Author: Jeff Koch (page 1 of 32)

Spurs’ Season Ends (Again) In Loss To Golden State

2018 Western Conference Playoffs, First Round
San Antonio 91, Golden State 99
Golden State wins series 4-1

They battled valiantly (as much as playing a game can be valiant) to the final buzzer, showing true heart and grit. It just wasn’t enough.

We all knew it wasn’t going to be enough. Every Spurs fan I know concocted scenarios in which this Spurs team could win this series: “remember that game in Golden State a few months ago that they should have won…?” “The Spurs can’t be beat at home; if they can just steal one on the road….” “Golden State is really limping into the playoffs and missing their best player….”

Yet, when pressed, all of us picked Golden State in 4 or 5 games, depending on how charitable our mood was that day. It was a fait accompli.

We don’t need to re-litigate the series or the season. It’s over. The team wasn’t talented enough. Absent their superstar, the frayed edges and slightly ripped seams of “the system” really started to show for the first time.

It was a (relatively) miserable season to watch. Something always bugged me about this season, and it finally dawned on me as the Spurs’ final gasp fell just short in Game 5: for the first time I can remember as a fan, the actual games mattered very little.

The whole season felt like prologue to the summer. The outcome on the court bore little consequence to the health and future of the franchise, particularly in relationship to what is to come off the court this summer. In a league often defined more by what happens away from the game than during the game, this is the first time I really felt that dichotomy coming to bear on the Spurs.

It sucked. It still sucks. The regular season didn’t matter. The playoffs didn’t matter. Match-ups against the Warriors didn’t matter. Essentially, once Kawhi Leonard went down with injury, the entirety of the 2017-18 Spurs’ season just didn’t matter. So why did I watch every second of it?

For the first time in my adult life, I really began to question the nature of my fandom. Do I really just cheer for laundry, as Jerry Seinfeld so eloquently quipped decades ago. My love for the Spurs was born in the special relationship between Pop and Tim Duncan, in the passion of Manu Ginobili, in the ruthless and efficient turnstile of role players that always played a small but pivotal role in our successes and failures.

But what now? Duncan is gone. Ginobili isn’t long for the NBA. Pop has real decisions to make, but likely won’t be here beyond 2020. Kawhi was meant to be the torch bearer, carrying our fandom into the next generation, the true bridge between iterations of the team.

And now an entire season is wiped clean, awaiting a solitary decision in the summer, when nary a basket is made nor a pick is set. If he comes back, can we go back to a simpler time, before this season’s soap opera swallowed everything else whole? Or is it already too late; is our fandom broken, and we’re just like every other franchise out there? Can we ever look at our superstar player the same way again? Can we ever look at our franchise the same way again?

Maybe it’s already too late. This is a recap of Game 5 of a playoff series, and nothing about actual basketball is written, because nothing about the actual basketball matters to anyone.

The NBA is the best league. But it can also be the worst.

Spurs Lose Emotional Game 3 At Home

2018 Western Conference Playoffs, First Round
San Antonio 97, Golden State 110
Golden State leads series 3-0

The hearts and spirits were willing, but the bodies unable.

In the wake of the devastating news of the loss of Coach Popovich’s wife, the entire Spurs organization performed valiantly in a game that was suddenly put in stark and proper perspective. Basketball was the last thing in the minds and hearts of the players, yet they still played with intensity and passion.

It just wasn’t enough.

There’s a lot separating these two teams, but the talent chasm is just too much to bridge for the Spurs. To get very reductive, the Spurs just don’t have the shooting talent to hang with the Warriors.

Let’s look at some numbers. The Spurs have made 20 3-pointers total in the 3 games; the Warriors have made 35. That marks 45 points more from behind the arc for the Warriors. Care to guess what the total point differential of the 3 games is? 49. And it’s not even that the Warriors are shooting a bunch more. The Spurs have shot 83, the Warriors have shot 85. The Spurs percentage from behind the arc is an embarrassing 24%. The Warriors are at 41%.

