It’s been a strange time for the Spurs. Last week they tallied 60-70-90 against the Portland Trail Blazers in the midst of three losses by over 30 points each. They had two road losses and two home wins splitting sets with the Lakers and Jazz. Amid the streak of bad losses, fans and pundits argued the validity of badmouthing the Spurs after two decades of great basketball. Are the Spurs, in fact, impermeable to criticism?
This week Pounding the Rock contributors Mark Barrington, Marilyn Dubinski, Bruno Passos, Jesus Gomez, and editor-in-chief J. R. Wilco visit the highs and lows of the last two weeks, the benefit and concern with home-and-home games, and LaMarcus’ absence at the close of games.
The Spurs beat the Trail Blazers shooting an impressive 60-70-90 (only the tenth in NBA history). Fluke or proof that the offense can be elite?
Mark Barrington: Fluke. I think they can obviously become a much better offense, but a performance like that is an extreme statistical outlier.
Marilyn Dubinski: Somewhere in between. Obviously that is not a stat-line that occurs everyday (especially with so many threes being taken these days), but it was another example of the Spurs beating a team by playing smart, team offense instead of settling for too many isos or jacking up threes out of rhythm. Those same approaches led them to victory against the Lakers and Jazz, and they didn’t need absurd stat-lines to beat them.
Bruno Passos: I’m prepared to see this as the baseline for all future Spurs performances. Settle. For. Nothing. Less.
Jesus Gomez: Neither? I see it as proof of how deliberate the Spurs’ shot selection is. For better or for worse, they try to only take shots they are comfortable with. Except for some Marco Belinelli weirdness, no one goes for looks that are not in their wheelhouse, so high percentages are not that shocking. I was mostly impressed by the free throw shooting. They are the best team in the league at the line! It’s great to not have to worry too much about it after years of it being a weakness.
J. R. Wilco: When something is so statistically rare that it has only happened five times in the history of the sport, I think it’s safe to call it a fluke.
Should twenty-two consecutive seasons of success shield PATFO from criticism this year, even if the team doesn’t make the playoffs?
Barrington: Nobody is immune from criticism, it’s not some kind of totem you carry around like something in a game show, but criticism needs to be reasonable. If you had the expectation that the Spurs weren’t going to miss a beat after losing a superstar and replacing half of the roster, the problem was with your expectations, not with the Spurs. The Spurs have been both good and bad this year, depending on which night you watch them play. If they start playing more consistently as the season progresses, this question becomes moot, as they WILL make the playoffs.
Dubinski: I think people saying they no longer know what they’re doing and should all resign are going overboard, but that doesn’t mean PATFO should be completely absolved of any criticism. There will always be questions about some of Pop’s line-up decisions, the effort shown at times over last few weeks has been enough to trigger curiosity of whether he’s pushing this team hard enough, etc. As for the roster, I’m giving them a bit of a pass for the moment since this team was mostly built to compliment Kawhi Leonard, plus the whole injury situation, but if it doesn’t work out I would like to see them be more willing to make changes than in the past.
Passos: Not at all, and I think they’ve had their fair share of detractors (and missteps) through the years anyway. I’d just say that the decisions that have led to where the team is now are hard to rehash at face value given the wider Kawhi situation and the roster they were building pre-Kawhisis versus after.
Gomez: To a certain degree, yes. At least in terms of results. After paving the way to so many winning seasons and five titles, I don’t think it’s fair to be too hard on them for not being able to give us yet another 50+ win team, especially after the forced exit of a superstar. I do think there is reasonable criticism to be made about the process that has led to this team and this style, and that it should continue even if they do make the playoffs.
Wilco: There’s a difference between the goodwill a team has earned and being immune from criticism. The problem I have with much of this year’s critiques is that they focus on how out-dated San Antonio’s offense is, even though it’s still ranked towards the top of the league. If people feel the need to bust on Pop, then they should at least focus on griping about the part of this year’s team that’s sub-optimal.
LeBron and friends are 15-7 against other squads, but lost the season series to San Antonio 3-1. What makes the Lakers a good matchup for the Spurs?
