The Spurs inability to finish games has become something of a theme this season. Whether they start out hot and let their opponents battle back into the game or, more commonly, give up a big lead early and then fight out of the hole, the Spurs have found themselves in close contests more than almost any other team in the league.
Only the Thunder have had more games come down to within 5 points with less than 5 minutes remaining, and only the Thunder and Nets have played more minutes in those circumstances. Unlike those two teams, though, the Spurs have gotten trounced in the clutch. The Thunder lead the league with a net rating of +29.4 in the clutch, while the Nets are 12th with a respectable +3.0. The Spurs, on the other hand, sit in 23rd with a -9.3.
Surprisingly, though, the Spurs’ late struggles aren’t primarily due to their porous defense. In fact, they actually have a slightly better defensive rating in the clutch than they do overall (111.3 vs. 112.6). Instead, it’s the offense that typically collapses. The Spurs’ overall offensive rating is 111.2, but that drops to 101.9 in the last 5 minutes when the score is within 5 points.
The sample size isn’t very large at just 147 minutes, but the Spurs have been outscored by 37 points in that time. That’s not enough to judge exactly how bad the Spurs are definitively, but it’s more than enough to know they’re bad.
For evidence, you need only look at the team’s last three games. The Spurs somehow managed to luck their way to a 2-1 record in that stretch, despite executing like a team desperately trying to go on an April vacation.
On Saturday night, after a lucky bounce brought an offensive rebound right into Rudy Gay’s hands, which forced the Magic to foul, all the Spurs needed to do was inbound the ball and make their free throws to shore up a one point lead over the Magic with less than 12 seconds to go.
The Spurs first tried a sideline out of bounds play they use frequently, but to no avail.
The play-call for this play is line, which you can see Gregg Popovich signal with a chopping motion of the hand at the beginning of the video. The typical action is that two guards or wings will curl over screens from the two bigs at the foul line. In this case, though, it’s Rudy and Patty Mills setting screens for Bryn Forbes and DeMar DeRozan. Bryn completes his curl, but DeMar breaks it off and moves out towards half court instead. Rudy then flashes to the inbounder while Bryn clears out to the far corner and Patty just kind of stands there. Bryn’s wide open, but it’s difficult for Derrick White to see the floor with the 6’8” Aaron Gordon blocking his view, so he calls timeout before the 5 seconds is up.
The Spurs came out of the time out with a more creative solution, though the result was the same.
Derrick is inbounding the ball again with Gordon between him and the rest of the court. Once he has the ball, Bryn sprints past a screen from Rudy out toward half court while Patty runs over a screen from DeMar as he moves towards Derrick. The Magic use a couple of easy switches to cover both, after which DeMar runs towards the ball and Rudy spaces to the far corner. Though Patty eventually manages to shake Michael Carter-Williams, the 5 seconds is almost up as he clears Gordon, and Derrick again calls time out at the last moment.
With no more timeouts, the Spurs had one final chance to get the ball in bounds, which somehow went even worse than the previous two attempts. In all seriousness, they likely would have been better off to take the dead ball turnover than give the ball to the Magic with a live ball turnover.
The Spurs finally elect to use a larger human to inbound the ball this time by handing the responsibility to Rudy. The Magic get a free preview of the first part of the play, as the refs blow it dead due to a minor clock issue. But that doesn’t stop Bryn from cutting along the baseline to get open in the near corner. Once he catches, he’s immediately surrounded.
With no timeouts, Bryn’s best option would be to hold on for dear life and attempt to draw a foul, but instead, he tries to get the ball to Derrick. Markelle Fultz pokes it away before Derrick ever has a chance to secure it, and James Ennis grabs the loose ball. He immediately tosses it over to Carter-Williams who pushes the ball up court before dropping it off for Evan Fournier, who is streaking down the right edge of the paint. Only a decent contest — and uncalled foul according to the last 2 minute report — from Patty saves the day as Fournier’s layup bounces off the front of the rim.
