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Spurs struggle late, come up short in Miami

DeMar DeRozan continued his torrid scoring pace, but the Spurs couldn’t keep up with the Heat in the fourth quarter.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Miami Heat Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs could not continue their recent dominant run against the East’s best teams in their visit to Miami. After keeping the score close and giving themselves a chance to finish the third win of their four-game road trip, they finally succumbed to the more disciplined Heat late and lost 106-100.

This matchup was very interesting on paper because both teams seem to have a lot in common despite their very dissimilar records. Both the Heat and the Spurs are very good on offense, but vulnerable on defense; both are led by a wing who handles the ball while struggling as a shooter; both have a lot of guard depth that includes dynamic but flawed youngsters and a veteran offensive stalwart who struggles on defense; both have a questionable front court rotation outside of a borderline All-Star.

The similarities are there, but the Heat have just been a little better, both individually and collectively, at most things so far, and that’s why they have won a lot more games. Those small advantages were ultimately the difference in a close game on Wednesday.

It was a slow start for both teams offensively, which clearly favored the Heat. Miami is comfortable playing in the half court and relying on the versatility and firepower of the role players that complement their star wing, something that the Spurs can’t typically boast. With Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson making shots and Miami’s defense neutralizing LaMarcus Aldridge, the home squad managed to grab a quick if small lead as the benches took over.

Neither second unit really shined on either end in a first half that saw both teams look anything but sharp, but a scorching hot stretch by Goran Dragic and some more energetic work on the glass kept the Heat in the lead despite the Spurs successful efforts of shutting down the paint. Patty Mills did his best to answer Dragic’s onslaught, but with few others stepping up it was on DeMar DeRozan to carry the offense. Thanks to his torrid scoring and some decent team defense, the Spurs kept pace in Miami and went to the break tied at 51.

Neither side could really impose its will in the third quarter, but the Spurs looked a little sharper. DeRozan was still vastly outplaying Jimmy Butler, the Heat’s zone defense was starting to be less effective, Mills was still red-hot from outside while Dragic cooled down, and Nunn finally missed a few shots. There were some signs late in the period that Miami’s offense was starting to click, as two thunderous dunks by Bam Adebayo and Derrick Jones Jr. exposed some holes in San Antonio’s defense, but the Silver and Black still led after three.

Unfortunately for the Spurs, DeRozan had to rest at some point, which completely killed their offense. Miami started the period on a 10-2 run to take a lead they would never relinquish, sparked by their supporting cast. Both teams traded bricks until a rare Butler three-pointer ended the drought for the Heat and a mini-barrage from DeRozan gave Spurs fans some hopes, but there would be no heroic comeback this time. The Heat executed better and proved why despite their obvious similarities with the Spurs, they have been significantly more successful this season.

It’s hard to be too heartbroken about this loss, since it was on the road against a quality opponent. Even in defeat the Spurs looked a lot better than they did earlier in the season and will now return home for a winnable bout against the reeling Hawks before getting another crack at the Heat, this time at the AT&T Center. If the small improvements we’ve been seeing lately continue, maybe the Spurs will get swift revenge on their East doppelgangers.

Game notes

  • DeRozan continues to be an awe-inspiring offensive force. This time he had 30 points on 14 shots to go with seven assists. For long stretches he is close to unstoppable, as not many defenders can contain him one-on-one and he keeps finding open teammates when opponents send help. It’s been a joy to watch him have one of the best stretches of his career.
  • Aldridge turning into a stretch big man is clearly a positive, but he’s struggled with finding the right balance between deference and passivity. He got just 12 shots against Miami and six of those came from outside. Maybe staggering his minutes to have him on the court when DeRozan rests could be a way to get him shots inside the arc.
  • Rudy Gay and Trey Lyles combined to go 3-for-15 from the floor. They pulled down some boards, but the Spurs need more offensive production from their forwards.
  • Derrick White and Dejounte Murray were expected to struggle on offense this season but make up for it with great defense. It hasn’t always been the case, unfortunately. Nunn torched the Spurs no matter who guarded him. The two young guards are still a plus on their own end but have not been the consistent stoppers we all hoped they’d be.
  • Lonnie Walker IV missed a box out and forced the action on a drive in the first half, and apparently that was enough for Gregg Popovich to bench him for the second half, even though Bryn Forbes and the entire bench except for Mills was struggling. I don’t get it, but I’m not surprised, either. For some reason Walker has an extremely short leash. Let’s hope Pop’s tough love helps him down the line.

Next game: vs. Hawks on Friday

Trae Young will visit San Antonio hoping to lead his Hawks to their second win in a row after dropping four of their last five. The Spurs should win this one as long as they don’t get overconfident.