Barrington: Some of that is pure luck, as the Lakers were short-handed for all four games. Brandon Ingram was suspended for the first two matchups, and he was injured for all but a few moments of the last two. The Lakers are much better with Ingram than without him. But the Lakers defense is very porous, and that’s good news for a team that often plays without a true point guard.
Dubinski: The Curse of Pop is still a very real thing for LeBron. In all seriousness, it’s mostly their lack of defensive discipline, which isn’t uncommon with young teams, and even LeBron is known to coast on that side of the court for the first half of the season or so. While the Lakers have some elite scorers, the Spurs are still able to play their own style against them while keeping up on offense.
Passos: Defensively, the teams that have success against the Spurs are the ones who deny Aldridge and DeRozan the ability to get to their spots. The Lakers don’t do that, which allows the Spurs to play to their strengths and dictate pace a bit more.
Gomez: They have no one who can slow down DeRozan and they lack the discipline to guard shooters that move a lot. Also, they are at their best in transition and while the Spurs are bad at getting back on defense, they don’t turn the ball over too much, so the Lakers’ chances to run are limited. That being said, most of the games were close, so I don’t necessarily think the Spurs have their number.
Wilco: Not sure how many lessons can be learned from a season series that would have been tied if the Spurs hadn’t gone supernova in the final quarter of the last meeting.
The Spurs played the Jazz and Lakers twice each in the past four games and still have two home-and-away sets left this season. Is it good or bad to play the same team twice in a short period or time?
Barrington: The playoffs consist of playing the same team at least four times in a row, so it’s good preparation. I was surprised to find out that Pop didn’t like it, but it seems like the kind of situation that would benefit the Spurs, as they’re better than most teams in preparing for specific matchups.
Dubinski: They have their pros and cons. On one hand, you know the team very well going into the second match-up, but of course that plays into the other team’s hands as well. I’d say it’s beneficial when you’re the home team for the second match-up because regardless of how the first game went, you have the advantage of being at home either for revenge or to put your opponent at an even further disadvantage than before. For the Spurs, being at home and the revenge factor paid off against the Jazz and Lakers.
Passos: I know Pop said he didn’t like it when asked about it before the Lakers game, saying it was too similar to a playoff setup, but he certainly seems to have done well with them as of late.
Gomez: I don’t have any evidence to support it, but I feel like it’s bad for the team that wins the first matchup. The team that lost surely wants revenge and they probably have very specific aspects they will focus on improving for the second meeting, while the squad that won likely played well and doesn’t have much to hone in on. As a fan I kind of like it, because it’s fun to watch the adjustments, but I can see why it would be a nuisance for coaches who would much rather move on to the next opponent.
Wilco: I love the home-and-home concept and hope it never goes away. Of course, having three in the same year takes a bit of the novelty off it, but that’s the only negative I see.
The Spurs close the games against the Lakers and Jazz with LaMarcus Aldridge on the bench. Should they continue to do that?
Barrington: Now that Bertans is free, it’s time to unleash the Poeltl! No, but seriously, it’s going to be situational. LaMarcus was in foul trouble against the Jazz, and the offense was flowing with him off the court in both games. I still expect him to be on the court late in most close games, unless someone else has the hot hand.
Dubinski: Not unless there’s a reason to, which coincidentally was the case in both of those games. The Lakers game was more a matter of riding the hot hands of Davis Bertans and Jakob Poeltl than an indictment on Aldridge, and he was in foul trouble against the Jazz. Neither of those situations will always be the case, so we will see fourth-quarter Aldridge again.
Passos: I think the Jazz game was more of a function of Aldridge picking up a fifth personal foul, but I don’t think we’re at the point where they should consider that. Pop will probably keep riding the hot hand that night and you’d think that will include Aldridge more often moving forward.
Gomez: I don’t think so. It’s way too early to give up on Aldridge as a closer, especially considering he’s had some good performance in crunch time this season. It was comforting to see Poeltl do well in high pressure situations, though.
Wilco: I have a theory about these kinds of things that goes something like: The Spurs should do the things that result in them winning games, even if they only do it that one time in that one game.
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