I consider myself a bit of a horror buff. Some horror movies like to hit the viewer over the head with carnage right off the bat, while others effectively build tension before all hell breaks loose on the screen. No matter the path taken, there’s only one thing that’s guaranteed: it rarely ends well for the heroes.
While many fans of the San Antonio Spurs may consider the Spurs’ season as a whole to be something out of a horror film, their recent losing streak has had an eerie slow burning horror feel to it. The game starts out great. Shots are falling, opponents are missing shots, the Spurs are winning, and everybody is happy. Here’s the problem. We know what kind of film we’re watching.
No matter how good the Spurs look early on, or how big of a lead they build, there’s always the sense of impending doom. The carnage in this case has been the inability to stop the opponent in the second half of games, typically in the form of a barrage of three-point daggers straight into the heart of the Spurs. There may be signs of what’s to come in the first half. Perhaps it’s the opponent connecting on deep three to beat the shot clock, or perhaps it’s a missed assignment on defense. Whatever it is, its only purpose is to keep the viewer on the edge of their seat, aware that something is amiss.
Against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Spurs started off right on script. Neither team was lighting it up early on, but the Spurs were able to generate enough offense to build an 11 point lead against a Thunder team that was only able to score 14 points in the first quarter. All the more impressive is that the Spurs were able to build that lead without connecting on a single three point attempt. To be fair, the Thunder only connected on one of their attempts. The second quarter wasn’t very pretty, as both teams had some very strange possessions. Dejounte Murray and Patty Mills combined for 15 of the Spurs’ 24 second quarter points, providing enough offense to give the Spurs a 49-41 lead heading into the second half.
The Spurs once again found themselves with a lead heading into the third quarter, but with the way things have been going, a second half collapse felt inevitable against a team that just so happens to have the best clutch scorer in the league (and longtime Spurs villain) in Chris Paul. After extending their lead to 12 early in the third quarter, the Thunder went on an 11-0 run to cut the Spurs’ lead down to 1 point. This was it, wasn’t it? The Spurs had their moment where everything seemed fine, but we know what kind of film we’re watching.
Here’s the twist. Every once in a while a hero emerges in a horror film who posses a legitimate threat to the villain. In the third quarter, that hero was Derrick White. White replaced Murray with 4:30 remaining in the third quarter and the Spurs clinging to a 1 point lead. White quickly assisted on a Mills three-point shot, then hit a three-pointer of his own. White went on to score 6 more points in the quarter, which was just good enough to give the Spurs a 2-point cushion heading into the final frame.
Still, the signs of another collapse was right there in plain sight. The Thunder had just scored 36 points in the third quarter, only 5 points less than they had scored in the entire first half. White kept the Spurs afloat temporarily, but we know what kind of film we’re watching.
Bryn Forbes replaced Mills to start the fourth quarter, which meant he and Marco Belinelli would once again be sharing the court in the fourth quarter of a close road game. This duo has a -27 net rating in 163 minutes this season, by far the worst combination on the Spurs out of the 48 two-person lineups that have logged at least 150 minutes together this season. They were both in the lineup in the fourth quarter of the Denver Nuggets a game prior, and that went about as well as expected. This was is, wasn’t it? Gregg Popovich was stealth tanking his way into another loss. The carnage was coming. We know what kind of film we’re watching.
However, something strange happened. The Spurs were actually able to outscore the Thunder 4-2 in the first 2:30 of the fourth quarter before Murray and Lonnie Walker IV replaced Belinelli and White in the lineup. Belinelli still played 15 scoreless minutes against the Thunder — after going 18 scoreless minutes against the Nuggets — but at least Pop made the smart decision to not close out the game with him.
Murray and LaMarcus Aldridge played the role of the hero in the fourth quarter, combining to score 24 of the Spurs’ 35 fourth quarter points. Just like in the third quarter, the Spurs struggled to stop the Thunder from scoring, but also like the third quarter, the Spurs were able to generate enough offense to fight off the villain and keep the Thunder at arm’s length. Murray and White combined to go 8-8 from the free throw line in the final minute of the game, which was great to see from the young guard duo of the future. Oh, and Murray also had this ferocious dunk to squash any thoughts the Thunder might of had at making a last second push.
