The only better time the NBA All-Star break could have come for the San Antonio Spurs was during the COVID-19 outbreak that shut them down for four games and left them severely shorthanded for the most recent five games. They were missing three main rotation players in Rudy Gay, Derrick White, and Devin Vassell the whole time, and just as soon as they got Keldon Johnson back for the two most recent games, LaMarcus Aldridge was out with a stomach ailment.
Week 11: While the Spurs only went 1-2 this week (2-3 since returning from hiatus), there were still positives to be taken away. The Spurs still managed to showcase how deep this team actually is (very important going forward) with big contributions from players like Trey Lyles. Luka-mania is sweeping the Spurs fanbase as Luka Samanic got his first real NBA experience, averaging 7 points and 5.6 rebounds in 17.7 minutes over the last five games while showing off his improved confidence, defensive awareness and prowess, willingness to shoot threes, and all-around offensive game.
Jakob Poeltl has also taken over starting center duties seemingly for good, vastly improving the team’s interior defense (when he can stay out of foul trouble, at least) and his play combined with Luka’s makes it easier to see the Spurs’ potential future at the big man slots that otherwise seemed unsure heading into the season. And of course, the Spurs’ blowout of the Knicks was as enjoyable as it was satisfying.
That being, the week also could have gone much better. The Spurs made an amazing 10-point comeback in the waning moments of the Nets game, complete with a Dejounte Murray miracle buzzer-beater to force OT, but Brooklyn regained their composure for the extra period, and the depleted Spurs were too out of gas to finish them off.
Then, after recovering from that loss with the Knicks win, the Spurs lost to the Thunder for a second time in eight days, blowing a double-digit lead on the back of a second half rife with unforced errors. Those two losses to OKC represent the only times this season the Spurs have lost after building double-digit leads, while they have won the other 15 times.
Hopefully the Spurs will be fully healthy and ready to go again when the break is over, beginning on Wednesday in Dallas, because they’re facing one of the toughest second halves of the season in the NBA, with a league-leading 40 games in 68 days (11 SEGABABAs) against the fourth hardest schedule. They have what it takes, but it won’t be easy.
Last week: 1-2 (18-14, 7th in West) — 124-113 vs. Brooklyn Nets (loss); 119-93 vs. New York Knicks; 107-102 vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (loss)
This week: 3/10 @ Dallas Mavericks; 3/12 vs. Orlando Magic; 3/14 @ Philadelphia 76ers
Andrew Lopez, ESPN - 10 (Last Week: 8)
Second-half storyline: How will the Spurs balance the youth movement with the veterans?
All four of the Spurs’ players over 30 years old — DeMar DeRozan (31), Patty Mills (32), Rudy Gay (34) and LaMarcus Aldridge (35) — are set to be free agents at the end of the season. DeRozan is still averaging 20 points a night and a career-high 7.2 assists a game. Mills is averaging a career-high 13.3 points a game and Gay is roughly the same player he has been since he made it to San Antonio. Aldridge may be better suited for a bench role and has done so in his last three games, giving way to Jakob Poeltl in those contests.
Games to watch
Wednesday vs. Mavericks: Why not tune in for the start of the second half of the season? The Spurs and Mavericks (as well as the Wizards and Grizzlies) get things started before most of the league gets back to work Thursday.
March 24 vs. Clippers: It’s always fun when Kawhi Leonard returns to San Antonio, where he started his NBA career. Also, this is part of a NINE-game homestand for the Spurs.
May 16 vs. Suns: After a stretch of 10 of 12 games, the Spurs end the season with back-to-back games against the Phoenix Suns as San Antonio will look to return to the playoffs after its record-tying streak ended last season.
Bold prediction: No Spurs player will end up playing in every game in the second half of the season. Because of COVID-19 and injury issues, only Mills, Poeltl and Dejounte Murray have played in every game so far, but with 40 games in the second half, Gregg Popovich will find time to rest his key guys.
