Jakob Poeltl was pretty great in game five. And that concludes the positive portion of this article.
This series has been tough on me. The Spurs were on the verge of taking both road games to start the series, which would have made a sweep a real possibility. Yes, that’s right. A sweep. Seems hard to believe, but it’s true. Fast forward to game five and the Spurs are on the verge of being eliminated and look absolutely dejected. What’s been so tough is I never felt the Spurs were overachieving in the first seven quarters of the series, so such a major shift in momentum has been difficult to grasp.
Some things don’t make sense I guess. Like why did LaMarcus Aldridge sit out the entire fourth quarter in a ten point deficit at home in game four yet play the first six minutes of the fourth quarter in game five with the Spurs down by 30 points?
The series isn’t over yet - it’s first to four wins and the Nuggets only have three - but even the most optimistic of Spurs fans must be finding it difficult to find any rational reason to believe the Spurs can win the next two games of the series. It’s dangerous to question the desire of the team - one can never know what’s going on inside another person’s head - but from the outside looking in, it sure seems as though the Spurs have been lacking any semblance of a spark. Not sure if it comes down to leadership or what, but I wish the Spurs would at least go down swinging.
The Nuggets’ approach in this series has been to stay glued to the shooters, forcing the Spurs to beat them from inside. As I mentioned in my series preview article, I thought the Spurs’ offense was very difficult to defend because of their ability to score from all levels of the court. Here’s an excerpt from the article:
The Spurs 43.3% from midrange is the fourth highest mark in the NBA. Though the Spurs take a lot of midrange shots, what makes the Spurs’ offense so dangerous is that they can beat their opponent from anywhere on the court. The Spurs are the top team in the NBA in three point and free throw percentage. They are also fifth in the NBA in shooting percentage inside the restricted area and first in the NBA in shooting percentage inside the painted area (non-restricted).
The Spurs’ struggles from distance in this series has been well documented by now. They struggled again in game five, making only 7 of their 24 looks, good for 29 percent. Their diversity in offensive scoring has been the only thing that has kept their offense afloat in the first four games of the series. The Spurs came into game five having made 66.7% of their 99 attempts inside the restricted area, good for the third highest percentage out of the 16 playoff teams. They had also made 50% of their 70 shots from the non-restricted paint area, which was 1st out of all the teams in the playoffs.
In game five, the Spurs attempted even more shots from the painted area than they had in the first four games of the series, which should have been a good thing. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. The Spurs shot 10-24 from inside the restricted area, which is a ridiculously low 41.7%. To put that number into perspective, an average of 41.7% this series would have put the Spurs dead last out of all 16 playoff teams by a margin of five percent. So yeah, it wasn’t pretty. To make matters worse, the Spurs only hit 45% of their 22 shots from inside the non-restricted paint area. Coach Pop mentioned this in his postgame interview:
We missed a lot of chippys in the first half. It could have been a much more even game in the first half. We missed a lot at the rim.
The Spurs’ free throw shooting has also taken a huge dip in the playoffs. It’s a make or miss league, and if a team can’t hit from the outside, the inside, or shots that are considered free, they aren’t going to find success unless they have an elite defense. The Spurs’ defense is a lot of things, but elite is not one of those things. The Spurs are letting the middle-of-the-road offense of the Nuggets look like the second coming of the Golden State Warriors. It’s been painful to watch.
If I were to summarize game five in one play, it would be the play that ended the first half. Patty Mills found Aldridge rolling to the rim for what was a wide open layup. Making this layup would have cut the Spurs’ deficit down to single-digits heading into the second half. Aldridge missed the bunny, and Mills tilted his head up towards the rafters with a look of “how has it come to this?”
Well it has come to this. The Spurs must win game six in San Antonio on Thursday to take the series to a winner-take-all game seven in Denver on Saturday. Damian Lillard did the Spurs a favor from a scheduling standpoint by going nuclear against the Oklahoma City Thunder in game five of their series. His game winning three pointer from well beyond 30 feet closed out the series. The Portland Trail Blazers’ win pushes the Spurs’ game six start time back an hour, giving fans an extra hour to beat traffic and get to the AT&T center on time. The last thing the Spurs need right now is a half-empty arena to start the game. Start time for game six is 7:00PM CST.
Notes from the game
- Transition defense continues to be a major issue for the Spurs. They were the worst team in the NBA during the regular season using Points Per Possession (PPP) as the metric, and they have been the worst team in the playoffs. Their PPP of 1.323 is killing the Spurs, especially on the road. The Nuggets had 17 fast break points to the Spurs’ 8 in game five, which is less-than-ideal.
- Coach Pop said during his postgame interview that “we’ve gotta have more guys playing well, for sure.” There’s no realistic adjustments the Spurs can make if half of their players are unable to contribute. Is Pop supposed to play the starters the entire 48 minutes? Is he supposed to play the end of the bench players just to see what happens? The Spurs just aren’t deep enough for such a tactic. If it’s one player, then I get it, but it’s the entire bench unit. You kinda gotta roll with the guys who got you there at this point. Mills has at least shown effort, which is more than can be said of Rudy Gay. His play and effort in this series could end up hurting his free agency this summer.
- This series has exposed what I feel most of us knew but didn’t want to come to terms with. The Spurs have a lot of one-dimensional role players, which seems to have made it easy for the Nuggets’ coaching staff to plan against in a seven-game series. I’ve never seen a team find so much success neutralizing half a team the way the Nuggets have neutralized the Spurs’ role players.
- It’s not all on the bench unit though. Aldridge’s numbers may not look terrible on paper - they don’t look great - but he’s had a tough time this series. He’s had trouble getting to his spots, and when he has, he’s missed a bunch of shots that he would normally make.
- DeMar DeRozan resorted to a heavy dosage of hero ball in the second quarter, and it didn’t really work out very well for the Spurs. I don’t know if he’s lost trust in his teammates, but the Nuggets are moving the ball around, generating open looks while the Spurs are relying far too much on isolation plays. The Spurs’ passing numbers are down in the playoffs by almost every metric. The Spurs passed the ball around 281 times in the regular season but only 238 in the playoffs. Their assist, secondary (hockey) assist, potential assist percentage, and assist points created numbers are all down quite a bit in the playoffs. This lack of ball-movement is making the Nuggets’ defense look even better than it is.
- Derrick White’s foul troubles reared its ugly head in game five. He got two fouls over the span of just seconds in the first half and got his fourth foul only a minute into the third quarter, forcing him out of the game. The Spurs were already down 13 points when White left the game, and when he returned with three minutes to go in the third quarter, the deficit had ballooned to 22 points. Hindsight is 20/20, but I wouldn’t have taken White out after his fourth foul. The game was already on the precipice of being out of reach, so sitting the Spurs’ one and only perimeter defender in a pivotal game five seemed ill-advised.