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Spurs can’t overcome Zion Williamson’s big night in last-second loss

The Spurs fought until the bitter end but couldn’t stop Zion once he entered beast mode.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at San Antonio Spurs Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

You can see it on most nights: the Spurs’ overall improvement is real. This was one of those games that didn’t work out in their favor, but difference from now compared to the first half of the season was visible. The Spurs kept fighting through the ebbs and flows of a tight game, leading most of the night against the New Orleans Pelicans. Unfortunately, Zion Williamson went into beast mode for a huge 33-point outing, including two bigtime buckets in the final 28 seconds to bring his team back from three down and hand the Spurs a 113-114 loss, their third straight.

Victor Wembanyama and Devin Vassell were hitting their shots early, and the Spurs found themselves up 15-13 midway through the first quarter thanks to a couple of big-time blocks by Julian Champagnie. The Spurs continued to outhustle the Pelicans, fighting for offensive rebounds and playing scrappy defense. The second unit was especially impressive early despite missing Keldon Johnson for a second straight game, and they found themselves up 33-24 at the end of the first quarter, led by 10 points from Vassell.

The good times didn’t last, as the Pelicans opened the second quarter on a 12-5 run while the Spurs caught the turnover bug. New Orleans briefly took the lead on CJ McCollum’s third three of the night before he handed it right back with a flagrant 1 for swiping Tre Jones across the face, which the Spurs got a three-point possession out of. They regained focus after that, stretching the lead back out to 10 before a frustrated Williamson started forcing his way to the line. He had 8 free throw attempts (making five) as part of his 15 first-half points and cut the lead down to four before an acrobatic and-1 from Wemby got the score to 65-58 at the half.

Both teams were a little sloppy to start the third quarter, but the Spurs were better, at least at first, taking advantage of several Pelicans turnovers to stretch the lead out to 12 at 78-66. Unfortunately, the bench unit didn’t come out as strong as the first half, allowing a 15-3 run to tie things back up before a Vassell three broke the ice for the Spurs. Probably the perfect play to describe how sloppy this quarter was is with the game tied at 88 apiece with 39 seconds left, Gregg Popovich successfully challenged a wrong out-of-bounds call under the Spurs’ basket, just for them throw the inbounds pass right back to the Pelicans. Fortunately, Wemby was able to get back and block the fast break attempt by Jose Alvarado, and the tie was preserved heading into the final frame.

Williamson gave the lead back to the Pelicans by getting a three-point pay off a similar flagrant from Wemby that McCollum had committed earlier (it wasn’t nearly as hard or careless as McCollum’s, but the precedent of “miss a block, slap a player in the face, get a flagrant” had been set). They continued to stretch the lead to as much as five before back-to-back threes from Doug McDermott resurrected the offense. They still found themselves down four when Pop called a timeout with 6:20 left, but in a span of 70 seconds, his team picked up the defense and responded with a 7-0 run, forcing a Pelicans timeout. Frustrated, Zion continued to force his way to the line to tie things back up, and the teams traded the lead for the final minutes.

The Spurs got up by three with 43 seconds left thanks to Wemby getting a rare block of Zion and Jones hitting two free throws, but Williamson responded with a dunk and circus layup on the fast break to retake the lead with 3.8 left (sandwiched around a Spurs shot that probably could have been called goaltending either way since both teams touched the ball while it was on the rim; if nothing else a whistle would have prevented the bast break). Vassell then missed a long three on the Spurs’ final possession to preserve the loss.

Game Notes

  • The final shot probably wasn’t what Pop drew up in the huddle, but he could be seen arguing with the officials after Jones was tripped before the ball was inbounded, which would have been a technical free throw and the ball back and may or may not have messed everything else up. Regardless, Vassell had Wemby open and cutting towards the basket with time, so it still wasn’t a smart shot even if he was the hot hand on the night. That’s just another sign of a team that’s still learning and growing.
  • The Spurs defense deserves a lot of credit in this game. After they lost the previous matchup to the Pelicans mostly on free throw differential, they did a better job of keeping them off the line, even while playing aggressive defense and recording 10 blocks. Yes, Williamson forced his way to the line for 13 of their 21 attempts (and had a legit gripe for a few more) — he even had more attempts than the Spurs as a whole until the final minutes of the game — but for the most part they did a decent job of taking away that advantage. The Spurs had 18 attempts themselves but missed three key ones in the final few minutes.
  • One thing the Spurs did not do well is take care of the ball, committing 18 turnovers and giving up 24 points off them. The fact that the Pelicans had 14 steals — mostly off lazy passes, reading plays, or pick-pocketing unaware dribblers — tells you all you need to know. Wemby led the way with 5 turnovers, and it remains one of, if not the biggest weakness in his game. Whether he’s dribbling too high around guards or trying too hard to thread the needle with impossible passes, it’s still too easy to take the ball from him at times, especially on the perimeter.
  • One of the players Jeremy Sochan was snubbed from the Rising Stars Challenge for is Pelicans second-year guard Dyson Daniels, and it’s kind of hard to understand why. Not to pick on Daniels, but he averages 5.5 points and 2.6 assists in 21 minutes per game, while Sochan averages 11.7 and 3.8 in 29 minutes on much more efficient shooting. Sochan told the media he believes the early season experimentation might have skewed some people’s view of him, but regardless he shrugged it off, saying there are much bigger things to accomplish. Tonight, Daniels had 2 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists, while Sochan had 15-16-3.

Play of the Game

I wanted to give it to Tre Jones for his huge layup over Jonas Valanciunas just inside the two-minute mark, but of course it wasn’t captured, so runner up goes to Vassell’s three as the Spurs went on their run midway through the fourth quarter to recover from a big Pelicans run and show they weren’t folding. He may have bungled the last play, but he still had a very good night overall with 28 points on 5-10 shooting from three.

Up next: Saturday vs. Cleveland Cavaliers

The Spurs will seek to bust their three-game losing streak in their final game before the Rodeo Road Trip against an underrated Cavs team. Tipoff will be at 7:30 PM CT on KENS 5.