Let’s widen back and look at total shooting. In the series, the Spurs have put up 252 shots, 8 more than the Warriors 244. But the Spurs have only made 104, whereas the Warriors have made 127, or 23 more baskets than the Spurs, or about 7-8 more a game. Again, the average margin of defeat is about 16 points per game.

The Spurs are shooting 41% total; the Warriors (as mentioned) are shooting 41% from 3, and 52% overall.

The Warriors defense is good, but the Spurs shooting is worse. After Game 1 (when the Warriors defense really got into the Spurs), the Spurs are getting great looks; they just can’t hit them. In today’s NBA, shooting is the top skill and biggest necessity for success. It truly has become a shooter’s league, and the Spurs are falling woefully behind.

Two years ago when the Spurs built around size and strength and eschewed the rest of the NBA’s trend towards speed and shooting, it was a noble pursuit. If you can’t beat the Warriors at their game, make it a different game. Kawhi Leonard’s injury in Game 1 of last year’s Western Conference Finals really put an end to the experiment, with no results forthcoming.

But this season it has become evident that the Spurs need to upgrade and update the roster, with or without Leonard. The Spurs need more shooting everywhere on the roster. DeJounte Murray needs to work on his shot. Kyle Anderson (if he’s still on the team) needs to get the confidence to actually shoot it when it’s open. Bryn Forbes needs to figure out how to shoot well over an entire season. We’ll need bigs who aren’t afraid to shoot; same with guards.

There’s plenty to fix on this team, but it has to start with shooting. Watching this team brick three-pointer after three-pointer is hard to handle. Watching them routinely turn down open threes is even harder.

This season is all but over. With the emotional toll this team is currently under, I can’t see them winning Game 4. It’s time for rest and reflection; it’s time for mourning.

I hope the Popovich family and the larger Spurs family gets the time and space to truly heal from this devastating loss. After that, I hope the organization gets to rebuilding this team in a manner befitting their decade’s long excellence, so we can have decades more.

Game 4 is Sunday.

Go Spurs Go.

Spurs Show More Fight in Game 2 Loss to Warriors

2018 Western Conference Playoffs, First Round
San Antonio 101, Golden State 116
Golden State leads series 2-0

It is entirely possible that the Spurs outplayed the Warriors on Monday night.

It is entirely definitive that the Warriors outshot the Spurs on Monday night.

With such a talent disparity between the two teams, that was more than enough for the Warriors to run away with another win in this (so far) lopsided series. The old axiom “it’s a make or miss league” rang true Monday night. When you have more talent and more makes, you’re going to win.

The Spurs played a wonderful first half. They made the adjustments they needed: starting Rudy Gay to get more shooting and offense on the floor; ditching the new defensive scheme that confused the team; and generally playing harder and smarter. The defense in particular was strong in the first half, forcing the Warriors into turnovers and generally making life difficult for their scorers.

The offense was better, too. The Warriors defense wasn’t bullying them around, and they were able to establish LaMarcus Aldridge often and early, and he responded with a wonderful all-around game. The team was patient, and was getting good shots.

Problem was, they weren’t making any of them. And missing lots of them. And missing. And missing.

Fun fact: the Spurs shot 4-for-28 from 3 for the entire game. (Patty was 3-for-9, leaving the rest of the team an astonishing 1-for-19. Oof.) The Warriors made 6 threes in the fourth quarter alone.

To beat the Warriors you have to have a great game plan and you have to execute that game plan. But eventually, you have to make your shots.

So after all of that, the Spurs only had a 6 point lead at halftime. Good, but we could all see where this was heading.

The start of the third quarter proved to be the turning point of the game, as the Spurs let go of the rope just enough to lose control of the game. The defense wasn’t quite as sharp, the offense stopped executing, and the Warriors got easy points in transitions and just started making the kinds of shots the Spurs were unable to make.

