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Missed free throws cost the Spurs a win against the Bulls

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The Spurs fall short in Chicago and extend their losing streak to three games.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Chicago Bulls Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

How can something free cost the Spurs so many games? - Brandon Meiners

The NBA schedule is never anything short of grueling, but nothing could have prepared the San Antonio Spurs for the mental and physical toll of the past 24 hours. After an incredibly emotional afternoon game against the Toronto Raptors for reasons having nothing to do with basketball, the Spurs had to board a flight to Chicago for a SEGABABA against the Bulls. One night’s sleep does not change the fact that everybody in the NBA community is still grieving over the untimely deaths of Kobe, his daughter, and the seven others who lost their lives in the helicopter crash. But life (and basketball) goes on, whether we feel ready for it or not.

The game between the Spurs and Bulls was important for both teams, as both currently sit in the ninth position in their respective conferences. The Spurs were without LaMarcus Aldridge, who is nursing a sprained thumb that he suffered during the game against the Raptors. This news meant that Jakob Poeltl was going to see an increase in minutes (great news), but it was also going to reveal how thin the Spurs are in the front court (not great news).

Predictably, Poeltl replacing Aldridge in the starting lineup meant an increase in defensive efficiency but a decrease in offensive efficiency. Poeltl truly is a defensive force to be reckoned with inside the painted area, and isn’t a complete disaster when tasked with defending the perimeter on the occasional possession. His three blocks against the Bulls extended his streak of two or more blocks to ten games. Quite impressive considering that other than tonight’s 35 minutes, Poeltl has only averaged around 15 minutes a game during that stretch.

Poeltl also scored 16 points and grabbed 13 rebounds, showing that he’s not a complete liability on the offensive end. He has extremely minimal range, but is able to score in a variety of ways out of the pick and roll and down low. Poeltl’s stat-line would have been even more impressive had it not come with the caveat of going two of eight from the charity stripe, including only one of four during a hack-a-Shaq sequence with three minutes left to go in a one possession game. The next evolution of his game must come from the free throw line or he’ll never be able to stay on the court down the stretch of close games.

In a game where offense was hard to come by, DeMar DeRozan was incredible. The Bulls stubbornly put Kris Dunn on DeRozan for the majority of the game, but he was simply no match for the wily veteran. DeRozan seemed to score almost at will, making it somewhat disappointing he “only” scored 36 points on 11 of 21 shooting. Without Aldridge helping to share the load on offense, I would have gone to DeRozan on every possession until the Bulls started triple teaming him.

If Alanis Morissette is ever looking to rewrite her song “Ironic” with more current lyrics, tonight’s game might make for a wonderful verse. DeRozan spent the majority of the game complaining to the referees about contact not resulting in whistles. Yes, it’s ironic that he seemed so upset at the referees in a game where he shot a season-high 17 free throws, but he had legitimate beef on several drives where there was obvious contact with no foul called.

It was also ironic that Zach Lavine got bailed out by the referees with two seconds to go in a tied game on a very questionable foul call. The referees really need to refrain from deciding a game unless an obvious foul is made. I saw nothing obvious on that possession. It looked even worse considering the referee waited until Lavine missed the shot before blowing the whistle. It’s either a foul or it isn’t. The result of the shot should have no bearing on foul calls. Nevertheless, Lavine knocked down both shots to give the Bulls a two point lead going into the final possession of the game.

Finally, it was ironic that DeRozan got the foul call on a jump shot as time expired, giving him a chance to send the game into overtime. Instead, he missed the second free throw and the Spurs came up one point short. I know there is a narrative that DeRozan constantly comes up short during clutch situations, and I’m not here to argue those points. I’m just here to say that if it weren’t for DeRozan’s excellent play throughout the season, the Spurs wouldn’t even be in a position to win many of these games.

With this loss the Spurs are in a world of trouble. They have fallen two games behind the eight seeded Memphis Grizzlies after three straight losses and are about to enter a streak where they play eight of eleven games on the road and against Western Conference playoff teams. Their next game is on Wednesday at home against the Utah Jazz, who happen to be the hottest team in the NBA.

Notes from the game:

  • After scoring 40 points against the Raptors, the trio of Dejounte Murray, Bryn Forbes, and Derrick White combined to score four points on two of 12 shooting against the Bulls. With more shots to go around in Aldridge’s absence, that type of production from the young guards is concerning to say the least. The Spurs have a lot of needs to address in the draft, but if there is a guard who can both distribute and score, the Spurs would be wise to go in that direction.
  • The not-so-young guard Patty Mills was the only other offensive threat for the Spurs. He jump started the offense in the first quarter, and continued his great shooting throughout the game. He finished the game with 25 points on eight of 15 shooting and six of 12 from distance.
  • One of the almost infinite number of things that has baffled me about this year’s iteration of the Spurs is how Aldridge, DeRozan, and Mills are all having one of the best season’s of their respective careers and yet the Spurs are on the outside looking in in regards to the playoffs. One explanation, beyond the obvious defensive deficiencies of those three players, is how the Spurs have closed out games this season. Their net rating of -4.1 in the fourth quarter puts them near the bottom in that category. No lead is safe for the Spurs, and it’s been very frustrating to watch.
  • White failed to score a single point, yet almost won the Spurs the game with a series of game-changing defensive plays down the stretch, including forcing Lavine into an eight second violation. I love watching him play defense. However, I do not love watching him be so passive on offense, especially with how great he’s been on that end as of late.
  • Chimezie Metu got to play his first meaningful minutes of the season, serving as the direct backup center to Poeltl. He has athleticism for sure, swatting away one shot with ferocity and just missing out on another block. He even had a nice bucket where his defender went vertical, and he was able to hang in the air long enough to score on the way down. I’m still not sold on him as an NBA player though, but I’ve been wrong before.
  • Forbes has received the majority of the criticism this season, but has there been any Spurs’ player more disappointing than Rudy Gay? Most nights I don’t even realize he’s on the court. DeMarre Carroll has had more impact in games this season and he’s sitting in the second row in a suit. Tonight was actually a good night for Gay.
  • There’s no other way to put it, the Spurs have two (possibly three) non-starting-quality players in their starting lineup. I’m not sure the solution is on the bench, but until the Spurs are able to find more consistent help for DeRozan on offense or surround him with defensive gurus, they will continue to be a mediocre team on good nights.
  • The Bulls seemed to be all over the offensive glass. The offensive rebounds ended up only favoring the Bulls 14 to 12, and second chance points 19 to 15, but it sure felt a lot worse during the game.