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What we learned from the Spurs loss to the Hornets

San Antonio can score with the best of them, but they still can't close games to save their life.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Charlotte Hornets Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Like a broken record, the San Antonio Spurs fell short of a fourth-quarter comeback as they lost to the Charlotte Hornets on a one-game excursion between two play-in tournament hopefuls. Despite erasing a double-digit deficit, the Silver and Black remained winless when they trail heading into the fourth quarter.

Keldon Johnson paced the Silver and Black with a career-high 33 points and eight rebounds as Dejounte Murray stuffed the stat sheet to the tune of 25 points, nine boards, ten assists, and three steals. Devin Vassell had 14 points and two blocks, and rookie combo guard Josh Primo added ten points and six rebounds off the bench.

Gregg Popovich is still one win away from tying legendary playcaller Don Nelson for the most regular-season victories in NBA history, but that was probably the last thing on his mind as the good guys dropped their fourth game in a row. While the Spurs will eventually help Pop secure that record before the season ends, their postseason hopes are dwindling.

Crunch Time is a Conundrum

Not that this is breaking news to anyone, but the Spurs have a significant clutch problem. San Antonio’s inability to handle business in close games has plagued them from the start of the season, and their struggles down the stretch have reared their head as they have partaken in four straight nail-biters since returning from the All-Star Break.

Dejounte Murray holds the title of de facto closer for the Silver and Black, a role in which he has performed admirably despite probably being miscast. The sixth-year floor general nearly pushed the good guys over the hump in Charlotte. He hit a pull-up midrange jumper over Mason Plumlee, left LaMelo Ball in the dust with a vicious behind-the-back crossover before stopping on a dime for a step-back, and used his length to finish over Miles Bridges.

Unfortunately, while Dejounte was shouldering the scoring load, his teammates couldn’t seem to buy a bucket. Jakob Poeltl was the lone Spur outside of Murray who scored in crunch time, with the rest of the roster going 0-of-8 from the field. Having only one genuine self-creator was an issue created from the fallout of trading Derrick White to the Celtics, though gaining valuable draft assets was the right move.

With that said, it severely weakened an already paltry defense. San Antonio didn’t give up a single field goal to the Hornets over the final five minutes of the matchup. They did, however, send Charlotte to the free-throw line ten times, a direct result of their defense scrambling due to overzealous closeouts, late rotations, ball-watching, and an utter lack of communication.

The odds of Gregg Popovich finding a resolution to these frequent clutch shortcomings before the season ends are slim to none. Look on the bright side. This experience should eventually pay off for San Antonio’s All-Star and its promising young core. The Spurs also have tons of cap space this Summer, and sweetening their lottery odds gives them another avenue towards adding the elite talent to continue setting their rebuild in the right direction. Frontcourt players with switchability, range, and rebounding chops should be at the top of their draft board.

One Streak Ends and Another Begins

Lonnie Walker IV was an unstoppable inferno across his last seven games heading into Saturday night. And while a date with the third-worst scoring defense in the league looked like a perfect shot to build more momentum, sometimes things don’t go according to plan.

The 23-year-old swingman finished with five points on 2-of-8 shooting in 17 minutes off the bench in his worst outing in more than a month. Lonnie still had a pair of impressive scoring flashes as he drained a pull-up three-pointer and rocked Montrezl Harrell to sleep with a hang dribble before hitting a jumper near the nail.

As an incredible streak ended for Lonnie, another materialized in its place, as Keldon Johnson dominated the Hornets for a career-high 33 points on the road. Going scoreless in the final frame put a damper on an otherwise stellar evening, though the loss is what made this breakthrough feel like it went to waste. Before diving into why this performance was so outstanding, we should probably remove our Spurs-colored glasses to bring some nuance into this analysis.

Keldon showered buckets in Charlotte, but most were of the assisted variety. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with getting a little help from your teammates, though it would be disingenuous to equate his outburst to that of someone like Spencer Dinwiddie, who also scored 30-plus on Saturday. The main difference stems from a stark contrast in self-creation. Whereas Dinwiddie generated 90.9% of his field goals, Johnson only scored nine points without someone else setting the table for him.

The 22-year-old combo forward thrived in transition and on catch-and-shoot opportunities, exploiting a lackluster Hornets defense that played like they forgot to read the scouting report. Keldon can’t control who he faces. He can control how he takes advantage of porous coverages. And among all those assisted baskets, Johnson gave Spurs fans a reason to hope he might one day be capable of creating for himself.

Keldon hasn’t attempted many off-the-dribble threes since landing in San Antonio. But you wouldn’t know that if you caught a glimpse of him effortlessly gliding into a pull-up triple in the first quarter. The Kentucky product also split a pair of defenders off a pick-and-roll possession on his way to an and-one, something we have never seen from him in the NBA. Getting to the charity stripe, creative ballhandling, and shooting off the bounce are all essential tools in top-of-the-line scorers, and seeing Keldon show off those skills was an encouraging sign. The next step is turning flashes into consistent parts of his repertoire.