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Spurs’ lack of reliable scoring dooms them against Ja Morant’s Grizzlies

Victor Wembanyama and Ja Morant both put on a show as the Grizzlies came away with the win against a Spurs team that showed effort but couldn’t get enough buckets.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

For a whole half and a part of another, the Spurs looked like they had a chance against the Grizzlies. Then Ja Morant happened. The start point guard put together a dominant stretch to start the fourth quarter and led his team to a 106-98 win against a shorthanded San Antonio squad that tried its best but was outclassed.

A combination of bad offensive execution and solid defense from both teams was the reason for a low-scoring first half, and the start of the game foreshadowed what was to come. The Spurs were putting together atrocious possessions that would end with late shots with no chance of going in or finding Victor Wembanyama for a lob, with nothing in between. On the other end, Wemby dominated inside with his length and the Grizzlies didn’t have the shooting touch or the ball movement to make San Antonio’s questionable perimeter defense hurt. As the benches checked in, the Silver and Black felt the absence of their star big man on both ends, especially with Zach Collins not available, but the home team couldn’t create separation despite facing the likes of Dominick Barlow and Sandro Mamukelashvily inside. After one, San Antonio led by two.

It seemed like the Grizzlies were heating up on offense to start the second while the Spurs were still mired by bad spacing and hesitant execution, but there was no big run. San Antonio lost Malaki Branham to an ankle injury, which threatened to make their offense even worse but Blake Wesley provided some good minutes off the bench. Still, despite Memphis’ lack of firepower at times and Wembanyama’s brilliance, the home team started to pull ahead, with the Spurs having to work hard to keep up. The score was close for most of the frame, but a flagrant foul called on Wesley on a Luke Kennard three resulted in a five-point possession for the Grizzlies and a double-digit lead. Keldon Johnson hit a three to trim the lead to seven, but Taylor Jenkins’ guys went to the locker room with a nice buffer, considering how low-scoring the half was.

Tre Jones got the start at points guard with Branham out and he helped create the run that would erase Memphis’ quick 10-point lead. He assisted on two Julian Champagnie threes and got a steal and a dunk before Wemby hit a one-footed banked-in three to put the Spurs ahead. Morant was still walking gingerly after dealing with a knee injury in the first half at that point, and a win on the road was not out of the question. Unfortunately, the solid defense that the Spurs showed earlier on wasn’t on display in the third. Desmond Bane continued to get away from Julian Champagnie in the perimeter and as soon as Wembanyama went to rest Jeren Jackson Jr. went to work inside. The threes were suddenly falling for a Memphis team that looked more confident and physical than their counterpart. Going into the final frame, the lead was 12.

The start of the fourth was going to determine whether the game would end up being close or not, and sadly the Grizzlies and Morant dominated it. After looking hurt and settling for jumpers, the guard finished a beautiful layup and a dunk over Victor Wembanyama, then hit a three, all within the first four minutes of the quarter. The crowd got into it and the Spurs looked discombobulated, going away from Wembanyama on offense until Pop called a play for him out of a timeout. By that time the home team had opened up an 18-point gap that they would ride to victory. There was a comeback attempt that made things a little more exciting, but in the end, it fell short, like it has most of the time this season for a San Antonio team that lacks an extra gear, even at full strength.

Game notes

  • Wembanyama is absurd. He had 20 points, seven rebounds and four blocks in just 26 minutes, two more than his current limit, according to Pop. At one point in the third he looked frustrated about not touching the ball but his teammates are doing a better job of looking for him. Defensively, he’s a monster. And he can also do this:
  • Branham rolled his ankle and was out for the rest of the night, but his injury doesn’t appear serious. Blake Wesley got some minutes in his absence and looked energetic and useful despite overdribbling at times.
  • The Spurs’ lack of an above-average wing defender cost them. They can throw Jones and Wesley at the lead ball handler when they want to apply some pressure, but no one can guard someone like Bane, who is a threat on and off the ball. Champagnie tried, but he’s too slow. So is Johnson. Vassell is frustratingly inconsistent on that end. Branham is a minus. Using Jones and Wesley together might be the best bet, at least against shooting guards.
  • Jeremy Sochan just plays whatever position is asked of him and doesn’t complain. Against the Grizzlies, he got center minutes but also had a few possessions guarding Ja Morant. It’s been a weird season for him. Let’s hope all this experimentation that has detracted from any sort of stability for Sochan pays off down the line.
  • Doug McDermott and Cedi Osman did very little off the bench. Dom Barlow was in foul trouble for most of his time on the court and is not a big offensive threat. Tre Jones was setting up others. Once again, Keldon Johnson had to do most of the scoring off the bench. Most of his points came with the Spurs down by double-digits, but he still dropped 19, trailing only Wemby in scoring, so it’s hard to complain about his production.

Play of the game

Ja Morant dunked on Wembanyama (it was more around him than over him, but let's not argue semantics) but Wemby got Ja first. The explosive guard tried to attack him one-on-one and beat him initially but got his shot blocked as Victor recovered. The Vassell three, one of his few good plays of the night, was just the perfect end to the sequence.

Next game: vs. the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday

The Spurs are currently on a three-game losing streak that will probably reach four once they take on the contending Bucks. The good news is we’ll probably get Giannis vs. Wemby this time around after the rookie missed the first matchup.