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The reasons for the Spurs’ third-quarter collapses

The PtR staff tries to figure out the reason for the slow starts to second halfs and discusses the development of young players.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs get outscored by a whopping 28 points per 100 possessions in third quarters. Do you have an explanation for why they are so bad after halftime?

Marilyn Dubinski: This was an issue last season as well, so does this come down to young players just not coming out of the locker room with the same energy, maybe complacent when they build those double-digit leads at home before inevitably blowing them, or not ready to adjust to other teams’ adjustments, or do you go straight to the coach and start wondering if whatever Pop is saying in the locker room at halftime isn’t working? We know Pop isn’t as hard on this team as he was on his championship ones (understandably so), but the third quarter is usually when those teams came out, laid down the hammer, and turned games into blowout wins. Now, it’s the opposite. At some point, youth stops being an excuse.

Mark Barrington: I wish I was smart enough to figure out why this is happening, because if I was, I’d send a letter to Pop and tell him how to fix it. If I had to hazard a guess, and this is a big leap ... I think it’s because a lot of Spurs players aren’t very good at many things, and while a coach can tell them how to play differently coming out of the half, they just can’t do it. I don’t think it’s specifically youth, it’s talent, and the lack of it.

You have a bunch of role players, plus Wembanyama, Vassell, Johnson, and Jones. It’s too easy to defend players who aren’t versatile, and teams figure out how to shut them down after spending the first 24 minutes of the game on the same court with them. But that’s just my opinion, and I’m definitely not a basketball coaching authority.

Bruno Passos: I think complacency/consistency issues definitely apply to an inexperienced group and my completely unscientific take is that experienced, well-tuned teams are well-suited to make tactical adjustments after halftime whereas young teams are still trying to tighten and improve what they were doing coming into the night. Maybe I’ll test the theory with Pop and get shot down — will circle back.

Jesus Gomez: It’s tricky, because there are bad stretches that are more about effort and focus than anything else. But if I had to pick one thing, I’d say the problem is opponents figure out how to play the version of the Spurs that shows up that night after a half. If they are overhelping, the other team eventually makes them pay. If the passes are a little lazy, defenders might not gamble early but start to pick them off as the minutes pass. Issues that looked small earlier in the game become bigger and San Antonio simply doesn’t have the talent to adjust on the fly. That’s my guess.

Branham, Wembanyama, Collins and Tre Jones are all shooting below 30 percent on three-pointers. How many, if any, do you think will finish the season above the 30 percent mark?

Dubinski: Zach Collins has proven to be a good enough three-point shooter that he should eventually bounce back, but the other three are still unproven. Branham has such a smooth shot everywhere inside the arc that he should be better from three, but for some reason they always fall short. He should improve but still appears to be a work in progress, as is Jones. As for Wemby, so many seem to go in and out on him that he seems close to breaking out, but shot selection is also a factor for him, and he’s still good for an airball every game or so. It might come down to when Pop starts implementing a system around him instead of letting him roam free.

Barrington: I think Zach just needs to keep shooting. He’s getting the most open looks of anyone on the team (possibly because opponents have been watching film on him) and he’s got good technique and there’s no reason why he shouldn’t shoot better with more experience. Even though he’s been in the league since the 2017-2018 season, he’s only played in 262 out of 509 possible games, losing a whole season and big parts of others with injuries. He’s looking more comfortable out of the floor, and his shot should improve as he gathers confidence.

Wembanyama is a good shooter, but right now, his shot selection is pretty bad. He needs to be more disciplined about when he shoots, and realize that he doesn’t have to fade away from players a whole foot shorter than him. He will eventually shoot 40% from beyond the arc, but probably not this year. But more than 30%? That’s a pretty low bar for a player as talented as Victor, and he should get there this year.

Branham is another guy who should improve with experience. Does he reach 30% this year? His big problem is that he has a pretty low release, so he can’t get his shot off without being on the move or having someone creating room for him. If Wembanyama keeps floating around the perimeter, Branham is not going to get the open looks he needs, but once Victor starts initiating his offense closer to the basket, Malaki is going to get a much better view of the hoop.

I really love Tre Jones as a player, but he’s just not a good shooter. He’s lightning fast and has the best handle on the team. But some guys just can’t shoot. I used to think that Tre could eventually become as good at shooting as his brother Tyus, but after 3.2 years without significant improvement in his three-point shooting, I’ve come to realize that he might have hit his shooting ceiling, which is about 30% or a little less. [Fun Fact: Tre Jones shot .600 on threes in the 2020-2021 season—based on 5 total attempts, which goes to show that stats based on small sample sizes tend to be worthless.]

Passos: Look, not everyone can be a sniper like Jeremy Sochan (38.2 %), unfortunately. If I had to rank them, I’d go Wembanyama, Collins, Branham and Jones. I still don’t trust Jones when pushed past the three-point line and Branham’s shot has looked flat, whereas Wembanyama and Collins should continue to have cleaner looks in rhythm as the offense (hopefully) settles a bit more.

Gomez: I’ll be bold and say all four. Wembanyama and Collins shoot them in volume, but a bunch of their attempts are uncontested, so I think they can get to 30 percent. Jones, on the other hand, is a lot more selective when it comes to pulling the trigger, but that means he won’t need a ton of makes to turn things around, since he’s only taken 28 attempts this season. And Branham is streaky enough to have a few games with multiple makes.

I will add an extra prediction, though. None of the four will shoot over 35 percent this year.

Sochan is under the microscope, but there’s another second-year player getting rotation minutes. How happy are you with Malaki Branham’s progress so far?

Dubinski: He’s been in a sophomore slump and hasn’t been great for the most part, so I’m somewhat disappointed after he was a pleasant surprise last season. The bench unit needs him to be more steady on offense, but he’s better with the ball in his hands than as a spot-up shooter, so maybe sharing the court with Tre Jones is holding him back a bit? It’s hard to tell with all the strange lineups Pop is rolling out.

Barrington: Malaki is really streaky, and he’s not a great defender. Or even a good one. But when he’s on, he’s got good movement on offense and he’s a decent passer. He’s more of a complementary player than someone you can build the offense around, which is a problem for the Spurs, since they have too many Robins and only a baby Batman. I really have hopes that he can develop into a mid-range wizard and become more consistent with his shot. But until the Spurs have more players that can create on offense he’s going to be a little overmatched when defenses can concentrate on him, because the Spurs have too many guys who aren’t much of a threat to score.

Passos: I haven’t seen much to love yet despite the spot in the rotation and some spot starts, but it’s early and the team on the whole is clearly still figuring things out. While I’ve seen people complain (a bit unfairly) about him looking off Wembanyama here and there, the bigger issue is how many ways he can positively affect an offensive possession. He came in with a good foundation in his ability to create a quality midrange look in the pick and roll, and I was hoping to see how that might either open things up or how he might tease the other areas of his game. The three-point shot may be another year out.

Gomez: He has talent, but the biggest concern with Branham is figuring out what his role will be in the NBA. He’s an atrocious defender right now and he doesn’t hit threes, so having him out there with ball-dominant players doesn’t seem like a good idea. At the same time, he’s not a good enough shot creator to lead lineups. There are times when he hijacks possessions, which is understandable considering his usage in college but can be frustrating to watch. Still, he’s still incredibly young and the flashes of secondary playmaking and mid-range brilliance are real. Hopefully he’ll continue to get minutes so that he can figure out his place in the league.