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What we learned from the Spurs loss to the Pelicans

When the little things go wrong, bad basketball ensues.

San Antonio Spurs v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

How many times can you make the same mistake until it becomes a part of who you are? Perhaps it’s too philosophical of a question for regular season basketball in December, but we are getting to that point with the San Antonio Spurs.

Over the course of the Spurs fourteen-straight losses, the games have followed a familiar formula. A good-to-(sometimes-)stellar first half of basketball that is thwarted by a poor second half. To discuss the Spurs second half struggles in a “what we learned” piece feels wrong. No one has to learn anything about it. It’s known. Yet, here we are, focusing on second half struggles after a 121-106 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans.

I saw a tweet that pretty much summed up my thoughts about Friday’s game:

With 10-minutes left to go in the fourth quarter, the Spurs had pulled within 5 points of the Pelicans. This of course comes after a disastrous 17-7 run to start the third quarter in which the Spurs turned the ball over six times to help New Orleans build a double-digit lead. They would score just six points in the next five minutes as the Pelicans went ahead double digits again. That stretch was filled with disjointed offense and two turnovers.

Defensively the Spurs allowed the Pelicans to bully them inside. They were outscored in the paint 52-38 and allowed the Pelicans to get to the free throw line 29 times where they hit 27 free throws. Those dribble drives allowed to Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson would lead to easy dump offs to Jonas Valančiūnas or kick outs for Herbert Jones and Trey Murphy III three balls. Especially without Victor Wembanyama, the Spurs are not good enough to make these kinds of mistakes on both ends.

I understand the frustration from fans. It was supposed to get better with Wembanyama. While the team is obviously still rebuilding, you’d like to see some progressions year-over-year in the win department. In many ways, this season feels more frustrating than the last, despite the excitement of watching Wembanyama play.

The Silver and Black have two more chances to get a win before they tie the franchise record for most losses in a row. That was set by last year’s team at 16 games. Breaking that record would be massively disappointing for a team that is stepping back when it should be moving forward into the future.

Takeaways

  • As I watched the Spurs on Friday, I thought to myself – “Man, they really do miss a lot of open shots for an NBA team.” I had no idea it was this bad. According to Synergy Sports, the Spurs are shooting 39.6% on UNGUARDED catch and shoot jumpers. They shoot 33.5% when they are guarded on the same attempts. They are barely hitting over a third of their open jump shots. That puts them in the 23rd percentile in the NBA. How can an offense function when it can’t hit open shots? Even when the Spurs generate a good look, they can’t finish it.
  • In Back to back games the Spurs have turned the ball over 20 or more times. They are third in the league in turnovers at 16.6 a game. It’s impossible to run an efficient offense when you have that many empty possessions. On Friday so many of them were unforced. Travels, bad passes that sail out of bounds. Sure it’s a young team and the second game of a back to back, but the turnovers need to come down.
  • Teams crush the Spurs on the offensive glass too. They gave up 10 offensive boards to the Pelicans. The Spurs are giving up the third most offensive boards in the NBA at 9.5 a games. Valančiūnas crushed them on the boards, putting up 24 points and 12 rebounds. All of the turnovers, second chances, uneven play and paint scoring differential tell the tale of an unexperienced, undisciplined team that has a lot to learn. Luckily there are still 63 games to go.
  • I don’t want to be completely negative here (it’s hard after a game like that.) There have been improvements across the roster on an individual level. Jeremy Sochan has turned into a semi-reliable jump shooter if left wide open. Just being a threat from deep should open some driving lanes for him. Keldon Johnson seems like a more efficient player, taking jumpers in rhythm instead of forcing them. He’s also been better defending on the ball than last season. Devin Vassell is continuing to develop as a go-to scorer, if only he could have the ball in his hands more often. Charles Bassey is a legit backup big man in the league. He’s got a lot to improve on offensively, but his size and athleticism make him a good rim protector and intriguing rim-running prospect. Malaki Branham is inconsistent but clearly has some skills as a scorer that just need refining. Hopefully seeing two threes go down will boost his confidence after starting the season shooting 29% from deep.