notes

  • The streak of the Spurs winning the third quarter is over after seven games.
  • Zach Collins was rusty in his return, but he still finished with 16 points, three rebounds and four assists in 26 minutes. There was no one for him to guard and he got called for an offensive foul late that really hurt the Spurs, but it wasn’t his fault that the official decided to be more strict than the crew had been during most of the game. Overall, a good return for Collins, who will give the Spurs a bigger body to back up Wemby.
  • Collins has been ruled out against the Wizards on the SEGABABA, so Dominck Barlow will get at least one more game in the rotation. Barlow played with his usual energy and hit a few jumpers against the Hornets, which is an encouraging sign of his development. Hopefully he’ll have another strong game on Saturday before likely returning to the G League.
  • Another guy who might have lost his spot in the rotation? Malaki Branham. Blake Wesley had another strong game, hounding Ball full court and showing off his speed on drives. Branham only logged seven and a half games while Wesley got almost double that. Pop may simply reduce Doug McDermott’s and Cedi Osman’s minutes to give both young guards playing time, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see Branham out of the rotation for a while.
  • Speaking of guards, Tre Jones had a good game and at this point, no one should question whether he should continue to be the starter. The offense looks much better when he touches the ball consistently and he’s great at running the break, something not a lot of his teammates can do adequately.
  • Jeremy Sochan almost had a quiet triple-double. The forward was everywhere at times despite not dominating in any way, on his way to 11 points, eight rebounds and eight assists, some of which were impressive. He did have untimely back-to-back turnovers in the third, but the entire team made mistakes at the worst possible times.
  • Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell combined for 42 points, nine rebounds and 10 assists. Johnson took over the game for a while and then disappeared a little. Vassell still needs to be more consistently aggressive, especially when Pop puts the ball in his hands in the pick-and-roll. Still, the wing duo provided production.
  • Julian Champagnie had two boards, three assists, a steal and a block and he made all his two-pointers. It was nice to see, but it doesn’t mean much when he’s not a threat from outside. The skills for a 3-and-D wing are there, but he needs to put it all together.
  • The Hornets got just 12 bench points. The Spurs got 52, with Johnson leading the way. Others stepped up with Wemby not available but inconsistency prevented them from getting a nice road win.

Play of the night

The play might not be spectacular, but you have to reward celebratory snow angels whenever you get the chance.

Next game: at Washington Wizards on Saturday

Victor Wembanyama will be available against the Wizards. Hopefully the Spurs will be able to get a win in their fourth game on the road in a row.