The Spurs visited the cellar-dwelling Suns on Wednesday, the perfect opponent to face after a tough loss in Sacramento. Unfortunately, what had the potential to be an easy win turned into another unexpected defeat.
San Antonio was simply outplayed by one of the worst teams in the league en route to a decisive 116-96 loss. It was yet another winnable game that they dropped in what’s turning out to be a brutal November.
The Spurs’ horrendous start was a harbinger of things to come. The first quarter was a mess with LaMarcus Aldridge missing bunnies and DeMar DeRozan attacking the rim with no plan and hoping for a whistle. The ball moved but not in a way that created any advantage and the turnovers piled up. On the other end, defenders were not able to stay with their assignment and the help defense was late.
Credit should go to the Suns, who were playing with more effort on their own end and hitting the few tough shots San Antonio managed to force them into, but the Spurs did themselves no favors early. Phoenix got a max lead of 19 points. It could have easily been more.
Against most other opponents, the beatdown would have continued. But the Suns were a 2-11 team going into Wednesday and started to play like it. Their swarming defense lost some of its intensity and their offense got sloppy at the worst possible time. The Spurs started pouncing on their opponent’s mistakes, chipping away at the deficit.
Phoenix managed to keep a double-digit lead until Gregg Popovich found a line-up that worked: a super small unit featuring four guards and Aldridge. It seemed like it could be the perfect counter to the Suns’ gameplan. By the time the break came, the Spurs were only trailing by five points and a comeback certainly looked possible.
It turned out that the mini surge at the end of the half made what followed all the more painful to watch. The Spurs simply appeared to forget what had been successful just minutes before. They tried to force-feed Aldridge with Dante Cunningham on the floor.
The Suns helped off Cunningham and completely neutralized the offense, forcing DeRozan to once again go on hero mode to get points on the board. Complacency seeped back in on defense.
Phoenix owned the paint. With Devin Booker struggling, San Antonio had a chance to weather the storm and regroup, but Jamal Crawford caught fire. Pop, meanwhile, finally went small but only with the bench unit, and with Quincy Pondexter inexplicably on the court despite his suspect shooting negating the advantage of the move.
There was no response this time. The Spurs trailed by 17 going into the fourth. When the starters checked back in, the Suns’ lead ballooned even further. With a little under seven minutes to go, and knowing that the rested Clippers await for a Thursday SEGABABA, Pop pulled the plug.
It was the fourth loss in the last five games, the third against a team with a losing record. It’s clear at this point that the Spurs simply aren’t talented enough to take any matchup lightly. If they keep forgetting that, opponents will be happy to remind them.
Fortunately, it’s early enough in the season that if they remember to have “the appropriate fear” night in and night out they could still be a playoff team. Let’s hope that the effort and execution that made us optimistic about the Spurs’ postseason chances is there every night from now on.
- The recipe to beat the Spurs is simple: double Aldridge to take him off his game (six points in 12 shots, no assists), live with DeRozan making some damage (24 points on 15 shots) and trust that no one else will emerge as a potent weapon. We’ve seen other teams like the Blazers do that. It was surprising that the Suns could execute that gameplan so well, at least for stretches. It does not bode well for the future that the offense is so predictable that even a young team can shut it down.
- That strategy is much easier to pull off when Rudy Gay is not on the court, to be fair. The Spurs missed their third option. Gay can salvage some bad possessions with his one-on-one scoring. Hopefully he’ll be available against the Clippers.
- Derrick White could also give the Spurs another weapon going forward, as he rounds into shape. White turned the ball over too much but had 16 points and three assists and continues to show flashes of above average playmaking.
- The Mills-Forbes-Belinelli-DeRozan-Aldridge line-up that made a run to end the second quarter should have been on the floor when things were going poorly early in the second half. Having to deal with three deadly, mobile shooters who can put the ball on the floor made it harder for the Suns’ defense to focus on the stars. If Pop didn’t want to go too small, too quickly, playing Davis Bertans would have made sense. Cunningham has been terrific this year — certainly better than Davis — but this was just a bad matchup for him, due to the Suns’ defensive game plan.
- Jakob Poeltl stuffed the stat sheet, finishing with seven points, nine rebounds, an assist, a steal and two blocks. His play was much less inspiring than that, unfortunately. I like that Jak is playing better, but Pau Gasol’s place in the rotation seems safe so far.
- As hard as I’ve been on the Spurs for this loss, I do have to admit that there was some randomness to it. Josh Jackson, Jamal Crawford and Isaiah Canaan came into this game shooting 25%, 32% and 31% from beyond the arc, respectively. They combined for nine three-pointers in 11 attempts on Wednesday. Some of those were tough shots. Sometimes opponents go off.
Up next: @ Clippers on Thursday
The Clippers are coming off wins over the Bucks and the Warriors. They will be rested, as their last game was on November 12. It doesn’t look good for the Silver and Black, but it’s been hard to predict what games the Spurs will win and lose this year, so maybe they surprise us with an upset.