Here is a breakdown of the first 10 possessions of the third quarter spanning about 5 minutes of game time:

–Spurs turnover leading to a Warriors alley-oop;
–Spurs turnover, Warriors turnover;
–Spurs missed 3 pointer, Warriors made 3-pointer;
–Rudy Gay drives into two defenders, misses layup and fouls going for board, Warriors miss shot;
–Spurs turnover leading to another Warriors alley-oop;
–Spurs make a 3 pointer, Warriors make a 3 pointer;
–Spurs miss a 3 pointer, Warriors miss;
–Warriors force a jump ball and win possession (essentially a turnover), leading to a layup;
–Spurs missed 3 pointer leading to a Warriors fast break dunk;
–Spurs missed 3 pointer, Rudy Gay offensive rebound and dunk, Warriors 3 pointer

Tallying it up, that’s a 17-5 Warriors run, turning a Spurs 6-point lead into a Warriors 6-point lead. The Spurs would fight back and stay competitive, but this stretch is where the game turned and the Spurs lost control.

The Spurs hit a few more shots, the Warriors miss a few more shots, and this is a competitive game. The Spurs did everything they could to steal one on the road. But that’s kind of missing the point: the Spurs roster isn’t built to make shots, and the Warriors roster is. Mills had a decent shooting night, and he hit some tough long jumpers to keep the game kind of close in the 4th. But there is no great shooter on this roster right now.

The Spurs defense is not good enough to make up for the inadequacies of the offense. The Game 2 defense was much better than the Game 1 defense, and the Warriors scored more in Game 2 than game 1! The Spurs offense just can’t hang point for point with the Warriors. The defense would need to have a perfect game to give the Spurs a chance, and even then the Warriors shooting could be enough to get the win.

But now the series moves back to San Antonio, where the Spurs were a completely different team this season. Plenty of people are writing this series off as a sweep now, and maybe they should. But for those of us who have watched this team all year, we know that the Spurs are more than capable of beating this Warriors team at home.

I think the Spurs win Game 3. (If they don’t, just pack it up, the season’s over). Which then makes Game 4 the pivot game of the series. Can the Spurs make the series competitive? Or will it become a “Gentleman’s Sweep”?

Either way, the season now comes down to two games at home. It’s been a tumultuous and somewhat joyless season. But considering the pride and heart of this team and franchise, and with two games at home, I like our chances.

Go Spurs Go.

Warriors Thump Spurs In 2018 Playoff Opener

2018 Western Conference Playoffs, First Round
San Antonio 92, Golden State 113
Golden State leads series 1-0

That went about as poorly as possible.

In a rematch of the very lopsided 2017 Western Conference Finals, the two teams looked like they were playing Game 5 of that series, rather than Game 1 of a  new series from a new season. Once again, the Spurs looked completely lost and inept on both ends of the ball without their star player, Kawhi Leonard.

The Warriors–coming off of a very sluggish finish to the season–faced no resistance on offense, putting up an easy 113 points. The one semi-consistent variable of the Spurs’ season was their team defense, and it was absolutely abysmal in Game 1 (when the game actually mattered, at least). What is really baffling is it looks likes the Spurs completely changed their scheme against the Warriors to a switch-heavy system where every player 1-4 switched everything no matter what. (This is similar to what the Rockets are doing this season.)

This might be an effective strategy against the Warriors, but it’s way too much to ask a team to completely change its core defensive principles in Game 83 of the season. The point of the regular season is to build and ingrain good habits, so that when it really matters, the players react instinctively. If too much thinking is involved, mistakes are made, time is wasted, and players begin to second-guess things.

It was quite evident that the Spurs just weren’t comfortable with this scheme. In the first quarter, the Warriors got plenty of open looks at the rim and from the 3-point line, abusing the Spurs poor execution of their defensive scheme. The switching also resulted in too many mismatches, with Kevin Durant being guarded by Patty Mills, for example. The Warriors are not afraid to exploit those mismatches.

