A stout defense can be a lifeline when your three-point shot isn’t falling, or when you’re careless with the ball, but rarely can it negate both.
On Sunday versus the Pacers, the Spurs were as stingy as ever on that end of the floor, backing up their second-ranked defensive rating with timely blocks at the rim and lockdown defense on the perimeter — but it wasn’t enough to prevent the 94-86 loss, the team’s second in a row.
Points are tough enough to come by with Kawhi Leonard, Rudy Gay and Manu Ginobili all sitting out, but the Pacers made it even harder by cutting off the Spurs’ primary source of buckets. LaMarcus Aldridge couldn’t come off a cross-screen without being body-checked by a yellow jersey or catch a pass in the block without having to fight for every inch of space, only to face an inevitable double team from either shoulder. The result: a 10-point, four-turnover, 5-of-14 shooting performance.
Typically, that defensive focus on the interior would open things up for the Spurs beyond the arc. And while the looks were there they seldom fell, with San Antonio hitting just 9 of its 34 three-point attempts on the night. Leading the way was Davis Bertans, shooting 1-of-8 from deep, but almost no one was immune to the cold spell that was going around.
“You gotta make shots in this league,” said Gregg Popovich after the game. “We’re holding people to under 100 points per night... I’m... impressed with our effort. It’s hard to do that night after night, especially when you’re not making shots, but in the end it’s a combination of playing good D with that effort and the ball’s also gotta go in the hole.”
And there were too many stretches, primarily in the second and third quarters, in which the ball simply wouldn’t. The Spurs scored a total of 36 points in those two periods, allowing their deficit to grow to as much as 17 points in the fourth quarter. They would narrow the margin to seven points thanks to a late push, but the team’s other bugaboo — turnovers, of which they had 20 — also reared its ugly head.
You can pick a moment in the fourth quarter in which the Spurs had a chance to turn things around, and you’ll likely see a turnover as the reason to why they didn’t. Kyle Anderson had a chance to make it a five-point game with four minutes left as he broke away for a layup, only to have former Spur Cory Joseph catch up to him and poke the ball away. A few minutes later, with the deficit at seven again, Aldridge also had the ball stripped away while he tried to operate in the post.
Pau Gasol said the team was “out of whack”; Danny Green said they felt like they were playing “in the mud”; however you choose to describe it, the offense failed the defense on Sunday, and the Spurs picked up their third loss at home as a result.
This season’s spate of injuries hasn’t just put more pressure on the defense to perform — it’s tested the tensile strength of the team’s 35-and-up core. Gasol, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker have all been crucial stabilizers, stepping up in ways few could’ve expected through the first half of the season. While Gasol has maybe been the Spurs’ best all-around player, and Ginobili their most clutch, Parker has bounced back from a serious injury to put together an impressively efficient season of his own.
It seems — for now at least — that the latter will be taking a step back, with Parker being moved to a bench role and second-year guard Dejounte Murray back in the starting lineup.
For a team that’s still hanging on the “indefinite” return of its star player, the move adds even more uncertainty into the mix. Does it signal an increased focus on development over winning in the short term? Does it mean more changes are afoot with the roster as the February 8th trade deadline approaches? Does it have more to do with Parker’s body and the need for a limited role?
With the Spurs, the most boring answer is probably the right one, but the fact that we even have questions like this past the halfway point of the season is a product of the new territory the team finds itself in.
A bit more on...
Parker embracing a new role
The evening began with an innocuous, albeit slightly eyebrow-raising development, as a healthy Tony Parker was left off the starting lineup in favor of 21-year-old Dejounte Murray. It was only until an hour after the game that more information was gleaned, with Parker speaking to a group of reporters in an AT&T Center hallway.
Here’s the 35-year-old guard on how the news was broken to him:
“Pop told me,” Parker said. “He told me he thought it was time, and I was like, ‘No problem.’ Just like Manu (Ginobili), just like Pau (Gasol), you know that day is going to come. If Pop sees something that is good for the team, I will try to do my best...I will support Pop’s decision, and I will try to help DJ as best as I can and try to be the best I can in that second unit with Manu and Patty (Mills).”
We’ll be unpacking this news more and more over the coming weeks — and there’s at least one Spurs scribe who thinks it may not be a permanent thing — but, for now, we can at least marvel at the class Parker is showing, even if it doesn’t surprise any of us.
Continued lineup experimentation
I’ve already griped about the Spurs playing Ginobili, Forbes and Mills, so I’ll keep things short on the latest contender for the team’s most questionable three-man group.
For the second game in a row, Pop gave a handful of minutes to a three-point-guard lineup of Mills, Forbes, and Parker. It’s seen less time together than the other group, but has been just as bad in net rating thus far. Even a short-handed San Antonio team can do better.
Another quietly impressive night from Slow Mo
His game will once again be overshadowed by other news, so here’s some praise for Kyle Anderson. Filling in for Leonard once again, he had 10 points, eight rebounds, three assists, three blocks (!), and five steals (!!!). He also closed out the first half in his trademark, unhurried fashion: