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Game Preview: San Antonio Spurs at Los Angeles Clippers

Can the Silver and Black get back on track against Kawhi and the Clippers in the opening matchup of their five-game road trip?

San Antonio Spurs v Los Angeles Clippers

The Spurs suffered their first blowout loss of the season on Sunday night as the visiting Utah Jazz hosted a three-point party at the AT&T Center and extended San Antonio’s losing streak to four games in the process. Although there wasn’t much to praise in the aftermath of this one-sided affair, Keldon Johnson continued his scoring barrage and stood out as the lone bright spot in an otherwise debilitating outing.

Team defense was shoddy, communication was subpar, and a poor shooting night only exacerbated the plethora of issues the Silver and Black experienced. And while a brutal opening schedule can explain some of their early-season struggles, the road doesn’t get any easier from here. Coach Popovich and company now face the Clippers to kick off a five-game road trip condensed into an eight-day window.

San Antonio also has the unpropitious task of juggling experimental rotations and staying afloat in the hyper-competitive Western Conference while Derrick White and LaMarcus Aldridge remain sidelined with injuries. There hasn’t been word on whether the previously mentioned players will rejoin the lineup anytime soon, though each would surely bring the Spurs some much-needed stability.

San Antonio Spurs (2-4) at Los Angeles Clippers (5-2)

January 5, 2021 | 9:00 PM CT

Watch: FSSW | Listen: WOAI (1200 AM)

Spurs Injuries: LaMarcus Aldridge (Knee — Questionable), Derrick White (Toe — Out), Quinndary Weatherspoon (Knee — Out)

Clippers Injuries: Marcus Morris (Knee — Day-to-Day), Jay Scrubb (Foot — Out)

Securing the Perimeter

The Spurs started the season with two encouraging victories and have yet to return to form during their losing streak. While there are several reasons they haven’t been able to get back on a winning track, defensive regression has been among the chief culprits behind their tumble. More specifically, an inability to stop opponents from knocking down threes at both a high volume and percentage.

Opponents have outscored and outshot San Antonio by 42 points and 8.1% from beyond the arc throughout their four-game skid, and those numbers just won’t cut it in today’s NBA landscape. The good guys were at their worst last time out, and Utah relentlessly punished them for their defensive lapses on the perimeter, knocking down 21 of their 41 long-range attempts.

The Silver and Black will once have their three-point defense tested when they take on the Clippers tonight. Not only has Los Angeles drained the second-most triples this season, but they’ve done so at the second-best percentage in the league. Seven Clippers are shooting above 38% from deep on at least two attempts per game, and the Spurs won’t have much room for error against a club home to stellar ball movement.

Rediscovering a Rhythm

Paltry perimeter defense isn’t the only thing pushing San Antonio in the wrong direction as of late. A lackluster offense has also played a sizeable role in capping their productivity, and their ineffectiveness in the halfcourt has made it a nightmare to keep up. The Spurs are scoring 103.3 points per game on 43.2% from the field over the last four contests, both bottom ten in the NBA in their respective categories.

Despite dishing out 64 assists on their way to a perfect 2-0 start to their 2020-2021 season, San Antonio has only managed another 97 assists in the four games since then, each of which losing efforts. It would probably be too much to ask them to muster up more than 30 assists each night, though for a team with few isolation options outside of DeMar DeRozan, keeping the ball and bodies moving is the key to putting up points.

It’s important to remember a 72-game schedule will come with its fair share of ebbs and flows in performance from each individual. And though Dejounte Murray and Lonnie Walker IV are in a bit of a shooting rut, they need to remain aggressive when opportunities present themselves. As for Rudy Gay, he should think about turning down a few contested jumpers, especially since he’s yet to hit 50% of his shots in any game thus far.

Learning from Losses

The Clippers went 3-1 versus the Spurs a season ago, and they might have improved their roster despite losing Montrezl Harrell in free agency. Marcus Morris has yet to suit up this season, and the offseason additions of Serge Ibaka and Luke Kennard have factored into Los Angeles’ early bid for Western Conference supremacy. A loss is likely imminent for San Antonio, but there are lessons to be learned.

While there’s no shame in losing to an organization with superior talent, depth, and experience when you’re down two of your best players, everyone must be held accountable for their mistakes. That doesn’t necessarily mean yanking a player from the game the instant they have a mental lapse, and head coach Gregg Popovich seems to be giving his young guns a longer leash this season.

There isn’t a whole lot worth nitpicking six games into the year. Still, it would be refreshing to see Pop continue tinkering with lineups late in inevitable losses considering the NBA expanded active rosters to 15 players this season. Devin Vassell and Tre Jones are two of the more league-ready rookies from the 2020 Draft Class, and it wouldn’t hurt to get them some more run when the vets aren’t getting the job done.

Another Early Test for Keldon Johnson

Keldon Johnson was one of the unexpected breakout stars of the NBA Restart. So far, the second-year wing has picked up right where he left in the Walt Disney World bubble. Averaging 16.2 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, Keldon is San Antonio’s leading rebounder and second-leading scorer. And although the sample size is admittedly small, there are plenty of reasons to believe he’ll sustain his production.

The Kentucky Alum isn’t just taking advantage of favorable matchups to accumulate points in bunches. Johnson is dominating proven stoppers on a nightly basis. Believe it or not, according to matchup data, Keldon has scored 34 combined points on 52.2% shooting with Anthony Davis, LeBron James, Zion Williamson, and Rudy Gobert designated as his primary defender.

The rapidly emerging 21-year-old will have yet another chance to prove his early-season success isn’t a fluke when he shares the hardwood with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Sporting ten All-Defensive Team nominations and two Defensive Player of the Year Awards between them, the Clippers’ dynamic defensive duo should give Keldon Johnson the greatest challenge of his young career.

For the Clippers fans’ perspective, visit Clips Nation.

PtR’s Gamethread will be up this evening for those who want to chat through the game. You can also follow along with the action through PtR’s Twitter feed.