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What 4 points in 9 minutes means for the Spurs’ future

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Using San Antonio’s last game as a lens to analyze their summer and next season.

NBA: Playoffs-San Antonio Spurs at Denver Nuggets Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs dug themselves a hole early in their game 7 loss on Saturday night, and they were never quite able to climb out. The issue, in a rare reversal, wasn’t the team’s defense; they just couldn’t score.

With 3 minutes to go in the quarter, the Spurs were down 17-4 having hit only 2 of their 19 shots. It was easily the most inept stretch of offensive basketball the team has played this season. Even after scoring 9 points over those last few minutes, the Spurs’ finished the quarter with an offensive rating of 56.5, their worst 1st quarter of the year.

While it’s unfortunate that they played so poorly to start the game, it’s also instructive, as the issues aren’t going to disappear — in fact, it’s possible these problems will follow them into next season.

Here, for your viewing edification, are all 19 shots the Spurs’ took in the first 9 minutes of game 7.

That’s 8 contested jumpers, three somewhat open jumpers, an off-balance floater, a pair of catch-and-shoot threes (one from 28 feet), a couple of blocked shots, 2 open layups and a missed tip-in. Almost nothing was in rhythm and nobody looked comfortable.

It would be easy to fall back on a narrative explanation, chalking it up to pressure or nerves and assuming they’ll do better now that they have this experience under their collective belt. But that sort of hand-waving essentially punts on an opportunity to learn more about the team’s weaknesses and consider how they’ll affect it’s future.

That’s especially important here because it’s not like the Spurs were shut down by a juggernaut. The Nuggets are a good defensive team, 11th in the league in defensive rating in the regular season per Cleaning the Glass, but by no means elite.

They have good post defenders in Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap, and a deep rotation of athletic wings and ball-handlers, but nobody on this team is even going to get looked at for All-Defense. They shouldn’t be able to put the Spurs in a straight jacket like this for this kind of extended period.

And yet they did. The Nuggets, fearing only one shooter, helped aggressively off three different players: Derrick White, DeMar DeRozan, and Jakob Poeltl. From the Spurs’ very first possession, it was clear the Nuggets were going to push that tactic as far as it could go.

Here’s Jokic completely ignoring Poeltl to monitor LaMarcus Aldridge while Millsap recovers from a screen.

Once Millsap is back in position, Jokic picks up Poeltl again. Then, as soon as LMA starts backing down, Gary Harris leaves White to double team him. With Bryn Forbes at the top of the key, it makes sense to bring the double from elsewhere, so that’s not necessarily remarkable. How Torrey Craig plays his weak-side responsibilities, though, is.

Aldridge has already kicked the ball out to Forbes, who’s about to swing it to White on the right wing. Craig has both feet in the paint at the top hash, wholly unconcerned about leaving either White or DeRozan open at the three point line. Once the ball’s in the air, he moves toward White while Harris rotates out to DeRozan in the corner.

But neither of them are in a hurry, able to close out with an almost casual disdain because they’re more than willing to give up a contested jumper.

With Millsap and Jokic down on the blocks, Craig squared up in front of him, and only a handful of seconds on the shot clock, White has few options, but gets off a difficult step back three that rims out.

Just a few minutes later, Harris left White again to deter DeRozan from driving.

Harris commits all the way to the top of the restricted area until DeRozan crosses back to his left. Jokic drops with DeRozan the entire way, and it’s easy for Craig to follow and get back into the play because nobody has ever worried about Jakob popping.

Most of the rest of the Spurs’ offensive possessions in this span followed the same pattern, with the Nuggets helping off non-shooters and closing out under control to prevent drives. It’s not a complicated defensive plan, though it does require a lot of discipline.

The best counter, obviously, is for those non-shooters to knock down shots. But neither White nor DeRozan could get it going. Though the Spurs’ offense finally came to life in the 2nd half, it did so largely without White, who played just 3:26 in the second half.

He simply wasn’t enough of a threat from the perimeter to stay on the court, despite being the team’s best point guard and wing defender. While there are adjustments that could be made to counter the Nuggets’ defensive approach, Denver’s ability to help with impunity due to the Spurs’ lack of shooting created cascading effects that rippled through the offense. It’s just not a good idea to concede that type of advantage right from the jump. And that’s a big concern for the Spurs as they look toward next season.

The team will be welcoming back an even better defender in Dejounte Murray, who, when last we saw him, was even less of a threat from the perimeter than White. In terms of talent, the Spurs’ best case scenario is playing the two of them together, along with DeRozan, Aldridge and either Rudy Gay (if he stays) or Poeltl. But if they couldn’t generate enough room to operate with Forbes on the floor, it’s difficult to imagine how they could do so with White as their most dangerous three point shooter.

That leaves the Spurs at a fascinating decision point that may reveal a lot about both the direction the team is heading and the route they intend to take to get there. They could double down on the midrange and trust that White and Murray’s respective work ethics will generate enough improvement from deep to keep teams more honest than Denver was in Game 7.

Or, they could double down on the Manu method, and choose to keep some shooting in the starting lineup by moving a potential star to the bench. White seems like the most likely option, in that case, but with Davis Bertans on hand, it’s possible they could leave both Poeltl and Gay (if he stays) on the bench, instead.

However they choose to start the games, though, it will be more important to figure out how to finish them. While it likely won’t matter in the regular season (here’s your friendly reminder that the Spurs had the 5th best offense in the league this year) once they get into a playoff series it absolutely will matter. If the Spurs find themselves in a position where they can’t play their best players together, they could very well find themselves facing another early exit twelve months from now.