The heroes might have come out on top this time, but we know what kind of film we’re watching. Anytime the heroes think they have defeated the villain, there’s always a sequel. And it’s true. Despite the result, the Spurs showed signs of wanting to give the game away. They got away with it this time because of a couple great performances, but they failed to prove they can hold onto a lead and compete for an entire 48 minutes. We’ll see if this game can help start some positive momentum coming out of the All-Star break, but until I see some consistency on both sides of the court, I’m going to continue watching games expecting carnage.
Notes from the game
- Murray ended up scoring a career high 25 points on a tidy 9 of 12 shooting. It didn’t look like it was going to be that kind of night for him, as he committed 2 fouls within the first 2 minutes of the game and did not see the court again until the second quarter. He did see his 20 quarter streak without a turnover end in the third quarter — after the obligatory announcer’s jinx — but he added 9 rebounds, 3 assists, and 1 steal to his lone turnover. It was another excellent all-around game for Murray, who’s starting to look more and more comfortable on the court. The Spurs’ front office has taken a lot of heat lately, but signing him to a long-term deal earlier in the season is starting to look like a fantastic (yet obligatory) move for the franchise.
- White was really good against the Thunder. Confident, aggressive White is always the best White, although there are still a few areas he needs to work on to take his game to the next level. I feel he’s had the ball in his hands quite often to end quarters the past couple games, and I can’t recall the Spurs scoring any points on those possessions. He has shown the ability to hit clutch shots when playing off ball, but if he hopes to continue to have Pop give him the ball down the stretch, he’s going to have to generate better shots for himself or others moving forward. He also turned the ball over twice while the Spurs were trying to close out the game. The Spurs won, but those types of plays can’t happen when playing on a team with very little margin for error.
- Aldridge couldn’t buy a bucket in the first three quarters, but he came alive when the Spurs needed him the most. He also grabbed 14 rebounds. Aldridge is clearly the focal point of the offense when DeMar DeRozan is out of the game.
- Mills was once again excellent, scoring 20 points on 13 shots. Please, nobody ever compare Forbes to Mills ever again. It’s straight up disrespectful to Mills.
- I really do respect Chris Paul’s game. His midrange truly is elite, and I feel genuinely scared anytime he has the ball in his hands, particularly against a player with little experience or any type of mismatch. He was great against the Spurs (as he usually is), but there was one moment during the game that truly infuriated me. Trey Lyles was guarding him on the perimeter, with his hands way off to the side. Paul swung his arms in a huge circular motion, coming into contact with Lyles’ hands and promptly resulting in a foul call. Lyles seemed perplexed, as did I. I don’t blame Paul for doing it since he was able to get the call. I just can’t understand why any ref would see that as a foul. It’s not much different than when a shooter kicks his foot out while shooting in order to draw contact with a defender.
- The Thunder connected on 11 of their 31 three point attempts, which was good to see if you’re a Spurs fan. The Spurs’ previous three opponents each made 18 three pointers on roughly 50% shooting or better. The Spurs allow open or wide open three pointers on 34% of opponent’s shots this season, which is close to league average. Opponents shooting percentage in these attempts is 39%, which is one of the highest marks in the NBA. Some of that can be attributed to bad luck, while some likely has to do with which players the Spurs are allowing to get open or what areas of the court the shots are coming from. In the three games prior to the Thunder game, the Spurs allowed open or wide open three pointers 37% of the time. That’s slightly higher than their season average, but not by much. The main difference is that these three opponents made 53% of their open or wide open attempts, which would lead the league by a huge margin. Again, there’s a lot of variables here. All three games were against good shooting teams who were at home where teams generally shoot better. Whether by luck or poor defense or a combination of both, it’s been frustrating to watch. Tonight was a nice reprieve.