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Spurs play one solid quarter, collapse late in loss to Hawks

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Overconfidence and bad late-game execution keep costing the Spurs wins against the league’s worst teams.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at San Antonio Spurs Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs’ inexplicable run of bad performances against the East’s worst teams continued on Friday with a 121-120 loss to the Hawks. Despite getting a combined 55 points from LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan and outscoring Atlanta by 21 in the third quarter, San Antonio couldn’t prevail at home.

The result is definitely disappointing but not surprising. The Spurs have struggled against bad teams all season, already dropping games to the Wizards, Cavaliers and yes, Atlanta. It seems they don’t take them seriously enough and rarely catch enough breaks to make up for their lack of urgency, which is exactly what happened during the first half on Friday.

The Hawks, which average a dreadful three-point shooting percentage for the season and have one of the most permeable and undisciplined defenses in the league, started the game off hitting the long ball and creating turnovers without fouling. The Spurs got whatever they wanted inside when they were at all patient, but kept making unforced errors on offense, as DeMar DeRozan deferred way too much and the ball handlers just tried to attack, got nowhere and made jump passes in desperation that kept landing in the hands of an opponent and resulting in transition buckets. The game became a fast-paced shootout, which clearly benefited the more athletic Hawks.

It wouldn’t be a true heartbreaking loss without a failed comeback attempt showing that the Spurs could beat their opponent all along, and we got that as well. After halftime San Antonio exploited its gigantic edge inside with Aldridge being guarded by Collins. When LA had to sit with foul trouble, DeRozan took over instead of trying to set up the shooters. The defense, meanwhile, tightened up on Trae Young and created some turnovers. Suddenly the Hawks were missing those outside looks that fell in the first half and didn’t have another way to score, while the Spurs started to get easy buckets on the break and at the free throw line. San Antonio doubled up the Hawks in scoring in the period and seemed to be headed towards a comfortable win against an inferior opponent.

At least that’s what would have happened in a normal season, but we know better by now.

The Hawks refused to go away while the Spurs went back to playing without urgency on offense. Some questionable calls erased any momentum that was left over from the third quarter, as Aldridge and Murray got in foul trouble. Atlanta went back to hitting threes, as San Antonio’s effort to keep Young in check meant leaving others open. The game stayed close, which set the table for the return of the late-game execution struggles that have cost the Spurs too many games already.

After leading by six points with 1:25 to go, the collapse began. Aldridge fouled out after two controversial calls and the Spurs lost their leading scorer. With LMA gone, DeRozan tried to carry the offense down the stretch but missed a contested layup and Jakob Poeltl couldn’t get the tip-in. Determined to not let Young beat them after the young point guard scored the previous five points for Atlanta, the Spurs trapped him, but he made the right pass and De’Andre Hunter found Kevin Huerter all alone in the corner. San Antonio had one last chance to win it but instead of getting a good shot they barely got the ball inbound and DeRozan had to take a desperation floater at the buzzer with three Atlanta players contesting.

The list of everything that went wrong is impressive, but we’ve seen games like this all too often this season. At some point it becomes impossible to deny that an unearned sense of confidence when facing bad opponents and the capacity for some truly awful late-game execution seem to be a part of the team’s DNA.

We were all hoping the Spurs had turned a corner recently, but the loss against the Hawks suggests that it might just be impossible for them to overcome their worst habits. Let’s hope that’s not the case, because if it is, making the playoffs isn’t nearly as realistic as we all thought it was just a few days ago.

Game notes

  • Aldridge didn’t float in the perimeter on this one, instead attacking the lighter Collins in the post, to great success. There will be matchups in which going inside to LA will be the right move and it’s good to know both Pop and Aldridge are ready for those situations.
  • DeRozan finished the game with 25 points, nine rebounds, nine assists and two steals. He keeps playing great on offense without forcing things. Getting only four points in seven shots in the fourth quarter is obviously not ideal, but DeRozan is not the reason the Spurs lost.
  • What was the reason for the loss then, you may ask. Asides from that disastrous final stretch, the Spurs inability to hit threes and prevent Atlanta from getting good looks from beyond the arc was the main culprit for the upset. San Antonio went just 8-for-29 from outside while the Hawks, who are typically awful from three, made a ridiculous 19 of their 40 attempts. That type of disparity is too hard to overcome.
  • Dejounte Murray struggled with guarding Young without fouling, but had a good game overall. Derrick White didn’t have an impressive stat line, but had good moments on both ends. More importantly, the two shared the court for three minutes. It was the last stretch of the game, so it clearly didn’t help the Spurs much, but it’s always good to see the two young guards play together.
  • Lonnie Walker IV got nine points and three assists in 17 minutes on the court and did most of his damage in the third quarter, when the Spurs looked at their best. Somehow both Bryn Forbes and Marco Belinelli got more playing time despite going a combined 2-for-10 from beyond the arc.
  • John Collins has some of the worst body language of any player outside of Cleveland and doesn’t seem to like the physicality that comes with playing center, but he could be the Amar’e to Young’s Nash. The Hawks are bad right now, but will be incredibly fun for years.

Next game: vs. the Heat on Sunday

The Spurs will have a chance to bounce back from this loss and avenge their previous one when they face Miami at home. Since the Heat are a good team, we might see the version of the Silver and Black that actually tries for something approaching 48 minutes.