Last Thursday, the Golden State Warriors upset the San Antonio Spurs. That’s not really something people say. But for 40 minutes, the Spurs seemed to have figured out something that was allowing them to upset the Warriors. Sure, it was made easier with Stephen Curry out of the game, but the team was playing together quite well. But then Kevin Durant did...well, he did what Kevin Durant does. And with moments left, what had been a big Spurs lead ended with yet another winnable game turning into a loss.
Fourth period collapses have come in all shapes and sizes for the Silver and Black in 2018. When the Spurs put the clamps down on OKC’s stars this past Saturday, they couldn’t contain the bench, and that loss to the Thunder clinched the franchise’s first losing road season for 20 years.
Which leads to the questions- what other streaks might Spurs fans see come to an end this year? A continued series of 50-win seasons looks highly improbable. But more importantly, the Spurs playoff hopes might be fading as 10 Western Conference teams complete for 8 available slots. Monday night for the first time this season, the Spurs moved to the have not side of the playoff picture, and currently sit in the 10th seed.
This week our esteemed Pounding the Rock contributors Bruno Passos, Jesus Gomez, Mark Barrington, Marilyn Dubinski, and editor-in-chief J. R. Wilco discuss these topics as well as how heckling has affected the game and how it is being handled throughout the league.
Questions are posed to our authors each Sunday and reflect the previous week. For conversations about the Spurs trip to Houston as well as the impending home stand, check back next Tuesday.
Spurs nearly pulled off an unexpected win in Oakland. What kept the Silver & Black competitive so deep into the game?
Bruno Passos: Not to short-change the short-handed Spurs, but the Warriors’ net rating drops from +14.7 with Steph Curry on the floor to +4.9 when he’s off, making them a somewhat beatable team when forced to lean on just three All-Stars. San Antonio gave them a good run but, like many times this season, it wasn’t enough.
Jesus Gomez: There were a lot of elements at play. The Spurs match up well against the Warriors. At least as good as any team can match up with them. Curry barely played. Golden State missed from outside. Aldridge was in great form. It’s actually a shame the Spurs couldn’t close it out, because a lot of factors seemed to conspire to give them a chance.
Mark Barrington: It was really the absence of Steph Curry. The Warriors can play hero ball with Durant for a few minutes a game and dominate a less talented team like the Spurs, but the player that drives their offense is Curry. They’ve lost two games in a row without him, and it probably should have been three.
Marilyn Dubinski: The absence of Steph Curry never hurts, but probably the biggest key beyond that is Klay Thompson didn’t step up and score in his absence. Some of that can be attributed to the Spurs’ perimeter defense being able to focus primarily on him while letting Durant iso-away from two. LaMarcus Aldridge finally finding success on offense against Draymond Green didn’t hurt, either.
J.R. Wilco: The Spurs played about as well as they can without Kawhi, and the Warriors had a bad Curry-less game. But when it came to the 4th and it was obvious the Spurs weren’t going to take themselves out of it, the Warriors exerted their full effort and suddenly San Antonio couldn’t score or get a stop. Whenever you see a team stick for three quarters and lose down the stretch, it’s usually due to nothing more than talent differential. Often times, great teams don’t have to play as hard as they’re able in order to get wins, but when it comes down to it and they actually have to try, then the game suddenly looks different and people end up asking what happened. Talent happened; end of story.
With the loss to the Thunder the Spurs won’t have a winning road record for the first time in 20 years. Why has this iteration struggled so much on the road?
Passos: Missing Kawhi obviously hurts, but the other holes in the usual Spurs system have also contributed. No lineup continuity, a high reliance on role players, and the change at point guard have made this team more susceptible to lapses than we’re used to.
Gomez: Surprisingly, the veterans have been much worse on the road. You expect younger, inexperienced players to struggle in foreign arenas. That’s been the case, to a degree. They get a pass. But Manu Ginobili, Pau Gasol and Tony Parker haven’t been able to cover for them. They’ve really struggled with scoring efficiently away from the AT&T Center. Considering the offense has been the main issue on the road, their struggles seem to be one of the main reasons for the poor record.
Barrington: The reason why the Spurs are not doing well on the road is pretty obvious, and it’s something you’ve heard at least a billion times by this point of the season. I’m only exaggerating slightly. They’ve been hamstrung by injuries all season and they are having to put backups and role players in key positions. Backups always play better at home, whereas star players’ talents travel well, like a fine Bordeaux. It doesn’t help that the top of the Western Conference is packed with talent this year, and they aren’t cutting the Spurs any breaks for missing their best players on the court.
Dubinski: Injuries, inconsistent line-ups, role players being asked to come through in the clutch...there’s almost too many factors to count. If I recall last year correctly, the Spurs weren’t as impressive on the road as their 31-10 record would have suggested; they just had Kawhi Leonard coming up on the road a lot. As recent losses might suggest, they miss him mightily in the clutch.
Wilco: All of the above, as well as not enough corporate knowledge. Davis Bertans and Anderson and LMA haven’t played together well enough for all of them to know what each other is going to do in crunch time when the chips are down. So you’re seeing mediocre play hurt them more often than we’re used to with the Spurs. I guess you could say it amounts to growing pains. Kawhi would have turned a number of those Ls to Ws, but the underlying problem is that the team is still learning to play together.
