There’s an old saying in basketball: You have to make your free throws. As Spurs fans can surely relate, a single miss from the line can be the difference in a championship. While that truism persists, the game continues to evolve, so it might be time to propose an update. In today’s NBA, you have to make your (open) threes.
The Spurs dropped a winnable game on the road over a very good opponent on Wednesday night because they didn’t follow that new maxim. Just the opposite, in fact, as during a key 12 minute stretch spanning the end of the 3rd quarter and most of the 4th, the Spurs went 0-9 from downtown.
A pair of Patty Mills’ threes bookended the stretch, the first with 3:35 to go in the 3rd and the next with 3:32 to go in the game. The Spurs were outscored by 14 points over that period, turning a 3 point lead into an 11 point deficit. The Heat’s defense deserves credit, obviously, though the Spurs still found several open threes, but couldn’t cash in on a single one.
The first good look came on a simple curl and pin by Patty on the right wing.
Derrick Jones Jr. has to follow Patty over Rudy Gay’s screen and James Johnson has to stay below the screen to prevent an open cut to the rim. So when Patty cuts off his curl and turns it into a pin down on Johnson, Rudy just has to step back to the arc. Jakob Poeltl’s quick hand off gives Rudy plenty of time to load up and let it fly, and Bryn Forbes clearly expects the shot to be good as he prepares to celebrate on the sideline. But the ball catches front rim and falls harmlessly to Duncan Robinson instead.
The Spurs next good look came a couple of minutes into the 4th.
Marco Belinelli runs off a solid screen from Jakob on the left side up to the top of the key to receive the inbound pass. Bryn hits him just as he passes the apex of the arc and Marco turns immediately into what looks like a shot. Robinson bites on the pump fake completely, leaving him closer to Bryn than his own man as Marco sidesteps into a wide open three. Just like Rudy’s shot, the ball catches front rim and the Heat comes down with the board.
The Spurs managed to create another quality look from deep after a time out just a few possessions later.
Far more complex than the previous two, this play uses multiple actions to set up the eventual three point attempt. Derrick White runs off a weak side screen from Rudy into a catch and immediate pick and roll with Jakob on the left side of the top of the key. Just as Derrick uses the screen going to his right, Bryn sets a cross screen on Johnson on the left block, an action that would typically be used to get Rudy good position or a mismatch on the right block.
Both Robinson and Johnson clearly think that’s what’s going on, as both stick with Rudy as he crosses the lane. By the time Robinson realizes what’s going on, Bryn is already almost at the arc and Derrick is getting ready to sling the ball his way. Jakob steps into Robinson’s path while Meyers Leonard flies out into Bryn’s airspace without fouling him. The shot isn’t even close, though. Bryn catches backboard and the ball ricochets off the rim into Jones’ waiting hands.
DeMar DeRozan created the last two of the team’s good looks from three in that stretch, pretty much all by himself.
The first, a beautiful step thru that forces Bam Adebayo to help off LaMarcus Aldridge, creates a wide open look from the right corner. LaMarcus, who’s been shooting the three ball as well as anyone of late, finds nothing but the front of the rim on this one.
The second is much easier. DeMar draws help one pass away and fires it out to Derrick on the left wing. In a bit of welcome change, Derrick’s shot is right on line and he even manages to get the ball all the way to the back of the rim, but the end result is no different.
The Spurs didn’t lose this game because of any one of those shots. But it’s difficult to win with a large disparity in any key area. In this game, the Spurs out shot the Heat from inside the arc by a few percentage points and made 5 more free throws on just 2 more attempts, but the Heat both took more threes than the Spurs, 40 to 33, and made more, 17 to 10.
That’ll happen on the road. It’s not especially surprising that it happened in Miami, a team that has lost just 1 home game so far this season, nor that it happened to the Spurs, who have hit less than 35% of their threes away from the AT&T Center this year. They’ve shot worse on wide open threes on the road than any other team, making just over 30%, so there’s reason to expect a little positive regression.
With the season nearing the halfway point though, the team doesn’t really have any time to waste. There’s no question the Spurs need to find a way to win games like this if they want to make up ground in the playoff race, but to do that, they have to start making their open threes.