I’m sure many of you reading this by now are aware of the result of the Spurs' and Grizzlies' first matchup of the season from this past Wednesday night. If you didn’t watch live, though, allow me to set the stage for you: it was back-and-forth all night. The good guys recovered from a 14-point deficit in the first quarter and kept it close from then on, in yet another great shooting night from San Antonio.
With 6.6 seconds left in the game, the teams were tied and the Spurs had the ball. Coach Pop called a timeout, then drew up a play for Keldon Johnson to take the last shot. It rimmed out, Jeremy Sochan mistimed a putback attempt, and the game went to overtime.
It was looking like the young Spurs ran out of gas in OT, as Memphis took as high as a nine-point lead. San Antonio, not to be counted out, worked their way back into the game. Jeremy Sochan had back-to-back energy plays to bring the Silver & Black back within one. After a Ja Morant free throw, the Spurs had an opportunity (as the Grizz led 124-122) with 5 seconds left on the clock.
Once again, Popovich ran a play out of a timeout, this time for Devin Vassell. He had a good look, but the game-winning attempt from three was just ever so slightly off. All of that to say, the Spurs played their butts off, so much so that Memphis head coach Taylor Jenkins had this to say after the game:
After the Spurs’ hot start, some may be disappointed that they’ve dropped five in a row and now sit under .500 even with their latest win over the Milwaukee Bucks. Other fans might be excited that San Antonio has re-entered the lottery. If you’ve read my stuff before, you know that I’m somewhere in the middle— I love that the guys are playing hard and know that a top-three pick would help accelerate the team’s competitive timeline.
I wrote at the beginning of the month that the 5-2 Spurs were outkicking their coverage. Their current win-loss record shows that they’ve regressed a bit to the mean, but regardless, I continue to believe that Gregg Popovich is putting up a masterclass in coaching right now.
The Spurs' wins now and in the future are about much more than points
That said, I am not writing this to recycle stuff that Air Alamo and #SpursTwitter have been, and will be, talking about all season. Rather, this is about Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell's tenacity and fearlessness in stepping into their new and more important roles with the Spurs.
Vassell and Johnson, along with Jakob Poeltl, are now comfortably the Spurs’ best players. But because the first two are scoring wings, they are more important when it comes to needing a crunch-time bucket. Yet even with their development as shooters, Devin has never had an iconic make in the clutch, and Keldon’s most well-known game-winner was this lay-in to beat the Warriors last year:
Post-game, Vassell gave one of the more impressive quotes I’ve heard all year. He's essentially saying that his and KJ’s time is now, and those shots will start to fall with experience. In those few words after what could’ve been a deflating loss, Devin showcases a can’t-teach mentality that is so important to their growth as the team’s two most important players.
I can’t tell you how excited I am by that quote. It's one thing for Vassell and Johnson to grow into their roles as good-to-great NBA players, which we are watching happen this season. It is completely different for them to have the mindset that those chances are theirs to take and (eventually) make. That is a mentality that only a certain population of basketball players have.
Reading this, you may be wondering why I’ve gotten so worked up about two missed clutch baskets in a November game played by a semi-tanking team. Shouldn’t I just be excited by the shots that are actually going in? There have been a lot of those from Devin and Keldon this season, after all.
Well, the Spurs’ roster is pretty complete, perhaps outside of having a proven, bonafide star. With the potential of a top-three pick (and thus hopefully a star) on the horizon, San Antonio could be in playoff contention sooner rather than later. When that time comes, those attempts in crunch time will matter a lot more, and by then, Vassell and Johnson will have already gained the crunch-time experience they're craving.