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Defenseless Spurs visit Timberwolves, lose third straight

Same song. Third verse. Could get better. But...

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Minnesota Timberwolves Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The San Antonio Spurs came into this game having just suffered a loss at home against the Memphis Grizzlies on a night Tony Parker had his jersey retired. In a vacuum that isn’t a big deal. The Spurs have never been immune to losing games they should win during the long and grueling regular season. The difference between those seasons and this one is that those previous iterations of the Spurs would have come out like gangbusters the next game. That was not the case against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The Spurs’ starters characteristically started the game slow against the Timberwolves, putting the Spurs behind the eight ball early. They followed up their slow start by giving up 40 points in both the second and third quarters. The only reason the game wasn’t a total laugher after three quarters was that the Timberwolves are also defensively-challenged, and the Spurs were able to take advantage.

Unfortunately, any chance the Spurs had of winning heading into the fourth quarter was quickly erased when the offense went ice cold. The Spurs didn’t make their first field goal until halfway through the quarter, and by that time the game was just a formality. A 114-129 loss felt about right, and the Spurs have now lost three straight and are sitting at 5-6 on the season.

More concerning than their record is that the Spurs look unmotivated, undisciplined, and unfocused right now. The players seem to have great chemistry off the court, but it’s not translating on the court. The Spurs’ whole is typically greater than the sum of its parts, but the opposite seems true this season. On paper the Spurs have a lot of talent, but there’s not much synergy to that talent. It’s undeniable that the Spurs are trying to fit some square pegs into round holes, but the Spurs’ issues seem deeper than the construction of the roster.

I’ll leave the X’s and O’s discussion to Charlie O’Charles, but the Spurs are consistently missing defensive assignments and are getting destroyed by both the ball-handler and those players moving without the ball, whether it be from open spot up shots or cuts to the basket. There’s little help defense, and when there is, the other players do not rotate quick enough to make offenses pay. When the perimeter player gets beat by the ball-handler, the paint is typically wide open. When the Spurs do get a stop, I feel like the other team gets an offensive rebound. This is oftentimes the result of poor boxing out and effort. I’m not sure there’s a single positive thing to say about the Spurs’ defense thus far.

There was a play in the second quarter when Jeff Teague was bringing the ball up the court and nobody thought to guard him. He casually strolled up the court, completely unguarded, and hit an uncontested three. Rudy Gay was playing center field, looking directly at Teague, but made no effort to contest the shot. The Spurs’ players were visibly frustrated and Pop promptly caused a timeout so that he could yell at Gay.

That play is a microcosm of the Spurs’ defensive effort so far this season. The Spurs will look to rebound on Friday on the road against the Orlando Magic. The Magic are coming off a win against the Philadelphia 76ers, so the Spurs need to try something new and get off to a good start or they may be in for another long, frustrating night of basketball.

Game notes

  • The Spurs’ starters have made a habit out of falling behind early, as evidenced by their -25.7 net rating in 50 minutes of first quarter action. This game was no different, falling behind 8-16 midway through the first quarter before Dejounte Murray was substituted for Derrick White. Conversely, the Spurs’ starters have a +10.8 net rating in 40 minutes of third quarter action and were able to outscore the Timberwolves by five points before Murray was substituted for White. Maybe it’s too small of a sample size to draw any major conclusions, but it’s certainly fair to say the starting lineup is not getting it done thus far this season.
  • Dejounte Murray has struggled the past three games, fueling the fire of those who believe White should replace Murray in the starting lineup. Murray was able to pad his stats in garbage time, but really struggled on both ends of the court when the game was still in question. To be fair, White wasn’t much better against the Timberwolves. I do believe Murray has a higher ceiling than White, but White helped stabilize the starting unit last season. His more methodical approach to the game better aligns with the starters, whereas Murray’s run and gun style seems to fit better with the bench unit. That said, last season the starters with White were still inferior to the majority of the teams that made the playoffs, so this move isn’t likely to be a game changer. The Spurs’ issues are far deeper than which one of their young, talented guards should start. Perhaps the answer is both?
  • Using analytics to judge individual defense can be tricky at best, so I typically rely on the eye test. Two seasons ago Murray was named to all-defensive second team, but he’s not yet a great one-on-one defender. He’s very aggressive, but he has the tendency to overreact to the ball-handlers moves, allowing the defender to blow past him. This happened on several occasions against the Timberwolves. Where Murray really excels is as a help defender. The problem is that help defenders are only effective when they have other smart, capable defenders who are able to successfully rotate when necessary. Murray had this in Danny Green and Kyle Anderson two seasons ago, but this season there’s nobody out there who can provide help when needed. Maybe this is another reason to experiment with Murray and White in the starting lineup. White can play on the ball with Murray roaming off ball.
  • The elephant in the room is that if both White and Murray are inserted into the starting lineup and Marco Belinelli remains in the rotation, the Spurs’ bench unit will consist of Patty Mills, Bryn Forbes, and Belinelli. A solution would be to replace Belinelli with DeMarre Carroll, something I’m all for.
  • Aldridge and DeRozan scored 50 efficient points, which was nice to see, but it doesn’t matter when the Spurs are lacking any semblance of individual and team defense.