In the Frank Kapra Christmas chestnut It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey is shown what the town of Bedford Falls would look like if he had never been born, and Bailey goes on to realize how important he is to the townsfolk. Similarly, late in the third quarter, with San Antonio down big to the Los Angeles Lakers, Spurs fans were shown just how important a hot-shooting Keldon Johnson is to their nightly success and how intrinsically his energy connects and feeds the young team.
Johnson has endured a very long stretch of cold shooting, dating back to a November 11 game against the Bucks where he scored 29 points on 53% shooting. Since that stretch, Johnson is 28 for 86 from the floor (32.5%). While he is far from the only reason the Spurs are currently mired in a seven game losing streak, just like George Bailey in Bedford Falls, Johnson is the glue that holds the Spurs together.
Bringing it back to 5:30 remaining in the third quarter, with the Spurs trailing the Lakers by 15, Johnson drove to the bucket, hitting a tough And-1 on Lakers big man Anthony Davis. Sprawled on the floor, his fists raised toward heaven, Johnson experienced a moment of cathartic release as he screamed his frustration to the cruel gods of the hardwood who have saran-wrapped the basket on him (not to mention most of the other Spurs of late).
Johnson hit the following free throw, and then a three pointer and layup in rapid succession, forcing a Laker timeout. Down by only 10 with the home crowd awakened and roaring approval, the Spurs looked poised to regain control of the game. Buoyed by Johnson’s energy, they got within three by the start of the fourth, but then the all-too-familiar happened: the gods brought out the plastic wrap again, and the Lakers never looked back on their way to an 11 point win.
The Spurs don’t need Clarence the angel to appear in the rafters to tell them that Keldon Johnson is their sparkplug, piston, battery and a variety of other engine analogies at hand. They just need to watch the game tape from that third-quarter run and marvel at what their recent losing streak might have looked like with a Big Body shooting something close to his usual efficiency. Hopefully, he recovers his magic soon.
- It’s not all on Johnson. Devin Vassell shot 32% from the floor, and the Spurs bench combined for 8/23 shooting (35%). Ironically, Jeremy Sochan (who Spurs fans regularly criticize for his poor outside shooting) was one of the team’s better shooters, hitting 5/11, and one for three from deep. Only Jakob Poeltl and Tre Jones were more accurate.
- When the Spurs stars shoot poorly, it’s very easy for defenders to cheat and then recover on historically weaker shooters like Sochan, Jones and fellow rookie Malakai Branham. The more the defense can pack the paint and stagnate the offense, the more pressure it continues to place on Johnson and Vassell to create within the offense. Both players are usually excellent finishers at the rim if they can get there, but they are still learning to carry the weight of their more-expanded roles (and the additional defensive focus it now brings on a nightly basis). It’s going to take time for them to figure it out, and the Spurs will continue to lose while they do. Obviously, this would be a very different team if it had one or two additional shot-creators (oh, say the likes of — off the top of the head — DeMar DeRozan or Lonnie Walker) to spread the floor and relieve that pressure on its two stars. It’s an intentionally-designed flaw of the current roster that is compounded on nights when Josh Richardson and Doug McDermott sit the bench.
- Speaking of losing, it’s been interesting watching Spurs social media struggle with the idea of the ugliness of the current seven-game losing streak. Now 14th in the conference, the Spurs are exactly where fans of The Tank should want them. Somehow instead it feels like everyone wants entertaining, close games where Tankers have to hope the Silver and Black miss a key bucket at the end and lose by 1 so we can all feel like “this one just barely got away.” To Wembanyama or not to Wembanyama? Tanking is ugly, people.
- A note on the defense (which, let’s face it, has been very inconsistent during this losing streak as well): in recent games, the Spurs have been sending double-teams to a key star like Kawhi Leonard or Anthony Davis, but with the 2022 Spurs team’s mix of inexperience and corporate knowledge, this strategy has produced very mixed results. Usually, it leads to a wide-open cut to the basket or a pop out for the open jumper. LeBron James carved this strategy up repeatedly throughout the night, as did Paul George and Normal Powell in the most recent Clippers game. It’s an understandable strategy, but one that requires a seasoned team working as a cohesive unit. Right now, this team flashes moments of defensive intelligence and intensity but the long stretches of opponents shooting open buckets on slow rotations can be difficult to stomach for fans used to more defensive-minded teams of yore.
Tis the season of turning on the television and seeing reruns of It’s A Wonderful Life every weekend for the next four to five weeks. Buckle up, buttercup.