There's a certain symmetry to the last seven days of San Antonio Spurs basketball. Two wins, two losses. Two road games, two at home. Two easy contests against middling squads, and a pair of plucky defeats at the hands of established divisional foes. But what does this all mean, and is last week's 2-2 mark truly reflective of the team's play? Closer observation of some advanced statistics reveals just how the Spurs were derailed from an 11-game hot streak after matching up against a trio of Western Conference adversaries (New Orleans, Oklahoma City, and Houston), and a quick trip to Orlando.
Whether shutting down the outside attack of the Pelicans or denying the slashing style of Russell Westbrook, there are a plethora of numbers to support the notion that the Spurs accomplished their mission -- on the defensive side of the ball at least. Take a moment to consider the Spurs' 112-93 home victory over New Orleans this past Monday. Prior to the contest, New Orleans had peppered their opponents from the outside to the tune of 41.5 three point FG%, placing them fourth in the league. In San Antonio, the Pelicans were restricted to just two of fifteen (13.3%) from beyond the arc.
This included the Spurs' limiting of stretch-four gunner Ryan Anderson to a meager 1 of 5 display. It is worth noting that Anderson's sole connection came after Tim Duncan uncharacteristically dozed off after a Pelicans screen and roll action, leaving the 6"10 shooter uncontested in the corner. Anderson was otherwise blanketed by Boris Diaw, Matt Bonner and Duncan. The Spurs' pesky perimeter play left a gaping hole in a New Orleans offense that had been relying on the long-range ball for 17.5% of their points. But in the realm of a Kawhi Leonard and Duncan-led defense, the visiting team contributed only 6 of their 93 total points from deep.
On the season the Pelicans came in ranked 22nd in the Association for field-goal percentage in the restricted area, at 57.2%. The Spurs made a mockery of this already-mediocre standing, only allowing 17 of 40 - or 42.5%. Anthony Davis - a relatively key cog in this anemic offense - was held to 2 of 6 deep inside the paint. Did this change with Wednesday's loss in Oklahoma City? Well, the standard of competition may have differed, but that's about all.
The trademark Thunder offense -- paced by the sweet shooting of Kevin Durant, and the unconscious athleticism of Westbrook -- couldn't escape the claws of San Antonio's D. Oklahoma City placed 10th in the NBA for average Personal Fouls Drawn (PFD), at 21.8 per game, prior to welcoming the Spurs. As a consequence, OKC had been enjoying 29 trips to the line per game. Wednesday night, the Thunder got to the line only 15 times, roughly half their season average. Additionally, Russell Westbrook, who took 52.6% of his shots within eight feet of the basket last year, let it fly 16 times against San Antonio, only 5 of which were inside that range.
This is the Spurs defense in a nutshell: combining a near-refusal to foul, with a focus on clogging the paint, while shutting down the shots from the outside. The Thunder were held to 26.7% shooting from downtown, with Kevin Durant finishing 1 of 5 on deep balls*. An area of concern for the silver and black faithful is the opposition's fourth-quarter scoring. Between the loss on Wednesday and the home defeat at the hands of Houston, San Antonio conceded an average of 27.5 points in the final period. Very un-Spursian, to say the least.
The Rockets arrived at the AT&T Center in the top five in the NBA for pace of play, and situated 2nd overall in the Offensive Rating measurements, at 108.1. A capable, offensive-oriented squad, undoubtedly. Moreover, the Rockets have a distinct aversion to midrange jumpshots, with only 5.0% of their field goal attempts coming from that area of the floor, and there's a vast eight-percent gap between them and the nearest team. Despite being on the receiving end of a barrage of threes (13 of 30, in the end), the Spurs were able to coax the Houston offense into putting up 14 of their 90 total shots from midrange. And while the poisonous combination of threes and frequent free-throw trips doomed San Antonio on Saturday, they were still able to hold Houston's league-leading 27.1 fouls drawn number to just 19.
While the Spurs were only able to break even in their last 4 games, it wasn't due to a collapse by the defense. By many measures, San Antonio held the opposing offenses well below their season averages in the very categories that Gregg Popovich values most. Which leaves us with the inescapable conclusion that if the Spurs want to stay in the hunt for home court advantage, it's the offense that needs to perform better when facing the league's best teams. The defense looks just fine from here.
* All of this took place in a Spurs loss, mind you. A brief consideration of the offensive outliers at play in this game should allow Spurs fans to breathe a sigh of relief. The team struggled mightily on three-point shots (7-27), while Danny Green -- who had a 48.3% 3FG% -- failed to hit on any of his four attempts in the game, many of which were open opportunities.
Statistics used are from NBA.com/stats