In isolation, that could perhaps be considered just a bad night. But the Spurs were even worse with the game on the line against the Pacers two nights later.
After exactly the kind of defensive possession they needed, the Spurs come down the court with 40 seconds to go and an opportunity to tie, but instead they proceed to spaz out like it’s their collective first game of basketball together. While there appears to be some contact on Trey Lyles’ shot attempt, the last 2 minute report confirmed that part of the play was clean. That left the Spurs with only 0.2 seconds on the shot clock, meaning any attempt would have to be a tip.
So Trey just throws the ball straight to Rudy, ensuring that there was no way Rudy could get the ball up on the rim to even have a chance of scoring before the shot clock expired. And if that wasn’t enough, after Malcolm Brogdon knocked down both of his free throws, the Spurs gave away another chance to score.
The odds of winning a game when down by 5 with 16.7 seconds to go are low, sure, but one way to make them even lower is to not catch the inbound pass and let it bounce to the other team instead.
Which brings us to Tuesday night’s narrow victory over the Hornets and two of the Spurs’ worst high-leverage defensive possessions of the season. Up by 3 with less than 50 seconds to go, the Spurs let Terry Rozier drive to the basket for a wide open layup within 6 seconds of crossing half court.
The whole team is in no-threes mode, so Trey and Dejounte switch a fly by screen from P.J. Washington, which gives Rozier a mismatch. Then Trey gets way too far into Rozier’s body and gives up a free driving lane. Rozier hooks Trey on his way by, which looks like a foul, but the last 2 minute report disagreed. Either way, Dejounte, Rudy, and DeMar are all in position to help. It would typically be DeMar’s responsibility, but in this case, not helping off a shooter is probably the right play. Instead, Dejounte and Rudy both jump helplessly on either side of Rozier’s path, which has little to no effect on his easy layup.
Since the Hornets scored so quickly, they had plenty of time to let the Spurs’ offensive possession play out without needing to foul. DeMar ran the clock down then fired up a difficult turn around jumper, which missed, giving the Hornets 19 seconds to steal the game.
Washington ghosts through another screen for Rozier, which appears to confuse Dejounte and Trey. Dejounte is late to react to the drive and Trey stops for a second like he’s going to help. Rozier throws a very nice hesitation which gets Dejounte to hold up and Trey to start recovering to Washington, before accelerating towards the rim again. It really should have been game over at that point.
With Bryn as the help defender, there’s almost no way Rozier doesn’t get to the rim here. But, for some reason, he chooses to drop it off to Cody Martin cutting in along the baseline instead of going over the top of Bryn. The pass has a little too much sauce on it to handle, and the ball bounces to Trey. Then, the Hornets pull a Spurs’ move and don’t foul with time running out.
Unfortunately, there isn’t really a single common thread that ties all three of these situations together. Poor decision making, by both the coaches in terms of play call and the players on the floor, nearly cost them the game against the Magic. Poor execution from everyone on the floor gave away an entire offensive possession in a critical moment against the Pacers and then a momentary lapse of reason gave away what little chance remained. The team’s signature turnstile defense should have handed the Hornets a victory, and though that could be chalked up to poor execution as well, that’s how they’ve played all season, so it’s hard to expect anything different.
That means the answer here is probably coaching. Whether the personnel on hand aren’t right for the system in place, or the players just don’t understand or can’t fulfill their responsibilities, the team clearly isn’t doing what the coaches expect. That doesn’t mean Pop has “lost it” or that the rest of the coaching staff is bad; it just means that whatever they’ve been doing this season isn’t showing up as progress on the court yet.
These breakdowns would be more understandable, obviously, if they came from playing more inexperienced players, but these lapses all occurred with DeMar and Rudy on the floor along with some combination of Dejounte, Derrick, Patty, Bryn and Trey. These aren’t rookie or 2nd year player mistakes. Still, all these teachable moments should lead to better decision making and better execution down the road, although it’s almost certainly too late in the season to expect a change this year.
On the upside, there will be no shortage of film to look at to find opportunities for improvement this summer.