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The Spurs Stole A Win From Kevin Durant

Kevin Durant is swarmed by the Spurs defense
Mike Christy/Getty Images

The San Antonio Spurs did not lead for the first 47 minutes and 58.8 seconds of their victory Tuesday night. They trailed the Phoenix Suns by as many as 20 points in the third quarter, and used a distinctly Wembyless small-ball lineup to creep back into range. Though I was silently cursing head coach Gregg Popovich for depriving us of the man who had arrived at the arena dressed as Slenderman, his instincts were correct: San Antonio chiseled away at the lead with a fourth-quarter lineup of Tre Jones, Devin Vassell, Keldon Johnson, Jeremy Sochan, and Zach Collins. Those guys cut the deficit to five, setting the Spurs up for a bizarre, miraculous ending at Kevin Durant's expense.

With 2:24 left in regulation, a rested Victor Wembanyama returned to the floor. His first half was spotty, but in the last minute of the game, he connected on a smooth 16-foot jumper and put-back dunk. Phoenix's lead was down to one. With 6.8 seconds on the clock, the Suns chose not to advance the ball with their timeout. Durant received the ball at the baseline, and, predictably, found himself in the middle of a handsy Spurs trap in the corner. He was mauled right after receiving the ball—no call—and then he was cleanly stripped by Johnson, who drove in a contested layup. On the other end, with just 1.2 seconds to operate, Durant missed a 10-footer.

Suns coach Frank Vogel stood by his decision-making after the game: “They whacked him on the arm before the ball gets ripped out of his hands, no call. In a situation like that, we try to get a quick inbounds to our 90 percent free-throw shooter, and we did.” Durant, who finished with an efficient 26 points and seven assists, offered a simple self-assessment in press: "I gotta hold onto the ball. Just gotta hold onto it."

The Spurs, who are improbably 2-2 despite obvious flaws, have some fun players beyond their 7-foot-4 centerpiece. Vassell, drafted as a three-and-D prospect and signed for a five-year, $135 million contract this offseason, now flashes some astonishing real-hooper traits: meaty transition dunks, soft midrange touch, and some Lillardian flair on stepback threes. Johnson is an energetic wing whose flurry of second-half threes put the team in a position to scrap. Sophomore Jeremy Sochan is a useful player with a bevy of defensive skills and offensive almost-skills, but the Point Sochan experiment isn't quite as cute four games into the season. Popovich has to let Wembanyama play with a more competent table-setter in Jones, whose impact is impossible to ignore.

Wembanyama, who often speaks about his admiration for Durant, extracted some wisdom from their first head-to-head encounter. "I learned that I'm far from mastering the game as much as him, because I tried to do some stuff like him but I think I'm not maybe patient enough," said Wembanyama, who had 18 points, eight rebounds, four blocks, and five turnovers. "I think I want to go too fast, but he goes to his own pace and goes to his spots. I think I have to—not copy that, but get inspired by that." Perhaps he'll also be inspired to hold onto the ball a little tighter.

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