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With Dejounte Murray gone, the Spurs will need a new closer

Gregg Popovich wants Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell to be reliable performers late in games, but it might take them a while to get there.

NBA: Houston Rockets at San Antonio Spurs Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

Gregg Popovich’s media day availability was a fun, positive appearance that understandably didn’t offer a lot of details about what’s coming. Pop mostly focused on cracking jokes about his return and highlighting how much the team will focus on development without really being too specific about what that development would look like.

There was one moment, however, that offered a glimpse into what the coaching staff will likely monitor closely. When asked about Keldon Johnson’s development, he noted some general areas of improvement but also made it a point to talk about how the Spurs will need him to be better late in games.

“We know in fourth quarters last year — Brett Brown gave me some sort of stat — but in the fourth quarters we had problems executing. Who’s our go-to guy? What are we going to do? Who's going to score. You know, that kind of thing. So in that respect, (Keldon Johnson’s) decision-making and his confidence in those situations will be important. Devin Vassell is in the same boat as far as that’s concerned. So each of them will have to take another step in their progression.”

It’s understandable for Pop to bring that up when discussing specific things to improve upon for this group and Johnson in particular. The Spurs struggled greatly in close games early last season and only got better when Dejounte Murray took over. Murray had 10 more total points in the last five minutes of games in which San Antonio was ahead or behind by five points or fewer than Jakob Poeltl and Johnson combined. The Spurs weren’t particularly successful in the clutch, but the success they did have seemed to stem from the play of someone who is now gone. Replacing that production could be tough.

The good news is that Vassell and Johnson can only get better because they were shockingly bad late in games last season. Johnson shot 36 percent on two-pointers and 15.8 from beyond the arc in the clutch while Vassell shot 25 percent on two-pointers and missed all 14 of his threes. To be fair, especially to Vassell, the team simply struggled to create clean looks late, so some of those misses came late in possessions, with the shot clock winding down. Johnson did get to take more shots that weren’t so close to being desperation heaves, but he struggled to create separation off the dribble when the game slowed down.

Now, struggles in the clutch are probably going to be something the Spurs have to deal with next season, but shouldn’t be too big of a concern. As Pop said, the team is not going to win a championship, so losing a few close games won’t matter much. The focus should simply be on seeing how much Vassell and Johnson improve over time in high pressure situation. Both said that they have been working on their handles, which should help them get better looks against set defenses, and not having Murray around means that they won’t need to defer, so they should get plenty of opportunities to take meaningful shots late.

There will be many challenges for the young Spurs next season. Executing in the clutch will just be one of them. Hopefully, just like Murray did before them, comeone will be ready to step up when it matters most.