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How the Spurs’ defense fueled the Magic’s comeback

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The loss to Orlando

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

After building a 16 point lead in the 2nd quarter of Friday night’s 111-109 loss to the Magic, the Spurs entered halftime up by 9, seemingly well on their way to a much-needed win. But over the first 7-ish minutes of the 3rd quarter, they gave away enough open looks and easy buckets to lose that lead, finding themselves on the wrong side of a 22-10 stretch that gave the Magic a 3 point lead.

Basketball is a game of runs and sometimes those runs are built on difficult shot-making. Good offense beats good defense, as the saying goes. But this wasn’t that. The Spurs handed the Magic the points they needed to take the lead, which in turn amounted to giving away the game.

After Markelle Fultz missed a free throw line jumper on the Magic’s 1st possession of the 2nd half, Orlando brought Aaron Gordon over a staggered screen on the right side of the floor for a touch at the top of the arc.

Despite Gordon using these screens as gently as any NBA player ever has, DeMar DeRozan trails far behind and has to close out to Gordon’s casual catch and shoot three because he walked through the first 3 seconds of the play. Gordon’s attempt is long, so the Spurs got away with this bit of laziness, but it was more a theme in the making than an isolated incident.

The Magic found another wide open three on their very next play.

Fultz’ drive collapses the defense, causing Trey Lyles to leave Al-Farouq Aminu, who is a poor shooter. That, in itself isn’t such a bad decision. But since LaMarcus Aldridge is already involved in the drive, and his man, Nikola Vucevic, is on the opposite wing, Trey’s help seriously compromises the defense. He’d have been better off staying at the free throw line to zone up between the two open players.

When Fultz kicks it out to Vucevic, Bryn Forbes makes the team’s second mistake of the play, leaving a very good shooter in the corner for a poor opportunity to contest a weaker shooter on the wing. But as soon as Bryn starts moving, Trey should redirect out to the corner. Instead, he comes to a confused halt as Vucevic swings the ball to Fournier while LaMarcus does his best to close out.

The Spurs managed to play a few possessions of acceptable defense in a row after that, though they made just enough contact to give away several free throws that allowed the Magic to keep pace.

With just under 7 minutes to go in the quarter, Gordon again caught DeMar flat-footed.

After a nice dive and difficult bounce pass out to Rudy Gay in the corner, DeMar picks up Gordon in transition. The Spurs appear, for a moment, to have the Magic contained. Bryn Forbes is guarding Aminu on the block, but forcing the Magic to run their offense through Aminu, even when he has a mismatch, isn’t the worst thing in the world. But DeMar just stands there as Gordon cuts baseline, taking a handoff from Aminu on his way to the rim. Only Derrick White’s early help prevents the dunk.

A common tactic on plays like this is for the player guarding the post to switch on the handoff. But DeMar should be dropping behind Aminu if that’s the plan, but he instead tries to disrupt the handoff the last moment. It’s hard to tell what the team wants the two to do in this situation, but you can bet this isn’t it.

A minute and a half later, Fultz tied the game on another defensive breakdown that’s difficult to watch.

Bryn jumps up to deny the screen, but Jakob Poeltl is still attached to Vucevic, giving Fultz an open runway to the rim. It’s hard to say who’s at fault here, though the big would typically call the coverage. If Jakob told Bryn to deny the screen when he was out of position or the game plan dictated playing the screen this way, it’s Jakob’s fault. If Bryn made that decision on his own, then those 2 points are on him. Either way, that bucket tied the game, and the Spurs would give away the lead on the very next play.

Again, DeMar makes a nice play, though his drop off to Jakob was a little too hot to handle. Instead of hustling back down the floor, though, DeMar takes a moment to get going. Despite a little accidental interference from one of their own players, the Magic end up with Fournier wide open on the wing with an extra second to really line up the shot before DeMar finally trails into the picture to throw a late contest at a shot that was good before it ever left Fournier’s hands.

The Spurs’ defense, as currently constructed is adequate at best. They make opposing offenses work for their points when all 5 players on the floor are communicating and covering for each other. Often, given the caliber of the individual defenders the Spurs have on the court, the shots they give up aren’t especially difficult, but for the most part, they aren’t what the offense is looking for, either.

That’s the best case scenario for a good chunk of the current rotation. The worst case scenario is what happened on these 5 plays. There’s no way to play good defense with multiple defenders taking plays off, making bad decisions and not communicating. As with any loss, there are numerous reasons why the team came up short. Poor defensive rebounding was a big one in Friday’s game and the team has a pretty legitimate beef about the free throw disparity as well, but if they really want to win games, they need to start by playing every possession like it matters.