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What We Learned from the Spurs loss to the Nuggets

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The runs teams go on against the Spurs are as confounding as they are consistent.

San Antonio Spurs v Denver Nuggets Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images

It keeps being repeated, but only because it’s true: the only way to describe this season’s Spurs is “consistently inconsistent”. The story of this Rodeo Road Trip (besides how much it’s torpedoing the team’s postseason chances), has been that one bad stretch by the Spurs can undo all the good work they did throughout the rest of the game. The Spurs gave the Clippers, Lakers, Trail Blazers, and Kings a run for their money through 2-3 quarters, only for the opponent to explode in a three-point barrage to either erase a sizable lead or change the game from competitive contest to a blowout of the Spurs.

Monday night against the Nuggets, that scenario played out to the extreme. After building a 23-point lead — including a rare strong showing to start the second half — the seemingly-inevitable run came in the latter half of the third quarter via a Nuggets 27-7 run that featured yet another five straight threes to get Denver back in the game with all the momentum they needed to carry them the rest of the way.

The question now is why does this keep happening? It’s been obvious all the season the Spurs are prone to getting complacent when when anything resembling a comfortable lead presents itself, but are they this bad during these micro-bursts by their opponents? It can’t be that the other team just keeps getting lucky, right? While the Spurs play bad defense at times during these stretches, teams are still often hitting contested shots, shots from halfway to mid-court, off-balance ones that only Marco Belinelli is allowed to make, etc. It’s not just the Spurs allowing this to happen by leaving guys open; although that’s certainly happening as well.

Maybe the answer is simply that the basketball gods have decided they have had their time in the sunshine, now it’s someone else’s turn. Regardless, it’s confounding to watch every team, no matter the personnel or status, randomly turn into the the 2015-18 Warriors and just go off like this game after game regardless of how well the Spurs do (or don’t) defend it. (And for the record, this has been a season-long trend for the Spurs, it’s just played out to the extreme during the RRT as the Spurs playoff hopes are sinking deeper into the abyss with each passing game.)

It may not matter if there’s an answer or solution to it at this point, but it’s been equally amazing and confounding to watch what one minutes-long bad stretch has done to the Spurs game after game this season. In my 20+ years as an avid Spurs fan, I’ve never seen anything like it before.

Observations

  • I know last night’s line-ups were wonky after DeMar DeRozan was a late scratch with back spasms and it was the first game of a back-to-back, but it’s an understatement to say the Spurs performed well enough without him for the first 2 12 quarters. However, when that inevitable run came because no lead is ever safe with this club, it was hard to ignore who was manning the wings for the latter half of it and as the Spurs were then trying to recover: Bellineli and Bryn Forbes. I get it with Forbes in this one: he played well with an efficient 11 points and 4 assists, but why Marco? He was horrible last night with zero points in 19 minutes and was predictably lost on defense. Yes, Lonnie Walker IV (27 min) and Dejounte Murray (34 min) needed breathers at some point, but Derrick White could have played more than 19 minutes. While he only shot 2-10 from the field in this game, he was aggressive and rewarded with 10 free throws and made all of them. I love Marco, and he played a memorable role in 2014, but he should not be getting the same minutes White at this point.
  • I’m ready to accept that the Spurs will not make the playoffs this season. They’re five games out of the 8th seed, with both Portland and Memphis currently winning the season series. Ever since the schedule came out, I’ve been eyeing the RRT trip as a stretch that would determine if the Spurs were in for another first round ouster or could battle for home-court advantage. That later turned into whether they would even make the playoffs or not, but their season-long struggles have made it an easier pill to swallow at this point. They knew they needed to be better in January. They weren’t (at least not against the teams they should have beaten), so here we are. On the bright side, fans who don’t want to see them merely be a first-round team season after season and would prefer they blow it up and start over are likely getting their wish. At least half of the fan-base will be happy.
  • When/if the time comes to pull the plug on a playoff hunt (and it’s approaching if the Spurs don’t have a 10-game winning streak in them soon), there’s one thing that will salvage the rest of the season and keep fans interested, and that’s to go all in on the young movement and players of the future. That means benching Belinelli for good and giving all of his minutes to Walker. Move Forbes (who I imagine will be gone after this season to make room for Keldon Johnson) to the bench in favor of more starting experience for Walker and/or White. Maybe start giving Johnson some more NBA experience since he’s tearing up the G-League and clearly showing he won’t belong there by next season. And somewhere in there, give Luka Samanic his NBA debut. At least for me, he carries the most future intrigue, even if it may take longer before he’s NBA-ready.