May 27, 2024

PHOENIX — The San Antonio SpursKeldon Johnson knew he had to make a play.

After a Victor Wembanyama putback dunk cut the Phoenix Suns‘ lead to just one point with 6.8 seconds remaining Tuesday night, Suns guard Josh Okogie passed the ball in to Kevin Durant while Johnson lunged out of bounds trying to make the play.

Spurs guard Tre Jones prevented Durant from going forward, as Durant held the ball expecting a San Antonio foul. Johnson came back into the play, grabbed the ball away from Durant and drove the basket to lay the ball in with 1.2 to go to give the Spurs a one-point advantage.

Durant didn’t get a clean look on the ensuing possession, and the Spurs completed a 20-point comeback, walking away with a 115-114 victory.

“I seen Tre had him in the corner, and I was just like, s—, let’s make a play,” Johnson said. “The worst that could happen was they call the foul and they shoot free throws. But we had to make something happen. Time was running down. So my mindset was just make a play on the ball and, after that, just try to finish it.”

The Suns didn’t see the finish the same way.

“Yeah, they fouled him. The refs didn’t call it,” Suns coach Frank Vogel told reporters after the game. “They whacked him on the arm, before the ball gets ripped out of his hands, no call. But in a situation like that, we try to get the ball inbounds to our 90% free throw shooter. And we did. But it didn’t work out.”

Vogel said the team didn’t use the timeout because the inbounds pass from Okogie to Durant was a “safe only” inbounds play. Okogie was only supposed to inbound the ball to Durant if he could get it there safely, which Durant did before the Johnson steal.

When told Vogel said he got fouled, Durant said he still needed to “hold on to the ball.”

“I am expecting them to trap,” Durant said, “but that is out of my control. I am trying to make the play, but it happened so fast. I should have held on to it.”

Wembanyama, Johnson and Devin Vassell combined for 25 points in the fourth quarter. It was Vassell’s long 3-point attempt to tie that led to Wembanyama’s putback late.

Vassell described the win, which came one game after the Spurs lost by 40 at the LA Clippers on Sunday, as “big time.”

“It kind of just shows how much we fought the whole game,” Vassell said. “It wasn’t pretty; obviously, we were down 20 at some point, and we’re a young group. But we’re fighting, and we’re hungry.”

Phoenix led by as many as 20 points in the third quarter, taking a 76-56 lead on an Eric Gordon 3-pointer. The Suns also led by 10 with 5:25 remaining in the contest, before the Spurs finished on an 18-7 run to seal the victory.

Vassell credited Johnson, who finished with a game-high 27 points, for energizing San Antonio and for not letting the game turn into a repeat of Sunday’s performance.

“We weren’t going, and he just got us going,” Vassell said. “He brought the energy that we needed. KJ, sometimes I feel like he kind of gets lost. People don’t talk about him. I mean, Keldon Johnson, he’s a beast, and he really got us going in the second half.”

Tuesday’s win was Gregg Popovich’s 1,652nd combined victory in the regular season and playoffs as the Spurs’ coach. According to Elias Sports Bureau research, it was the first time in Popovich’s head-coaching career that his team trailed by three points in the final 10 seconds of the fourth quarter and won the game in regulation.

“We weren’t going, and he just got us going. He brought the energy that we needed. KJ, sometimes I feel like he kind of gets lost. People don’t talk about him. I mean, Keldon Johnson, he’s a beast, and he really got us going in the second half.”

Devin Vassell on Spurs teammate Keldon Johnson

The contest also marked the first matchup between Wembanyama and Durant.

Durant got the better of Wembanyama on a few occasions, including one play at the end of the first quarter when the rookie guarded the veteran. As the buzz grew within the crowd at Footprint Center, Durant drove to his right, pulled up and hit a fadeaway jumper over the outstretched arms of Wembanyama for a bucket to end the frame.

Durant, who finished with 26 points, called Wembanyama a “unique player.”

“He is going to be a force in this league for a long time,” Durant said. “Once he continues to get experience under his belt, he is going to get even better.”

Wembanyama had 18 points, eight rebounds and four blocks for San Antonio. He said Durant is “special” as a player and that there is still a lot he can take from him.

“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,” Wembanyama said. “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.”

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