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Spurs can’t overcome miserable first half as road streak ends at Chicago

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Say, five free-throw attempts doesn’t sound like very many, does it?

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Chicago Bulls Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Game 23, @Chicago: Bulls 95, Spurs 91 Rec: 18-5

1st in Southwest Division, 2nd in West Streak: L-1

This isn’t the most maddening or frustrating Spurs team of the Popovich Era, not by a long shot. I think the 2009-10 and 2014-15 editions are both clearly ahead of this squad on that score, but it’s certainly the most perplexing bunch I’ve ever seen, capable of wretched lows and soaring highs minutes removed from one another.

They’re 18-5 after Thursday night’s wire-to-wire loss at Chicago, snapping their franchise-record 13-0 start on the road, which was second-best in NBA history. They’ve looked, often, like a team whose record should be closer to 5-18. Coming into the game their scoring differential was only 5.0 and their net rating was only 6.0, which, given their record, is all kinds of ominous.

Or you see Tweets like this, from Jesus Gomez...

And so on and so forth. The Spurs are like the Kansas City Chiefs of the NBA, winning mostly with smoke and mirrors, only in this analogy Kawhi Leonard is Travis Kelce, Marcus Peters and Tyreek Hill all rolled into one and I’m pretty sure at this point I’d rather have Andy Reid protecting the paint than any big man on the Spurs except Dewayne Dedmon.

And like the Chiefs, the Spurs are prone to play an entire half without doing much of anything. They’ve gotten away with it in the first two legs of this road trip, but no such luck the third time. They had scored just 32 by recess, less than a typical quarter for the Golden State Warriors, and Gregg Popovich finally had enough of it, venting after the game.

They didn’t do a single thing well offensively in the first half. They didn’t attack the rim often enough and weren’t very successful when they did. They had one whole free-throw attempt. They shot 1-of-11 from outside, many of the looks pretty decent ones. They didn’t rebound enough of their many, many misses. They shot 30.6 percent.

But give the Spurs this much: they fight, man. They don’t give up on games. We’ve seen Spurs teams of past years – much better and more talented ones than this crew, frankly – cash it in when the chips were down on a given night. This squad doesn’t do that. They scratch and claw and refuse to give in and half a dozen other cliches. They make the opponent play the full 48 minutes to beat them, with no garbage time. (Well, you could argue their garbage time has been the first halves lately, but I digress.)

There’s a reason teams don’t often put together long winning streaks on the road and why, even with all the great and dominant teams in NBA history, the longest has merely been the 14-0 start last year’s Warriors had. And all that team did was finish 73-9. Winning on the road over and over and over again without a blip isn’t easy. It’s not supposed to be easy. The schedule is specifically set up to make it the opposite of easy, with visiting teams trudging into their hotel rooms in the middle of the night, often playing back-to-backs and being disoriented from jet-lag and different time zones and whatnot. There’s an understanding, unsaid but implicit, that paying crowds expect their teams to have a better than even chance of winning or at least being competitive at home, even if their teams wouldn’t be favored in a neutral setting. Folks don’t want to see scripted outcomes like the Harlem Globetrotters or “professional wrestling,” necessarily, but there’s a reason it’s called “home-court advantage.” It’s supposed to be beneficial, and throughout NBA history, it largely has been.

No, the Spurs don’t need to play a perfect game to win on the road. Certainly not against a limited, shooting-challenged Bulls club. But road teams occasionally find themselves in circumstances like a lopsided free-throw disparity (27-5, as I’m sure you noticed), or with their reserves slumping, or out-hustled on the glass. What can’t happen, if you’re the Spurs and your relative margin for error is as thin as it’s been in two decades, is for all of these negatives to happen at the same time. They can’t shoot 1-of-11 from outside and have the massive foul deficit and have Manu Ginobili and Jonathon Simmons bricking everything and allow all those rebounds and waste fast break opportunities and not get any standout performances from anyone to make up for all the poor ones... they can’t have this many things stacked against them for a whole half or longer, and expect to overcome it.

Think about it this way: Leonard was very good against the Bulls, finishing with 24-8-5, with a couple of emphatic slams in people’s grills and the usual shutdown defense against whomever he was matched up with. But he wasn’t transcendent, not on this night, so even a 59-50 second-half for the Spurs wasn’t enough. Leonard didn’t get enough help from enough people. Pau Gasol, Patty Mills, David Lee and the aforementioned Dedmon carried their weight, but you need more than a handful of contributors to make up an 18-point third quarter deficit unless one or two guys really go nuts.

Long story short, this was an ordinary road loss, the kind every team has without us noticing or caring. Maybe not a scheduled loss per se, but one that was a long time coming and deserved all the same. You just can’t play bad for long stretches consistently without having to pay the piper eventually. Pop stated matter-of-factly that the Spurs don’t have many guys playing well right now, and while he didn’t name names, it doesn’t take a master sleuth to figure out who the main culprits have been. Ginobili has been unable to score consistently inside the three-point line all season and LaMarcus Aldridge is playing well below last year’s level. Both need to pick it up considerably and Tony Parker needs to stay on the court for more than a couple games at a time.

One thing I can’t fault Popovich for, though I may not necessarily agree with it, is him not electing to bring in Davis Bertans, Nicolas Laprovittola or Kyle Anderson into the game looking for a spark. For now he has a clear, definitive, 10-man rotation in mind, and everyone else is on the outside looking in. The first ten have had so few opportunities to play collectively (with Parker, Dedmon and Danny Green all on the injury list and over-30 veterans Ginobili, Aldridge and Gasol all being rested here and there) that I understand Pop wanting to get them as much time to build chemistry as he can on the rare occasions they’re all simultaneously available. If they can avoid the bumps and bruises and get 20, 30 games worth of time together and it becomes clear that someone is still not cutting it (with Lee and Simmons the two likeliest to lose their spots) then eventually he’ll experiment. But it likely won’t happen soon.

The streak was nice while it lasted, but it turns out 13 wasn’t such a lucky number. At least it’ll get easier at home, right?

Up Next: Vs. Brooklyn Nets (6-15)

Indeed the Spurs will return to the historically friendly confines of the AT&T Center to welcome back old pal Sean Marks, now the Nets GM, and Luis Scola, who was technically never a Spur though he feels like one in spirit. The Nets aren’t very good, Jeremy Lin has been sidelined by a hamstring strain and they’ve got the same problem the Timberwolves had where they just get destroyed in third quarters for some reason. But I thought every quarter would be the third quarter for them before the year started and they’ve actually been sort of competitive. Marks and coach Kenny Atkinson have them playing fast (second in the league in pace) if nothing else and shooting a bunch of threes, even though they’re only making a third of them. At least they’re not boring anymore, right?

A guy on the team I’m curious about is Sean Kilpatrick, who’s averaging 16.7 points with a solid 16.1 PER. He originally signed during training camp as an undrafted rookie for the Warriors in 2014 and the Nets were his fifth organization in two years when he agreed to a 10-day contract with them after failing to stick with the Nuggets. Inexplicably, he averaged 13.8 points in 23 games to finish the year, which earned him a roster spot this season. Now maybe he’s just a looter in a riot. Somebody besides Brook Lopez has to score for these guys, right? Still, I want to see what his game’s about.