Another big factor here was the Warriors changing their starting line-up, inserting Andre Iguodala as the “point guard”, essentially going to a big and interchangeable lineup with no traditional PG. The Spurs started with their “small” lineup, which has been very effective in the latter portion of the season.

The main problem with this lineup is that there is nobody for Mills to guard. He is too small to cover any player except an opposing PG or the occasional smaller 2-Guard. Unfortuantely, the Warriors have a very big (and very good) 2-Guard in Klay Thompson. Without a PG on the court, every match-up was a mismatch for Mills, and the Warriors happily exploited this by shooting over him or bullying him in the post, depending on who he ended up on.

On the other end of the court, the Warriors bullied the Spurs out of the paint and made every simple action difficult. This is where the memories of last season’s series came back most vividly. The Warriors defense, when locked in, makes the Spurs offense look bad. Every pass is a struggle, every pick and roll seems to lead nowhere (or worse, deeper into the defense), and every shot is difficult and guarded. Nothing comes easy, and the Spurs’ offense needs easy points from somewhere.

If you watched the first quarter of this game having never seen the Spurs play before (but knowing basketball), you would think that Patty Mills was our star guard. Every action seemed to revolve around him in some way, and the ball was in his hands way too much. Patty isn’t good enough to create his own offense against average defenses, let alone one as good as a locked-in Warriors defense.

This isn’t to pick on Patty. He’s very good at what he does. He is just being asked to do something other than that, and he won’t succeed. Without another actual guard on the floor, Patty probably shouldn’t play. Which mean he might have to come off the bench to match minutes with Quinn Cook, Shaun Livingston, and Nick Young.

LaMarcus Aldridge also had a really tough outing, again recalling the ghosts of 2017. I hope this series doesn’t negatively color what was a tremendous season for him. This match-up is just bad for him, especially with no other great offensive talent to shift focus away from him and give him space to work. If you’re going to run the offense through Aldridge in the post, you need at least 3 other shooters out there on the floor. In the starting line-up, there are only two other shooters out there, making it too easy for the Warriors to shut down the post.

If you’re an astute observer, you’ve already seen one big issue here. If you need shooters on the floor with Aldridge, but you can’t start Patty against this lineup, where do you go?

The honest answer: I don’t know. This is where we start to reach the limits of the Spurs lineup. I think it’s obvious that Rudy Gay needs to start, as he was perhaps the best Spurs player on the floor in this game (him or Manu Ginobili, because of course our best player would be a 40-year-old).

Beyond that, I don’t have a good answer. Davis Bertans might be effective, and could match the Warriors “big” lineup with only one actual big player. But to throw Bertans out there now seems untenable. You could go back to Pau Gasol. He struggles against the Warriors, the Warriors tend to crush our two-big traditional lineups, and he struggled in Game 1. But at least he can shoot the 3. Bryn Forbes? He’s not much bigger than Patty, and not much of a better shooter. Manu? That might actually be the best answer.

And if the answer to the question is a 40-year-old shooting guard, you’ve probably already lost.

I know there’s a desire to pin this on Coach Pop. He didn’t really seem to adjust, and didn’t seem to prepare the team well. He apparently implemented a new defense with one day of practice.

Plenty of this loss is on him. But, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt on the starting lineup issues. By the time he knew the Warriors had changed their starting lineup, he probably still wanted to see how his new wrinkles would play out. The game got away from him early, and maybe he knew this one was lost early. So he stuck with the game plan and took the loss, knowing the team just needs one of these first two.

If we don’t see adjustments in Game 2, though, I think it’s safe to say that the team doesn’t really believe they can win this series. They’ll continue to play hard, of course, and play for each other. But we have enough data to know that it isn’t working. Things need to change.

Game 2 is Monday night. Here’s hoping we see a “different” Spurs squad.

