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The Spurs have lost their clutch gene

The Spurs were great at pulling off late-game wins early in the season, but since the All-Star break they’ve really struggled in the clutch.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

It seems like long ago now, but at one point the Spurs had one of the best records in the West. At the end of February, they ranked fifth in the conference. At the All-Star break they had moved down only a couple of spots in the standings due to a COVID hiatus and were still dreaming of making the playoffs directly.

Since then, the Spurs have logged the third worse winning percentage in the conference, losing fewer games than only the tanking Thunder and Rockets. If the Pelicans had made a push, San Antonio would probably be on the outside of the play-in picture looking in.

There are many reasons for the Spurs’ bad play for the past two months, but one in particular stands outs when contrasted with how well they did early on: the Spurs have gone from terrific in the clutch before and to terrible in it for a while now.

The definition the league uses for clutch time is the last five minutes of a game in which a team is ahead by five points or fewer. Since the start of the season until February, when they ranked fifth in the conference, the Spurs were 8-5 in such games. By All-Star weekend they were still above .500 in those situations but were now 10-9 for the season. Since then, they have gone 5-11.

If we tighten up the definition of clutch to only include games in which a team was leading by three points or fewer — one possession games — with two minutes left in the game, the numbers don’t change much. Before the All-Star game, the Spurs had an 8-6 record in those situations. After the All-Star break, they’ve only won three of the 12 games that came down to the wire. The difference is stark.

After looking at the numbers, the question to ask is what changed? Why were the Spurs good in the clutch early in the season and so bad since the break until now? The main factor, at least statistically speaking, seems to be interior defense. San Antonio went from allowing .367 points in the paint per possession in the clutch before the All-Star break to .568 post All-Star break, the third worse mark in the league behind only the Warriors and Cavaliers. Anecdotally, Ben Simmons’ tip-in and the Celtics scoring inside with ease in the recent comeback do seem to show that maybe the small ball identity of the Spurs can come back to bite them at important times if they are not hyperfocused on protecting the rim and cleaning the glass.

Maybe the Spurs could return to being good in the final minutes by learning from the teams that have been near the top of clutch winning percentage over the years. The common thread between them seems to be good defense and/or a dominant star. Weirdly enough, the Spurs have both, at least in theory. DeMar DeRozan is an absolute assassin late, and even after some tough weeks, San Antonio is still in the top half of the league in defensive rating. Improvement might just come down to the smallest of margins. Maybe if DeRozan had shot better than 43 percent late, the young guys did some of the little things better, or the veterans bench guys hit more threes, the wins would have kept coming. Or maybe none of that would have mattered anyway.

The problem with close games is that they often come down to a few plays. A friendly bounce becomes extra meaningful when there are only a few possessions left. Execution is hugely important, but sometimes whether a miss finds its way to one player or the other can determine who wins. Luck matters. The Spurs might have benefited greatly from some good fortune earlier in the season, looking better than they were, and when the tables turned, things got ugly. Going by Pythagorean wins, a stat that calculates what a team’s record should be based on their margin of victory, the Spurs are a 30-35 team, which means these recent close losses, as unfortunate as they have been, were probably expected as a counterbalance of some earlier wins that they lucked into.

The best fix, then, would be to try to avoid letting games be decided in the clutch whenever possible, especially those that never needed to be close in the first place. The Spurs have showed a lack of killer instinct several times this season — and last season, really — with the most extreme example being the collapse against the Celtics, which is a little worrying. It’s definitely too much to ask from a young, flawed group to put opponents away early with the ease of elite veteran teams, but hopefully as this core matures, they’ll find that extra gear to turn single-digit leads into more significant ones and learn how to deliver daggers that stop runs. Not letting so many games be decided in the clutch — the Spurs currently have the sixth highest amount of such games this year — could be a good goal, as long as they’re on the right side of them.

Coming into this season, no one would have been surprised by the young Spurs struggling to be clutch gods, so their recent struggles aren’t a huge problem. If anything, it’s a good thing that at least some of the young guys have been able to experience high pressure situations as often as they have.

Going forward, hopefully they’ll do their best to avoid letting wins that should have been comfortable be decided in the final seconds and execute when they are forced to play in the clutch, so that they leave as little to chance as possible to have to execute under extreme pressure.