Colin Ward-Henninger, CBS Sports - 11 (Last Week: 15)
The Spurs just aren’t going to beat themselves, evidenced by their historically low turnover rate, and DeMar DeRozan has evolved into a tremendous facilitator with a career-high 7.2 assists per game. Dejounte Murray and Keldon Johnson have taken a step forward while LaMarcus Aldridge has struggled, and Derrick White rejoined the fold shortly before the break. Perhaps more importantly, San Antonio has gotten back to being a top-10 defense, after landing in the bottom 10 for the past two seasons.
John Schuhmann, NBA.com - 12 (Last Week: 10)
After having four straight games postponed, the Spurs came back shorthanded and lost three of their last five. All three losses were within five points in the last five minutes, but the Spurs allowed 34 points on 25 clutch possessions and shot 0-for-5 on clutch 3s in the three games. The Spurs have ranked in the top six in 3-point percentage in nine of the last 10 seasons, but are 16th (36.3%) this season and have shot a league-worst 7-for-38 (18.4%) on clutch 3s, with Dejounte Murray 4-for-8 and everybody else 3-for-30.
While every other team has played at least 12 games against the opposite conference, the Spurs have played only seven against the East. They’re 6-1 in those seven games and, after visiting the Mavs on Wednesday, will play their next seven games vs. East teams.
Three numbers to know:
1. The Spurs’ assist/turnover ratio of 2.25 is the highest in NBA history. Their turnover rate of 11.1 per 100 possessions is the lowest in the 25 years for which we have play-by-play data.
2. The Spurs have allowed just 96.5 points per 100 possessions in the second quarter. No other team has allowed fewer than 102.7 per 100. in any period
3. Opponents have shot just 46.1% at the rim when Jakob Poeltl has been there to protect it. That’s the best rim protection mark among 52 players who’ve defended at least four shots at the rim per game (but also better than Poeltl has shot on free throws).
Mo Dahkil, Bleacher Report - 9 (Last Week: 8)
The second half of the season is going to be a challenging one for the Spurs since they are scheduled to play 40 games. Right off the bat, six of their first seven contests out of the All-Star break are on the road, including a five-game Eastern Conference swing.
San Antonio is in the playoff race right now, and a lot of that has to do with DeMar DeRozan’s production. His playmaking and 7.2 assists per game have carried the Spurs.
As of now, San Antonio is in the No. 7 spot in the Western Conference standings. If it can make the playoffs, that would be one of the biggest surprises of the year.
Kevin O’Conner, TheRinger.com - 13 (Most recent: 12)
There’s another Luka in Texas.
Luka Samanic, drafted 19th by the Spurs in 2019, has averaged seven points on 35.3 percent from 3 and 5.6 rebounds in his last five games before the break. The 6-foot-10 Croatian underwhelmed early in his career until this recent stretch, but his development could play a major role for the Spurs moving forward. San Antonio is loaded with young guards and wings, but it lacks younger bigs aside from Jakob Poeltl, who is an effective interior player without perimeter skills.
Enter Samanic, who can handle the ball in the open court, attack a closeout, or make acrobatic attempts in the paint. Samanic is earning regular minutes only because the Spurs are dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak, so the true challenge will be sustaining his performance when touches are less frequent and minutes aren’t promised. But the 21-year-old’s offensive development is encouraging nonetheless.
During this five-game run, Samanic is also displaying versatile defense after two years of working on his fundamentals to stay in a stance and improve his lateral quickness.
The first clip above shows Samanic defending Randle full court, nearly knocking the ball away, keeping him out of the paint, and then heavily contesting a 3. Samanic has done a good job against bigs like Randle, and the Spurs have also trusted him to switch onto some quicker guards like Irving, Harden, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The longer Samanic keeps this up, the clearer it’ll be that the Spurs have a good Luka of their own.
Where do you think the Spurs rank heading into the second half of the season? Do these rankings seem about right, and will the Spurs be able to handle the challenging second half schedule to make the playoffs? Let us know in the comments below.