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How to solve the Spurs' third quarter collapses

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While many areas need fixing right now, nothing is more obvious or pressing than San Antonio's collapse in third quarters. Much of this can be solved by fixing the team's performance in the paint.

Harry How/Getty Images

On Monday, the Spurs accomplished the terrible feat of combining their worst loss of the season with their third defeat in a row all in one painful performance. Even for the cool, optimistic San Antonio fans, dropping one against the Jazz in late February while the Silver and Black cling to the 7th seed is an obvious cause for concern. Where the Spurs go from here is anyone's guess. We normally would've seen signs of resurgence from the team by now, but each new game seems to only validate the worry many of us have.

At this point, everybody who's watched this team flounder against inferior opponents will come up with their own unique take on what the Spurs could do to fix their problems, but I think we can all agree that the third quarter is where many games seem to slip through our fingers.

San Antonio is dreadful coming out of halftime, and their problem lies largely in their offensive and defensive performance in the paint.

To fully understand the chasm that separates the Spurs first two quarters and their third, you need to know that San Antonio is actually a pretty efficient team in the first half. So far this season, the Spurs have a plus-minus of 6.8 points per 100 possessions in the first half which ranks 5th in the league. When only looking at how they do against their other Western Conference foes, San Antonio actually ranks 3rd in plus-minus per 100 possessions (5.0), being beaten out by only Golden State and Atlanta -- arguably the two best teams in the NBA right now.

If we compare those numbers to the Spurs' post-halftime numbers, though, a problem becomes painfully visible.

Point in Game
+/– per 100 poss.
NBA Rank
First Half
6.8
5th
Third Quarter
-4.6

24th

In the third quarter, San Antonio's plus-minus per 100 possessions drops to -4.6, ranking them 24th in the league. That's an 11.4 point swing in the wrong direction. Some of the teams that rank immediately above them in this regard include Orlando, Philadelphia, Boston, and Charlotte.

When searching for exactly where this drop off in production occurs, San Antonio's offensive and defensive numbers in the paint become an obvious starting point.

Let's start with offensive production in the paint not including the restricted area. Below is a table that shows the difference between San Antonio's first half and third quarter numbers.

Location FG% NBA Rank
In the paint-Non Restricted Area (First half) 43.9% 5th
In the paint-Non Restricted Area (Third quarter) 37.7%

20th

That 6.2% drop in field goal percentage in the paint can only be attributed to sluggishness coming out of halftime. With offensive third quarter numbers like these, the Spurs field goal percentage in the entire painted area (50.98%) -- including the restricted area -- is closer to that of the New York Knicks (50.37%) than it is the top tier teams they should be competing with. For reference, the Milwaukee Bucks are about league average in third quarter FG% in the entire painted area with 53.4%.

This isn't just an offensive problem for the Spurs, though. Defensively, we see the same drop off in performance near the rim.

Below is a table showing what coming out of halftime does to San Antonio's interior defense.

Location
Opponent FG%
NBA Rank
In the paint-Non Restricted Area (First half)
37.3%
8th
In the paint-Non Restricted Area (Third quarter)
43.9%

25th

As you can see, San Antonio's opponent field goal percentage skyrockets from 37.3% in the first half to 43.9% in the third quarter. The numbers within the restricted area aren't any better, either.

Location
Opponent FG%
NBA Rank
Restricted Area (First half)
55.7%
3rd
Restricted Area (Third quarter)
59.6%

14th

Much like what the offensive numbers show, the Spurs become a league average to below league average defensive team in the painted area in the third quarter. When viewing the stats are laid out like this, it's no wonder that this team is flirting with a TQC in every game.

The even more worrisome factor doesn't lie in the tables above, but on who's producing these numbers. These numbers aren't coming from an Aron BaynesJeff AyresCory Joseph lineup that's still figuring out how to play well together. No, they're coming from the players that this entire franchise currently rests upon.

Top 3rd Qtr Lineups

San Antonio's four most used third quarter lineups include some combination of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter, Boris Diaw, and Manu Ginobili, which means it's the guys we're trusting the most to turn things around that are struggling the most after halftime.

Depending on whether you're a Spurs optimist or pessimist, this can either be good news or bad news.

On one hand, it's these group of guys that are most capable of regrouping, adjusting, and turning it on as the season winds down. We've seen them do it before, and honestly, there's not one group of players that I trust more when high stakes are on the line.

On the other hand, many see this as the sign of the apocalypse that's been looming for seasons. It's pretty easy to attribute the struggles to come out of halftime to the age of our Big Three. While I don't completely subscribe to this notion -- mainly because Kawhi and Danny are still young, and I still think Splitter could see some more time on the court -- it's hard to completely dismiss this when we look at production. This is especially true when we look at Tony Parker's performance.

Of course, anyone watching the games can see that San Antonio's problems extend out of the painted area and into the other three quarters, as well. This analysis isn't intended to credit all of the season's struggles to interior offense and defense in the third quarter. Sadly, the Spurs' overall issues seem to be bigger than that. But with such an obvious discrepancy from the first half performance and the beginning of the second half, getting this third quarter problem under control could at least curtail this problem and secure the wins against lower tier teams that San Antonio should be walking away with.

All statistics provided by NBA.com/Stats.