The Spurs held Carmelo Anthony and Paul George to a combined 13 points on 24 shots on Saturday night. Did they do something right to force that tough night from two stars or did they just get lucky?
Passos: The Spurs still have quality defenders that can slow down pretty much any guy in this league. They rotated well to help each other out on Saturday, forcing guys like Melo, George and Russ to face multiple levels of defense on most possessions.
Gomez: I couldn’t pay that game the attention it deserved and I haven’t gotten around to re-watching it, but I remember some misses that could have gone in. Luck always plays a part when good scorers have bad nights. Still, the Spurs’ defense deserves credit for making things hard for them.
Barrington: The Thunder were getting so much production from their bench, especially Jerami Grant, that they didn’t really need much scoring from their underutilized and somewhat poorly fitting superstars. Even Russell Westbrook wasn’t exactly dominating until the second half. Billy Donovan just went with what was working. I wouldn’t necessarily call that luck.
Dubinski: I’ll have to take everyone else’s word for it since I was at a wedding during this game and only caught it in glimpses on my phone. Still, defense has been the one consistency with the Spurs, and the combination of Kyle Anderson, LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay are very capable of holding players below their averages.
Wilco: I haven’t seen OKC do much of anything to set Anthony up this year (maybe I’ve just been watching the wrong games), and George was happy to defer as long as everyone else was putting the ball through the net. Essentially, why not take a game off when the bench is scorching like it was? Except for Russ, who of course can’t ever take a game off — even if it’s an All Star Game.
The Spurs are currently 10th in the West. They are 2-8 in their last 10 games. The remaining schedule is brutal. How worried are you about their chances of making the playoffs?
Passos: A few weeks ago, I gave them a 60% chance of making it. Now I’m below 50%, the light is fading, and I’m not sure how much help Leonard will be if he does get reinserted in the grueling final month of the season. I’ve resigned myself to seeking out hope not in the arduous climb back up, but in the precarious march deeper into the crevasse.
Gomez: I’m still optimistic about their chances. The schedule is tough but nine of the last 15 games will be at home, where the Spurs have been much better than on the road. Kawhi Leonard could be back for the last 14, according to reports. I think they’ll figure out a way to get into the postseason.
Barrington: I’ve decided to be zen about it. If the Spurs miss, I’ll hope for a draft lottery miracle and a super high pick. If the Spurs somehow go on a winning streak and get in as a lower seed, I hope they fight like hell to make it to the second round. Whichever way it goes, I’ll try to enjoy the trip.
Dubinski: Difficult as it is, I’m forcing myself to accept it as a possibility. Of course, reports of Leonard returning only makes that all the more difficult. As I mentioned in the power rankings, Leonard or not, what the Spurs do on this upcoming six-game home-stand will be a big deciding factor in how this season goes down.
Wilco: I’m not worried at all. I fully expect them to miss the playoffs and give San Antonio its first lottery experience in 20 years.
A fan was ejected from the Moda Center on Friday night for a verbal exchange with Kevin Durant. It’s not the first time a member of the audience has been escorted out this season. Is the league overreacting by cracking down on heckling or is it doing the right thing by protecting the players?
Passos: Like with anything, it’s the kind of situation that’s best handled with nuance and on a case-by-case basis. Was the heckling abusive? Was the man given a warning? Was it racist or threatening in nature? As long as the right people are making the decisions, I’m happy for arenas to have the authority to eject fans that cross that occasionally-gray line.
Gomez: It’s tempting to say that players should deal with it. In South American and European basketball arenas — not to mention soccer stadiums — players deal with a ridiculous amount of abuse and manage to play through it. It’s not that big of a deal, right? Then I remember that there’s no barrier separating fans and players and Malice in the Palace images come flooding in. Just a while ago, a fan essentially confronted Russell Westbrook on the sideline. Westbrook remained calm and simply shoved him away lightly, but there could have been a more serious physical altercation. So I’m fine with pretty much every measure designed to discourage and prevent truly antagonistic interactions between fans and players.
Barrington: I think good-natured verbal exchanges between players and fans are OK, but screamed insults and racial comments should be result in ejections. I have always enjoyed Spike Lee having conversations with players on the court, and I would hate to see that kind of fan interaction removed from the game. Basketball is the only professional sport in the US where fans are so close to the game and a little interaction is fun, as long as its not disruptive.
Dubinski: It depends. If the heckling is abusive or offensive in any way then the fan should be removed. If it is physical or preventing the player from doing his job (beyond a player choosing to respond to a seated fan while the game is in action), then the fan should be removed. It’s a case-by-case situation, but league and arena operators should have the power to remove someone if they are preventing the event from anything except a game experience.
Wilco: Players should be expected to endure nothing more than good-natured ribbing. If the heckling starts leaning toward verbal abuse, I’m fine with the perpetrators being escorted out. Remember, it’s not just the multi-million dollar earners being protected, everyone sitting around the heckler is usually having their NBA experience ruined when loud-mouthed blowhards don’t know when it’s enough.
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