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What we learned from the Spurs loss to the Cavaliers

San Antonio’s recent struggles with opening and closing games continues to haunt them amid their losing streak.

Cleveland Cavaliers v San Antonio Spurs Photos by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

The San Antonio Spurs extended their losing streak to five games as they dropped another close contest against the surging Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday night. Despite erasing a double-digit deficit and trading leads back and forth with their cross-conference competition, the good guys couldn’t find a way to stay out in front for long.

Dejounte Murray paced the Silver and Black with 30 points, 14 rebounds, and eight assists, while Keldon Johnson added 18 points and five boards as he continued settling back into the swing of things after a brief stint in health and safety protocols. Bryn Forbes, Lonnie Walker IV, and Keita Bates-Diop combined for 35 points off the bench.

Head coach Gregg Popovich has made the most of this ragtag group over the past couple of weeks, and San Antonio has shown plenty of resilience despite disappointing results. Victory narrowly escaped them on the first night of a back-to-back, though hanging with a genuine playoff contender should give them confidence as they inch towards full strength.

The Silver and Black are still searching for a clutch gene

San Antonio has battled inconsistencies in crunch time throughout the season, and they have struggled more than usual when the game goes down to the wire since the new year began. Not only have the Silver and Black played more clutch minutes than any other team in 2022, but their 1-4 record in the clutch over that span is fifth-worst in the NBA.

Health and safety protocols have undoubtedly factored into their inability to close contests when things get hairy. With that said, one look at their horrendous .289/.300/.429 shooting splits and uncharacteristic 13 turnovers are all you need to see to figure out why San Antonio has been so disappointing down the stretch.

Unfortunately, Friday night witnessed the Spurs add another frustrating late performance to the books as their offense sputtered to a halt at the worst possible juncture. The good guys fought back from a double-digit deficit to come within one possession of the Cavaliers with five minutes remaining. They then proceeded to go 0-8 from the field and 1-4 from the line until Dejounte connected with Keldon for a fastbreak layup with 21.5 seconds remaining in regulation.

Murray gave San Antonio another glimmer of hope as he knocked down an off-balance three-pointer with six seconds left on the game clock. But the Spurs couldn’t pick off the inbounds pass and sent 91.5% free-throw shooter Darius Garland to the charity stripe, effectively sealing the deal.

The Spurs can’t afford to play catch-up with their opponents

San Antonio probably wouldn’t be in all these nail-biting situations if they performed better at the beginning of games. Their opponents are scoring an average of 31 points in the first quarter since the calendar switched to 2022, with the Raptors, Celtics, Sixers, Nets, Rockets, and Cavaliers each recording at least 30 points in the opening frame.

Some of these less than ideal starts have come courtesy of a pedestrian offense, though failing to take care of the ball or execute on the defensive end has been the main culprit on most nights. That was the case against the Cavs, as San Antonio allowed them to shoot 56% from the floor while coughing the rock up five times over the first 12 minutes.

Darius Garland was the catalyst for a blistering Cavaliers attack. The 21-year-old guard had his way with San Antonio’s defenders, draining catch-and-shoot threes, relentlessly attacking the rim, delivering crisp pocket passes, and nailing pull-up jumpers. Garland even hit a half-court buzzer-beater to put an exclamation mark on his 11-point first-quarter showing.

Head coach Gregg Popovich has talked about how the Spurs must avoid digging themselves into early holes in a couple of his recent pre and post-game press conferences, but the message hasn’t quite sunk in. Cleveland jumped out to a 35-26 lead by the end of the first, leaving the good guys playing from behind from the get-go.

Dejounte Murray needs a helping hand from the rest of the roster

As I mentioned in my Clippers preview, Dejounte Murray has been on an absolute tear since clearing health and safety protocols. The sixth-year floor general has averaged 25.7 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 9.5 assists on 48.5% shooting from the field over his last six games, which is a shame considering his supporting cast hasn’t provided much support.

Dejounte dropped another gem against the Cleveland Cavaliers, narrowly missing out on his eighth triple-double of the season and stuffing the stat sheet to the tune of 30 points, 14 boards, and eight assists. However, that masterful performance went to waste as most of his teammates failed to hold up on their end of the bargain on Thursday night.

Jakob Poeltl went scoreless with four fouls in nearly 33 minutes of action. Devin Vassell and Doug McDermott combined to shoot 7-of-24 from the floor while committing seven turnovers, and Josh Primo tallied two fouls and three giveaways in ten minutes off the pine. Lonnie Walker IV, Bryn Forbes, and Keldon Johnson were solid, but Dejounte needs more help.

The Spurs are only 1-5 with their point guard putting up All-NBA numbers, and while you can point towards COVID as a rational justification for their recent slump, the rest of the league has also had to deal with the fallout of the pandemic. With everyone set to return from the injury report soon, hopefully, San Antonio can get back on track.