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The Spurs’ season will be defined by their improvement in crunch time

As games have slowed down in the final minutes, the Spurs have been short on options for what to do and who to turn to, losing a handful of close ones as a result.

Dallas Mavericks v San Antonio Spurs Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

The worm has not in fact turned, not yet at least. It still sits there in the dirt with its wet, eyeless stare, a weird, Elizabethan era metaphor recently reheated to characterize this young Spurs team’s struggles to grind out wins in the clutch. A rock is probably going to break if pounded upon enough with the right tool — but a worm? It answers to no one but itself and God.

Following crunch-time losses to Dallas and then Oklahoma City, San Antonio fell to 1-6 in games decided within the last 5 minutes. They’re now 3-7 overall to start the year despite a positive net rating, thanks in part to the two wins over lottery-bound Orlando but also to an inability to score in the half court in clutch situations as the game slows down. No team has more losses thus far when things get tight and, had the Spurs been at least average in these situations, they’d be 5-5 right now and looked at as one of the league’s pleasant surprises.

Unfortunately in those final minutes, San Antonio’s offensive rating drops from somewhere around 105 to 88.9, and the eye test suggests those struggles will continue unless meaningful improvement is made on the individual or team level. The sample size is still relatively small — just 22 minutes across those 7 games — but there are some observations that seem worth unpacking given this is a team built to keep things close and, until now, sputter when it matters the most.

The Spurs’ defense is doing its job

The Spurs’ 8th ranked defense is legitimate and the reason they’ve stayed in most of their games this year. Despite being small at the 4 and relying on Jakob Poeltl to extend himself against the likes of Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo early, they’ve found a system that maximizes their activity and switchability on the perimeter. The result: a unit that rotates well, consistently funnels ball-handlers to their drop big and creates turnovers and blocks at a high rate. Poeltl has established himself as one of the league’s better rim defenders and defensive anchors, and a deep guard rotation that includes guys like Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Devin Vassell means the Spurs can almost always have a game-changing disruptor on the floor at all times.

The half-court offense is not

The Spurs are the 3rd most efficient transition offense in the league — when they can run. They’re a middle of the pack team in terms of transition frequency, but it shouldn’t be a surprise that a group with so many young, quick guards is able to make teams pay, especially after generating a turnover.

The problem? That efficiency drops to 24th in the league (0.891 points per possession, according to Synergy) in the 83.7% of possessions that aren’t in the open floor, which is largely what the ends of games look like, and also why no lead will be safe as long as this team struggles to get buckets.

The hope is that the system’s randomness can keep the defense on its heels enough to create either open looks or chances to attack close-outs, but you see less of that in crunch time. The pace slows down, opponents are able to pack the paint, and the Spurs become more of a jump-shooting team, which isn’t their strength: 4 of their top 5 highest volume three-point shooters are currently shooting between 32% and 34.5% from deep, and those are almost strictly off stationary attempts off the catch rather than the type of shot diversity that keeps defenses guessing.

A lot of this we saw coming. The Spurs don’t have a natural go-to scorer in iso, or a facilitator who can bend the defense consistently; their aversion to pull-up threes (they’re easily last in the league in attempts) results in a shrunken court through which they must put pressure on the rim, but their most efficient option to doing so is Jakob Poeltl as a roll man rather than any of their perimeter players. When a ball-handler attempts to do so, off-ball defenders can choose to show help because of the Spurs’ lack of shooting threats, or stay with their man and dare San Antonio’s inefficient playmakers to be aggressive.

Dejounte Murray has been The Guy thus far at the end of games

In crunch time, instead of their usual drive-and-kick style, the Spurs have tried to simplify things, putting the ball in the hands of Murray who has at least one credible go-to move with his right-left pull-up midranger jumper but can neither take the top off the defense from beyond the arc or be a threat to attack the rim. As seen in their record, the results haven’t been there yet.

As of the start of this week, the now-longest tenured Spur is tied for 3rd in the league in clutch FGAs with 16, easily the highest on the team, and tied for most in the NBA in assists in the clutch with 6. Suffice it to say the San Antonio offense, which through most of the game is an egalitarian, free-flowing affair, runs almost exclusively through the steady but limited hand of Murray, who has yet to turn it over in those 22 minutes but is also shooting just 37.5% from the field. Murray’s average usage rate through an entire game is 24.1% but jumps to 36.5% in the clutch and his assist rate skyrockets to 66.7%.

Credit to Murray for having the mentality and willingness to be that guy — that’s half of the job, and his experience and seniority made him a natural to get first crack at this role. To boot, some of these chances he’s gotten from midrange will eventually go down given his comfort level taking them and ability to get off clean looks.

Gregg Popovich is letting them learn through it all

Pop has shown an aversion to stopping play in a handful of high-pressure moments early on, instead allowing his young group of players to improvise and attempt to tie or win games on the fly. Last week he said something to the tune of timeouts being “overrated”, which speaks to both the advantage offenses have in attacking an unprepped defense and, probably, his known limitations in drawing up a play off a dead ball with the pieces he’s working with. (Ironically the best end-game execution I’ve seen this year was at the Silver and Black scrimmage, in which someone lobbed a cross-court inbound to Bryn Forbes on the far side who beat the buzzer with a three on what appeared to be a set play) There’s an argument to be made that such experience, even unstructured and in defeat, can foster development in its own way, but it’s probably a flimsy one.

It’s on all of the Spurs, including Pop, to improve upon what they’re doing in crunch time. That may or may not have a positive impact on the win column, but a more cohesive, deliberate attack in the closing moments should have an impact on the team’s half-court execution in general, helping them hold leads and close quarters. In the least, it can be informative in the way the organization should be hoping this season is in general.

Murray may or may not be the answer in those situations — for one, I wouldn’t mind seeing Devin Vassell get a look in iso given his pull-up shooting, improvements off the dribble and the fact that he’s almost always on the floor already in these situations — but as things stand no one’s being put in a position to succeed.

San Antonio is positionless, almost role-less through most of the game. While that can be a feature when they’re at their best, it’s being flipped on them as games slow down and when individual strengths and systemic structure matter — part of the adventure this season will be using these clutch moments to discover what those are. Given the way the team’s built on both sides of the ball, we’re sure to see plenty more of these opportunities in the weeks and months ahead.