Sochan, Vassell lead Spurs past Pacers in Popovich’s absence

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — The San Antonio Spurs have lived by a next-man up mantra all season and it extended to their bench Thursday night.

With San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich out due to an illness, Jeremy Sochan had 22 points and 13 rebounds for his first career double-double and the Spurs defeated the Indiana Pacers 110-99.

“They’re probably trying to follow Pop’s leadership, even though he isn’t here,” said San Antonio assistant Mitch Johnson,...

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — The San Antonio Spurs have lived by a next-man up mantra all season and it extended to their bench Thursday night.

With San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich out due to an illness, Jeremy Sochan had 22 points and 13 rebounds for his first career double-double and the Spurs defeated the Indiana Pacers 110-99.

“They’re probably trying to follow Pop’s leadership, even though he isn’t here,” said San Antonio assistant Mitch Johnson, who coached in Popovich’s absence. “They know what he would be saying.”

The Spurs have won two straight after dropping a franchise-record 16 in a row.

Devin Vassell scored 18 points for San Antonio in his return after missing 25 games following arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. He shot 8 for 15 in his first game since Jan. 2.

Popovich and lead assistant Brett Brown were out with non-COVID-19 illnesses. Popovich is expected to return for Saturday’s home game against Houston.

Johnson collected his first victory in his second game helming the Spurs. He served as head coach in a 140-103 loss to Phoenix on on May 15, 2021, when Popovich missed the game to attend Tim Duncan’s Hall of Fame induction.

“Coach did a great job,” Sochan said. “He helped us a lot.”

Screams of celebration echoed in the hallways outside the Spurs locker room as the players showered Johnson with bottles of cold water.

“I’ll be honest, it was fun.” Johnson said. “It was fun. This is basketball. This is what I enjoy doing. There is nothing that I did differently or tried to change. We have a program and Pop sets the tone from the top to bottom. It goes from him to the players and everybody else.”

That was apparent by the team’s focus on defense.

San Antonio, which is allowing 122.4 points per game, has held opponents below 100 points in consecutive games.

“I think it’s just staying together and taking pride in it,” Sochan said. “There were times we lacked focus or will. Recently, we’ve been trying to impose our will on that side of the court.”

Buddy Hield had 27 points to lead the Pacers and Chris Duarte had 18. The Pacers committed 14 turnovers while shooting 46 percent from the field.

“We had a lot of guys that struggled tonight,” Indiana coach Rick Carlisle said. “Those things can happen. We’ve got to move on.”

The Spurs are a much different team than the one that last played at the AT&T Center on Feb. 3 before embarking on their annual Rodeo Road Trip.

Jakob Poeltl and Josh Richardson were traded, Stanley Johnson was released, and injuries continue to pile up. Keldon Johnson, Romeo Langford, Khem Birch and Isaiah Roby all missed this game and Doug McDermott did not return after spraining his right thumb in the second quarter.

Despite all that upheaval, San Antonio found a way to beat an Indiana team that had won two straight and three of four.

Devonte’ Graham and Zach Collins also had 18 points each for the Spurs in a balanced scoring effort.

The Spurs opened the third quarter on an 11-0 run to take a 63-54 lead. San Antonio led by 17 in the fourth quarter.

TIP-INS

Pacers: Indiana had won six straight in San Antonio since its previous defeat on March 1, 2017. … Former Spurs guard George Hill received a loud ovation when he was announced in the starting lineup.

Spurs: San Antonio honored former owner Red McCombs prior to the game. McCombs died Feb. 19 after a lengthy illness. He was part of the original ownership group that brought the then-ABA franchise to San Antonio from Dallas. The Spurs will wear a red patch with McCombs’ initials on the left strap of their jerseys in tribute. … The Spurs are 4-23 in 2023, including the 16-game losing streak.

TURNAROUND

Duarte had 18 points after failing to score in double figures in nine of his last 10 games. He was 8 for 14 from the field and 2 for 3 on 3-pointers.

“It’s been tough for him,” Carlisle said. “Tonight, he got a little bit earlier opportunity (and) took advantage of it by playing really the right way. That was good to see.”

UP NEXT

Pacers: At Chicago on Sunday.

Spurs: Host Houston on Saturday.

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