Spurs break 16-game losing streak with win over Jazz

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San Antonio Spurs forward Keldon Johnson (3) drives as Utah Jazz guard Talen Horton-Tucker (0) defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

San Antonio Spurs forward Keldon Johnson (3) drives as Utah Jazz guard Talen Horton-Tucker (0) defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Rick Bowmer, STF / Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Late in the fourth quarter Tuesday, with the end of a losing streak in sight, Spurs forward Keldon Johnson turned an ankle in a collision with Utah big man Walker Kessler.

As Johnson hobbled toward the bench during an ensuing timeout, he waved off the team’s training staff.

“If it ain’t falling off,” Johnson said in a Spurs TV interview later, “I’m gonna keep going.”

Down the stretch at Vivint Arena, Johnson kept going. And going. And going.

When he was done, the Spurs had earned a slump-busting 102-94 victory that felt like a breath of oxygen in the mountains of Utah.

Johnson scored nine of his team-best 25 points in the final 3:28 to help the Spurs snap a skid that had gone on too long.

The win halted a 16-game losing streak that was not only the longest current skid in the NBA but the longest in club history.

It was the Spurs’ first triumph since Jan. 17, when they claimed a 106-98 decision over a Brooklyn club missing Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

It was the Spurs’ first win away from the AT&T Center since Dec. 10 at Miami.

To stop their streak the Spurs had to, well, stop some streaks.

Coming in, the Spurs were 0-44 when falling behind by at least 10 points at any point in a game.

That happened with 4:17 remaining in the third quarter, when Rudy Gay made three free throws to put the Jazz ahead 68-58.

The Spurs were also 0-41 when trailing entering the fourth quarter. They were down 73-71 headed to the fourth Tuesday.

Thanks to a hefty dose of fourth-quarter energy from rookies Jeremy Sochan and Blake Wesley, the Spurs bucked both trends against the Jazz.

An 11-0 run — sparked by back-to-back-to-back 3-pointers from Wesley, Doug McDermott and Devonte Graham — helped the Spurs regain the lead midway through the fourth.

Talen Horton-Tucker tied the score at 88 with 5:15 remaining thanks to two consecutive 3-pointers, sending the back-and-forth game into crunch time.

Kris Dunn wiggled for a layup to give Utah a 92-91 edge with 3:18 remaining.

The Jazz did not score another field goal the rest of the way.

McDermott added 19 points off the bench for the Spurs, and Graham had 12. Wesley was active with nine points, six rebounds and three steals.

Lauri Markannen tallied 28 points to lead the Jazz, while Kessler logged a 10-point, 15-rebound double-double.

The victory improved the Spurs to 15-47 and allowed them to avoid the ignominious distinction of posting the first winless rodeo trip in club history.

Utah dropped to 31-32.

Here are three takeaways from Tuesday’s much-needed win, which allowed the Spurs to head home on a high note:

1. Johnson shoulders the load

Yes, Johnson is imperfect as a leading scorer. With his 3-point shot having disappeared as the season has worn on, he has reverted to breakneck drives to the basket to find his points.

The thing is, Johnson is really good at this.

He was 12 of 19 from the floor Tuesday, with four of those misfires coming from beyond the arc. He made one foul shot.

The rest of Johnson’s points came on a series of drives that were at once bruising and creative.

He was at his best with the game on the line in Utah. With 2:46 left, Johnson hit a tough shot with Dunn practically in his shorts to put the Spurs ahead by a point. A few moments later, he steamrolled for another layup.

His off-balance jumper with 45.8 seconds to go rolled in, giving the Spurs a 100-94 edge and more or less sealing the game.

Yes, Johnson can be inefficient without the 3-point shot. On a team competing for a playoff spot, he is probably better suited to be a third or even fourth option.

But he’s the best the Spurs have right now, especially with Devin Vassell still recovering from January knee surgery. Johnson was enough Tuesday.

2. ‘Grunt’ gets it done on defense

The NBA’s worst defense turned in an out-of-character night Tuesday as the Spurs grinded the game out on that end of the floor.

The Spurs held the Jazz to 25 points or less in three of the four quarters, they first time they had done that since Oct. 30.

It was the Spurs’ work down the stretch on defense that helped bring the game home.

Utah, of course, helped out. The Jazz posted their worst offensive rating of the season. The Spurs weren’t 100 percent responsible for that.

But after having watched his team continually shredded over the past few months, Gregg Popovich was pleased with what he saw.

In the Spurs’ first eight games of the rodeo trip, they had given up (literally!) 1,000 points. That’s 125 per night.

Tuesday marked the first time they held a team to less than 110 since Jan. 17 — which was also the last time they won a game.

The Spurs are 4-0 when they limit a team to 100 points or less. It isn’t a coincidence.

Popovich’s players played with what the coach likes to call “grunt” Tuesday. That’s what got the Spurs off the schneid.

3. Get ready for more Wesley

Having missed 2½ months of his rookie season because of a knee injury, it has taken Wesley a while to find his footing.

The 19-year-old produced perhaps his best game as a pro Tuesday.

Whether getting into Jazz ballhandlers, playing passing lanes or snagging one of his season-high three steals, Wesley set the tone for the Spurs in the second half.

He could be in for an expanded role when the Spurs return to town Thursday to face Indiana.

Fellow rookie Malaki Branham exited Tuesday’s game in the second half with back spasms. He was already the Spurs’ fill-in point guard, replacing Tre Jones.

If neither of those players are ready to go against the Pacers, Wesley could earn his second NBA start.

Either way, he is probably in for a larger workload. He has earned it.


Twitter: @JMcDonald_SAEN