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What we learned from the Spurs loss to the Bucks

San Antonio’s strengths and weaknesses rear their heads as they drop another tight contest.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

The San Antonio Spurs put forth a valiant effort against the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday night, keeping things close for most of the matchup before falling behind late and succumbing to the reigning champions in their first SEGABABA of the season.

The starters came strong out of the gates behind a searing performance from beyond the arc courtesy of San Antonio’s prized free-agent addition Doug McDermott. Unfortunately, the second unit struggled to keep pace as everyone outside Lonnie Walker IV battled shooting woes.

Although the Silver and Black have a losing record for the first time this season, the team has looked more cohesive on both ends of the court, a welcomed sight highlighted by elevated defensive activity, unselfish ball movement, and a lot less standing around.

We already discussed Keldon Johnson, Jakob Poeltl, and several other Spurs in last night’s final score. So, rather than rehash thoroughly covered topics, let’s dive into three team-oriented concepts that stood out versus Milwaukee and have defined San Antonio’s season thus far.

Observations

  • The Spurs rank 27th in three-point attempts and 26th in efficiency from that range through three games this season. And while it’s not time for anyone to panic about either of those lackluster numbers, San Antonio might not be a much better perimeter shooting team than a year ago. Adding Doug McDermott and Bryn Forbes gave them two established deadeyes. But without any noticeable shooting improvements from their incumbent rotation players, at least not to this point, fans probably shouldn’t expect significant progress in that area. Nothing is set in stone quite yet, but you can realistically separate the roster into three distinct categories, knockdown shooters, streaky shooters, and non-shooters. Bryn and Doug fit into the first bracket. Although Lonnie Walker IV, Devin Vassell, and Derrick White can get hot in a hurry, they can also fall victim to lengthy cold spells, which is why they fall into the middle subset. Combining for zero three-point attempts so far, Jakob Poeltl and Drew Eubanks headline the final collection, with Keldon Johnson and Dejounte Murray teetering on the edge of groups two and three. Murray and Johnson have taken enough triples to suggest they’re working on their outside game, yet missed or passed up on enough of them to draw a bit of skepticism that they’ll make much headway. As for everybody else, they just haven’t played enough minutes for it to sway the Spurs one way or another. Of course, the season is still young, so things could change if a couple of guys emerge as legitimate threats from beyond the arc. And with San Antonio taking a season-high 39 trifectas against the Bucks, that could signal a shift in offensive philosophy.
  • San Antonio has continued showcasing their new and improved defensive intensity and attention to detail, forcing the Bucks into a whopping 20 turnovers while baiting Giannis Antetokoumpo into three offensive fouls. Not only have the Silver and Black generated the most turnovers and drawn the most charges in the league, but they’ve made teams work deep into the shot clock for quality looks. Don’t believe me? Well, their opponents have taken about 14.4 seconds per field goal attempt, the third-best mark in the NBA. The Spurs have the personnel to stay in games with their defense, a luxury they haven’t had since Kawhi Leonard decided he wanted out of town. So far, their strides on this end of the court haven’t amounted to much success. But when you face the reigning MVP on the road and fly back home for a date with the reigning champions less than 24 hours later, that’s not exactly a favorable situation. Things don’t get much easier from here, as head coach Gregg Popovich and crew square off with the Lakers, Mavericks, and Bucks in their next three outings. Though three consecutive matchups with potential title contenders will probably momentarily skew their defensive numbers in the wrong direction, those tests will only fine-tune their abilities.
  • The easiest way to score points is by drawing fouls and getting to the free-throw line. San Antonio finished 11th in free-throw attempts (22 FTA) and 10th in free-throw percentage (79.2%) last season, but with DeMar DeRozan departing the organization this summer, replacing his production was always going to be a question mark, especially at the charity stripe. The four-time All-Star got to the free-throw line 7.2 times per game last year, with Derrick White ending as a distant second place on the team. The Spurs have seen a steep decline in their attempts and efficiency from the line, ranking 28th (12.7 FTA) and 23rd (71.1%) in those respective categories early on this season. Good free throw numbers don’t automatically make you a winning organization, but it can be a lifeline for clubs that have difficulty creating half-court offense. San Antonio just so happens to be one of the teams that fall into the above category, and it’s easy to see why getting to the line will be integral to their success. Keldon Johnson is a fearless driver who aggressively seeks out contact, so it’s hardly shocking he’s their early leader in trips to the charity stripe (4.3 FTA). The rest of the roster, however, tends to sky-and-adjust or avoid physicality on the offensive end altogether. They should consider taking a page out of Keldon’s playbook. If they don’t, the Spurs could potentially leave a lot of points on the board this season.