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What we learned from the Spurs loss to the Kings

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Individual and team consistency remains a big hurdle for these Spurs.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The Kings are a bad match-up for the Spurs, and I don’t think that’s something that was just learned last night. They are young, athletic, play at a quick pace, push the ball in transition regardless of whether it’s off a made or missed basket, and have a stockpile of good shooters. They are basically everything that makes life difficult for this iteration of the Spurs.

Fortunately, one thing they have not done is make the Spurs sweat for a spot in the playoffs. Unlike last season, there aren’t 3-4 teams vying for the last two spots with everything coming down to what happens on the closing nights. In an odd twist for the still extremely tough West, all 8 playoff spots have been secured with most teams having around six games remaining, but as multiple games showed last night, that doesn’t mean the teams that are out are no longer a threat.

For the Spurs, what matters now is seeding, and as has been the case often this season, they blew a golden opportunity. With the Thunder losing at home to the Mavericks earlier in the day, the Spurs had a chance to give themselves a two-game cushion from the 8th seed (counting the fact that they own the tie breaker over OKC) and out of the Warriors’ path — who also gained a game on the Nuggets for the top seed yesterday — but instead once again put in a listless performance against a team that is already out of the playoff hunt and back in a position where the need to match or out-perform another team to get what they want (or at least avoid what they don’t want).

The Spurs still control their own destiny in terms of staying out of the 8th seed, and as much they will tell you they aren’t watching the standings, they are. Not only do they not want to face the Warriors for a third playoff series in a row, but last night showed why. When they play like they care, the Warriors are basically the Kings on steroids, plus a much better defense. On the other hand, the Nuggets are the exact type of team the Spurs are built to beat: slow, inexperienced, and not overly reliant on three-pointers (where the Spurs are the most defensively challenged).

However, if the Spurs want that match-up, they have to start playing like it. It is well known at this point that they are no sure thing on the road this season, but the level of play at home lately has dropped off severely. They are just 1-2 in their last three home games, each against teams with losing records, and the lone win requiring some unnecessary heroics on a night when they shouldn’t have needed the extra motivation to play hard throughout. When consistency at home goes AWOL, the Spurs are in trouble.

They have another gear that they haven’t played with in their current 2-4 stretch; it was visible in the 9-game winning streak that came before it. With just five games left in the regular season, the Spurs need to find that level of play and consistency again; otherwise it will be just another first round exit regardless of the match-up. While it’s easy to just look towards the future and say that regardless of the postseason outcome, next season is one to be excited about, a better playoffs performance first still wouldn’t hurt anyone’s psyche heading into the long summer.

Takeaways

  • While the Spurs have struggled getting consistent performances from multiple role players lately, I’m not worried about Patty Mills. He’s been in a bit of shooting slump, hitting just 4-20 from three over the last 3 games, and it’s no secret missing outside shots bogs down the offense, provides long rebounds for teams to get out in transition, and the Spurs don’t have the defense on a nightly basis to stop teams that thrive in those scenarios — like the Kings. Mills hit just 1-7 from three last night, but he kept shooting because that’s what shooters do. None of them were bad shots, and there’s no getting out of a shooting slump without continuing to shoot the ball. Most importantly, he almost always ups his game during the playoffs. Everyone goes through shooting slumps, but if there’s one player who will never let that slow him down, it’s Mills. Keeping shooting, Patty.
  • Does anyone play a more quiet but vital role for a team on a nightly basis than Derrick White? His game doesn’t stand out in any way. Sometimes the game can be over and you don’t even know if he had a good or bad shooting night. He’s not a centerpiece of the Spurs offense, but he is the engine that makes it run, and one thing is for sure: when he struggles (or just flat out misses games), the Spurs struggle. His last six games are yet another example of that in a season full of them. Even though he doesn’t stick out when he’s shooting well, he’s shot just 26% from the field over the last six games while averaging 3 fewer points than his season average, and the numbers are even less friendly if you eliminate his 18-point performance in a loss to the Rockets. The Spurs need more than just the Mid Three to score to win games, and while White isn’t the first name that comes to mind when you think of the next man up on offense, he needs to be. Everything around him hums better when he’s on his game, so hopefully he returns to form soon.
  • Let me start this off by saying the refs are NOT the reason the Spurs lost this game. Sure, the away team doubling them on FT attempts at home is a little unusual, but a lot of that can be associated with the Spurs’ own lack of aggression and shot selection. That being said, fourth-year official Tyler Ford has had a really bad week. After garnering plenty of bad press for carelessly stepping on Jusuf Nurkic’s broken leg (there’s even a petition out there for his firing!), he triggered Pop’s first ejection of the season with a couple of horrible calls on back-to-back plays in the third quarter. The first one might even fall in the top five of worst calls I’ve ever seen. To recap, White passes the ball to Bryn Forbes in the corner. Almost instantly, De’Aaron Fox flies into White on the way to contesting Forbes’ three. The two fall onto Forbes as he hits the shot, but it’s inexplicably waived off by Ford for an offensive foul. If nothing else, this is a no call if you want to call it incidental contact between White and Fox. If it is a foul, it’s a shooting foul on Fox since he initiates the contact with White and knocks him into the shooter, and in this case Forbes should have had a chance at a four-point play. It appeared Pop was going to let that call slide, but when Ford wrongly called the very next play out of bounds on the Spurs, Pop lost it. Maybe he wanted to fire his team up (and they needed it), but his face was redder than Jakob Poeltl’s sunburned shoulders. He wasn’t faking disgust in this case. The 6-point swing (including the two technical free throws) didn’t help the Spurs’ cause down the stretch, but again, this loss is not on the refs.
  • MARCO WATCH: One role player who has been relatively consistent lately (at least more so than the others) is Marco Belinelli. While he only hit 2-6 from three last night and predictably had trouble defending the Kings’ guards (I’ve been watching Game of Thrones lately so looking for a pun. . .nope, moving on), he still was the only role player besides Forbes who contributed much offensively in this game, and this beauty of a play was one of them. The pump fake, little give-and-go with LaMarcus Aldridge, moving he ball around in the air so Kosta Koufos can’t block it, and the beautiful fadeaway for the and-one is just so Marco. And that was after the smoothest of smooth lay-ups on the prior possession.