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Why the Spurs have played (and won) so many clutch games

The Spurs have seen a lot of their games come down to the wire. But is it a good thing that they are winning in the clutch or a bad thing that they can’t put teams away earlier?

Boston Celtics v San Antonio Spurs Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The Spurs have had 15 games come down to the clutch so far. The Celtics lead the league with 17 such games. Only four teams (the Kings, the Lakers, the 76ers and Trail Blazers) have won more games in the clutch than the Spurs have.

Why have many of Spurs games come down to the wire? And is it a good sign for the rest of the season that they can win those close matches or a bad sign that they can’t close teams out earlier?

Marilyn Dubinski: There are two main culprits behind the Spurs’ inability to create distance between themselves and opponents. One is the poor starts to the halves by the starters, which has often left the bench playing catch-up instead of building a lead, and the other is their tendency to get complacent when they start feeling comfortable. That being said, I don’t think the two scenarios — being good in the clutch but bad at pulling away — are mutually exclusive in the sense that one doesn’t have to be good for the other to be bad, or vice versa.

Of course it’s a good thing that the Spurs know how to win close games, considering last year’s team-wide lack of a clutch gene cost them plenty of wins and was one of the main causes of the end of the playoff streak. The fact that they seem to have that gene this year — DeMar DeRozan has developed into a go-to guy on offense, the defense has tightened, they’re making free throws, etc. — is a good thing no matter the scenario or how often they have to use it. It’s something every team needs, including champions, and these feel like sustainable qualities. At the same time, naturally it is not ideal that it takes them that long to put teams away. They’re undefeated when they build double digit leads, so it would certainly help if they did that more often, but still their ability to win more of those close games is a huge difference between last year’s losing team and this season’s winning team. I’ll take it.

Mark Barrington: I think the reason why the Spurs are close at the end of games, and why they win most of them are the same. It’s not a strategy or a system, it’s a player. DeMar DeRozan defers to other players for most of the game to conserve energy and let the young guys learn, but if the game is within 10 points in the early parts of the fourth quarter, DeMar goes to work and makes it close. If he can get it within a basket in the last minute, the ball is almost always in his hands, and he’s going to take the last shot, or draw a foul and take the clinching free throws. There are signs that this pattern is changing. In the first Warriors contest, Dejounte Murray was the closer, and put the game away with a clutch three-point dagger with 12 seconds left. There was still time for another ridiculous Curry triple and a couple DeRozan free throws, but the game was decided by the young point guard taking the role as closer. Unlike the previous game in Houston, where DeRozan closed out the game from the free throw line.

While DeMar’s skill at closing is admirable, it’s something that can become too predictable for sustained success, especially in the playoffs. The more that other players can step up to close games, as Murray did in the victory over Golden State, the more of a threat the Spurs become in the playoffs. Things seem to be trending in the right direction, but the most consistent closer is still DeRozan, and likely will be for the remainder of the season.

Bruno Passos: The Spurs don’t hurt themselves in games—they don’t turn the ball over (1st in TO rate), they control the defensive glass (7th in defensive rebound rate) and avoid putting their opponents on the line (5th in opponent free throw rate)—which gives them a chance nearly every night. Combine that with the young guys’ energy and relentlessness in attacking the basket and you have a recipe for competitiveness that overcomes their lack of top-level talent. But those same shortcomings limit their ability to pull away, as they don’t have the firepower to shoot opponents out of the gym and they lack the kind of singular star to dominate a quarter.

It’s definitely a good sign that they’ve done well in those end-game situations, but there’s always going to be a good deal of variance involved. It’s also worth noting that while the Spurs are 9-6 in those close games, their net rating is essentially 0, which understates both how fine a line that determines these outcomes and the reality that the Spurs’ haven’t been some elite outfit in terms of end-game execution.

Jesus Gomez: I think it comes down to consistency. The Spurs’ quarter splits show a team that plays at a ridiculously high level in the second quarter and well in the fourth, but is a complete disaster in the first and third. The result is a constant oscillation between digging a hole for themselves and climbing back up. There is also a lack of execution at important moments, largely from the young players, which is to be expected. There are times when, through their ups and downs, the Spurs get a sizable lead that could easily turn into a deciding one, but miss their opportunity due to a few untimely empty offensive possessions or defensive breakdowns. Veteran teams are used to pouncing when they smell blood, but younger ones often struggle. It’s normal.

As for whether all these close games are a good or a bad thing thinking about the future, I tend to lean to the latter. It’s good to see the Spurs coming out on top often in the clutch, but there are two factors that worry me. The first is simple: they are one bad bounce from actually losing if they let the games come down to the final moments. There’s definitely some luck involved, so it’s hard to tell what lessons to learn.

The second one has to do with the fact that it’s usually DeMar DeRozan who has the ball in his hands when it counts, and not one of the young guys. DeRozan has the same usage percentage in the clutch as Damian Lillard, for comparison, and almost doubles up Dejounte Murray’s. So we are not seeing a young team rising up to the occasion, at least on offense, as much as we are seeing a veteran closer getting the job done. In the short term that’s fine, but I’m not sure if it means much going forward.

J.R. Wilco: Bruno’s point about the team’s season-long net rating of zero in clutch situations is the fulcrum for this whole issue — and the point which helps us understand why winning in the clutch is good.

The Spurs missed the playoffs last season because they weren’t a good enough team. They lost so many close games that, as Marilyn wrote about at the time, it seemed as if it was in their DNA. But they’re better this year (for a host of reasons) and they’re winning more of the same games they were losing in 2019-20. This is development. It’s improvement. It’s a good thing.

Teams almost always progress through three stages when becoming a great team: 1) losing to 2) winning to 3) dominating. For me, The Clutch Question boils down to this: are the Spurs good enough to impose their will on other teams? Early in the season, they weren’t — thus all of those games that came down to the wire. They would occasionally get blown out, but they weren’t blowing anyone out themselves and practically al of their wins were close. But the good news is that they’ve recently showed signs (Hawks blowout and Hornets double-digit win) of moving beyond that stage. This doesn’t mean they’ve moved from playing winning basketball to dominating, but it’s much better to be between those stages than the first two.