Go Spurs Go.

Spurs End Regular Season With Road Loss In New Orleans

Season 51, Game 82
San Antonio 98, New Orleans 122
47-35, 7th in the West

A road win to end the regular season was probably too much to ask from this Spurs team; but was not getting blown out too tall of an order?

In a word: yes. This team continued its futility on the road, more or less giving up the game by halftime in New Orleans, along with it any chance of a higher seed or possible home court. (The way the final games ended up, I think a win would have only put them in the 6-seed, so not too much was lost.)

The Spurs’ complete futility on the road this season is utterly baffling. Do you remember the last road win? That would be February 25th in Cleveland. They come into the playoffs with 8 straight losses and having not won on the road in almost 50 days. Before the win in Cleveland they had lost their 4 previous road games. So for those keeping track at home, that’s a sterling record of 1-12 in their last 13 road games, dating back to February 10th.

More fun facts from the road: the Spurs ended the season 14-27 on the road, the worst road record of any team in the playoffs by a full 3 games (the Timberwolves are next with 17 road wins).

Some notable road wins this season:

–The Miami Heat on October 25th, a whopping 17-point win against a playoff team.
–A 2-point win against Portland on December 20th.
–The aforementioned win in Cleveland.

That’s it; those are the team’s only road wins against other playoff teams.

On the flip side, the team is damn near elite at home. They finished the season 33-8 at home. The only two teams better? The Houston Rockets and Toronto Raptors (both at 34-7), the top two teams in each conference. Only three other teams in the entire NBA even had 30 home wins: the Timberwolves, the Nuggets, and the 76ers.

The team ended the season with 11 straight home wins, dating back to the beginning of March. And these aren’t bad teams; they had wins over the Warriors, the Rockets, the Pelicans, the Timberwolves, the Wizards, the Jazz, the Thunder, and the Blazers. That’s 8 playoff teams.

The Spurs are basically a 1-seed at home and a lottery-team on the road. They haven’t lost at home in over a month and haven’t won on the road in nearly two.

Which leads us to the playoffs. The pessimist’s take: if you can’t win on the road and you’re the lower seed, what chance do you have? The optimist’s take: if you’re unbeatable at home, all you have to do is find a way to steal a game on the road to get the upset.

Most Spurs’ fans are (rightfully) in the pessimist’s camp. But there’s reason for optimism, because the Spurs opponent is the Golden State Warriors.

Yes, they are the defending champs. Yes, they’ve given the Spurs fits over the last few years in ways both dominating and heartbreaking. There’s no reason to give the Spurs any sort of chance, particularly with how inconsistent the team has been all year and how impotent their offense has generally been.

But this isn’t “The Warriors”. This is a team also struggling with injuries to their most important (if not best) player. This is a team struggling to find consistency and rhythm at the end of the season, going a meager 7-10 in the final stretch of games with some bad losses. This is a team who have been to 3 straight finals, who had no motivation during the regular season, and who are hoping to “flip the switch”.

If ever a team was ripe for an unexpected upset, it’s these Warriors.

Unfortunately, the Spurs are probably the team least-equipped to pull off that upset. But the chance still remains. If the Spurs can remain elite at home, they can easily push this to a 6 or 7 game series. All they need to do, then, is steal one of those road games, a seemingly impossible task.

But I remember March 8th, the night the Spurs lost in Oakland to the Warriors. Steph Curry left the game early with injury, and the Spurs faltered in the final minutes to lose the game by 3. But it was there for them to take. A few bounces go a different way, and the Spurs win that game. I look to that game because it featured basically the exact same rosters each team will enter the playoffs with. That night, the Spurs proved they can compete against the Warriors on the road. That’s all we can ask for: competitive spirit.

There’s little reason for optimism, but there’s plenty of reason for hope.

The Spurs and Warriors open the 2018 NBA Playoffs Saturday afternoon.

Go Spurs Go.

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