The 2019 edition of the Spurs’ Rodeo Road Trip has not gotten off to the best of starts: double-digit losses to both the up-and-coming Sacramento Kings and the defending champion Warriors in Oracle, followed by a 9-point loss last night to the Portland Trail Blazers where they once again gave up a near-40 point quarter (39 in the 2nd). Defensive incompetency and a habit for playing loose with the ball (44 combined turnovers over the first 3 games of the RRT) is hardly a recipe for success for a team that has to bring it every night in order to stay competitive, let alone win and move up the standings.
A match-up with the Utah Jazz, one of the hotter teams in the NBA over the last month, is going to be a significant test. This is the same Jazz team that beat on the Spurs to the tune of 139-105 when they met in Utah back in December. The Spurs would repay the favor with a 110-97 victory of their own a few nights later as part of that 6-game home stand that turned their season around after a rocky start to the year.
San Antonio Spurs (32-25) @ Utah Jazz (31-24)
February 9, 2019| 4:00 PM CT
Watch: FSSW | Listen: WOAI
Spurs injuries: Dejounte Murray (knee — out), Derrick White (heel — out)
Jazz injuries: Dante Exum (ankle — out), Tony Bradley (knee — out), Thabo Sefolosha (hamstring — questionable)
Transition defense has to be better
Let’s just make something clear, in case you weren’t up to speed yet: The Spurs have not been a good defensive team this team. With a 22nd ranked defense, they lack players on the wing who are capable of minimizing penetration by opposing guards. Though Derrick White has helped immensely since being inserted into the starting lineup, he’s been sidelined until after the All Star Break, leaving an already suspect group even more vulnerable.
Here are two things that the Spurs have to do in order to give their defense a puncher’s chance of staying in games. The first (and simplest) is to make shots. Forcing the other team to take the ball out of their own basket gives San Antonio a chance to get back and set their defense. While the defense clearly isn’t the best in the NBA, it’s still much harder to score against any set defense instead of running roughshod in transition against one that is scrambling.
The second? Stop turning the ball over. The Spurs have given up a combined 44 turnovers in 3 games to start the Rodeo Road Trip and have been outscored on the fast break an astonishing 103-27. Turnovers are life-force for an opposing defense, allowing for easy baskets against either no defense or one struggling to match-up quickly. Utah is middle of-the-pack in opponent turnovers per game (12th overall, forcing about 15 a game).
The Spurs need to get back to valuing the basketball, especially their lead assist man, DeMar DeRozan.
DeRozan: Turnover Machine?
Staying on the topic of turnovers, DeRozan has simply been way too loose with the basketball over the last month. He has made great strides as a passer this year but still has some poor habits that will put a limit on what he can do when looking to set-up teammates. One of his worst habits is leaving his feet to pass the ball:
A fundamental rule of passing the basketball: Do NOT leave your feet to make a pass. It leaves you stranded in the event that no one is open. pic.twitter.com/WQM91SgYYD— Basketball Watch (@BasketballWatc1) February 8, 2019
As I noted in this tweet, leaving your feet to make a pass generally leaves you in a bad place. Once in the air, you MUST get rid of the ball or risk coming down and causing a turnover anyway. While this ends up being a dead-ball turnover, it shows a lack of commitment from DeRozan, who makes up his mind last second to try and force the ball out to Marco Belinelli rather than take a shot over Jusuf Nurkic.
He had another moment like this earlier in the game, where he got a Blazer in the air but chose at the last second to try an errant pass out towards a semi-covered Marco:
Derozan failing to commit to a shot, leaning in for a foul, or a pass pic.twitter.com/vqLhDjZePT— Basketball Watch (@BasketballWatc1) February 8, 2019
He has the option of stepping through and laying the ball up on this possession but once again fails to commit until the very last second and ends up making a mistake.
This pass is an example of just a horrible read, as he throws an entry pass into LaMarcus Aldridge, who is more or less triple-covered:
DeMar looking like Jared Goff in last week’s Super Bowl. Two guys are fronting Aldridge and there’s a 3rd behind him. pic.twitter.com/hpg4X1iboB— Basketball Watch (@BasketballWatc1) February 8, 2019
While this turnover didn’t cost the Spurs any points, its an example of how important situational awareness is at this level. DeRozan was hunting a mismatch for Aldridge, but he didn’t realize that he had his own mismatch with Nurkic guarding him out on the perimeter. That’s the sort of thing elite guards dream all day about.
I know its sort of cruel to nitpick DeMar when he was responsible for 35 points on 14/28 shooting and his turnovers only led to 2 points for the Blazers, but he still led the team in turnovers when he probably could have had more points. DeRozan has shown an ability to be a very good leading ball-handler, but he needs to work on quicker reads on plays and finding a balance between when he should score the ball and when he should pass to a teammate.
Seal early and quickly, LaMarcus
Aldridge, who was just announced as a Western Conference All Star reserve and was drafted by Team LeBron, will have his hands full with reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, but luckily, he’s had success against Utah’s defense this year, going 7-10 for 16 points in the first match-up and 10-15 for 20 points in the rematch at home. Here’s his shot charts from both of those games:
In the 2nd game, Aldridge put more pressure on Gobert to guard in the paint. Watch how he operates in the pick and roll with White on this play and how Gobert has to move to stay with him:
It’ll be important for him to mix it up with jumpers, deep seals, and hard rolls to the rim. The Spurs were outscored 66-36 Wednesday against Golden State and 60-48 in the paint in their last two games. Aldridge is the hub of their offense in the paint, and it’s essential that he finds a way to get it going and put pressure on the defense.
Vegas Line: Utah by 6
Prediction: Spurs by 6
For the opponents’ perspective, check out SLC Dunk.
PtR’s Gamethread will be up this afternoon for those who want to chat through the game. You can also follow along with the action through PtR’s Twitter feed.