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Spurs Falter Late in Loss to Pacers

Season 51, Game 06
San Antonio 94, Indiana 97
4-2

The Spurs have chosen to zig while the rest of the NBA zags, and play a slower, post-heavy game that relies on defense and taking the air out of the ball. The team has proven this is an effective way to win games, but it does come with a  tiny margin of error in most games.

The Spurs have the talent and the corporate knowledge to often push that margin in their favor. However, on a day when the shots aren’t falling (again) and the energy seems to be lacking, the margin reverses against them quite quickly.

So it was in Indiana on Sunday afternoon. The Spurs took most of the first 44 minutes of the game to get their act together, even building a 9-point lead at one point early in the fourth. But some sloppy play late allowed the Pacers to steal the game in the waning moments.

If a team is going to slow down the pace and focus on post play (i.e., two pointers), two things are critical on defense: limiting opposing 3-pointers and fast break points. The Spurs did neither on Sunday. The final box score will show that the Pacers took less 3s than the Spurs and only made one more; but watching the game, the Spurs had numerous defensive lapses that led to wide-open (and I mean WIDE OPEN) looks for the Pacers. And while they only finished with 15 fast break points, the Spurs were never able to fully grab control of the pace of the game.

All to say, the Pacers probably should have scored more than 97 points.

On offense, the Spurs didn’t look much better. Once again, Aldridge carried the load, scoring down low and generally playing tenacious–if antiquated–offense. The rest of the team was out of sync, unable to execute basic staples of the offense. Too often they settled for 20-foot jumpers off of no action early in the shot clock. Most of those shots were short, which might speak to a different issue.

The team ended with 28 3-point attempts, but they still do not look comfortable finding the shot in the offense. Players are passing up the shot when it’s an obvious time to take it, instead dribbling into the teeth of the defense. Or, they force the shot when it’s not a good attempt, perhaps trying to get some rhythm going. Very few of the team’s 3-point attempts seem to be taken comfortably and in the flow of the defense. When so much of the offense comes from inside the 3-point line, the importance of taking good 3s is magnified.

After a few games that got us prematurely excited, Murray continues to struggle on this road trip. He is still rebounding well (a skill that will carry him well most of his career), but seems to be regressing as a PG. He looks like he is thinking too much out there, rather than reacting or playing instinctively.

Mills also continues to really struggle. His shot is not fluid, and he seems a step slower to me.

Which puts Pop in a precarious position of who to play in crunch time. Can he go without a PG? Down the stretch of the game, I thought the team would have had a better chance with both Rudy Gay and Brandon Paul on the floor, instead of Gasol and Mills. But Pop played who he trusted, and he can’t be faulted for that.

Let’s end with a few bright spots, because losing back-to-back to Orlando and Indiana is just too depressing of a weekend:

–Danny Green continues to look really strong to start the season. His offense has picked up after a few down seasons, and his defense is as strong as ever. He seems destined to go down as one of the most under appreciated Spurs role players of all time.

–Brandon Paul really showed me something this game. His defense is legit (which is why I wanted him out there in crunch time). His offense is much better than I was expecting, though. He moves well and has a good sense of when to move the ball. And his 3-point shot is smooth. It looks really good. I expect him to keep earning playing time.

It was a rough few days, and perhaps the toughest game of the road trip awaits us Monday night in Boston.

Go Spurs Go.

Magic Hand Spurs First Loss of Season in Rout

Season 51, Game 05
San Antonio 87, Orlando 114
4-1

I suppose it’s good to get the first butt-kickin’ out of the way early.

When you shoot under 34% as a team, you’re likely to lose. When your opponent shoots a blistering 57% from the floor (and that went down in garbage time; it had been well over 60% for most of the game), you’re likely to lose. When both happen, you’re likely to lose by almost 30.

The Magic started the game with force and energy, and it completely took the Spurs out of the game. Yes, sometimes the shots don’t fall for you and they do fall for the other guys, but the effort begat the shooting performance, not the other way around. The Magic swarmed on defense and pushed on offense, and the Spurs just didn’t have the counter to keep up with them.

Ball game.

That marks two straight subpar defensive performances, both troubling in different ways. While the Heat were able to break the defense apart in the half court, the Magic caught the Spurs’ defense napping by pushing in transition. To be a great defense, you need to be solid in both. You can guess what happens to your defense when you’re poor in both.

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Spurs Kick Off Road Trip With Win In Miami, Remain Unbeaten

Season 51, Game 04
San Antonio 117, Miami 100
4-0

This was the Spurs biggest victory of the young season. And perhaps their worst game.

The defensive intensity just wasn’t there, as Miami was able to consistently get good looks at the basket. To their credit, Miami is a team of grinders who always play hard, execute their stuff, and make you work on every possession. What they lack in high-end talent, they make up for in depth and hustle. Maybe the Spurs just didn’t have the focus in them tonight, and the Heat made them pay.

On offense, even though the team scored a bunch, it was more a matter of talent rather than execution. There wasn’t much “beautiful game” to watch; more, it was exceptional individual scoring acumen. In particular, Aldridge and Gay.

We’re only 4 games in, but I’m ready for this to be the new-version LaMarcus. This is everything we thought we were getting two years ago, including passion and intensity. He just looks like a different dude out there. He is playing free, untethered from expectation and self-consciousness.

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Spurs Remain Unbeaten, Hand Toronto First Loss

(Photo Credit: Eric Gay, The Associated Press)

Season 51, Game 03
San Antonio 101, Toronto 97
3-0

Fresh off his double-digit rebound game in Chicago, the Spurs’ Dejounte Murray led San Antonio with 14 boards and added 16 points in a 101-97 victory over the Toronto Raptors to improve to 3-0 on Monday night. With the veteran starter Tony Parker sidelined by a leg injury, Murray has grabbed the starting job by the horns and doesn’t seem keen on letting it go.

He’s yet to crack 30 minutes in a game this season, but his PER 36 numbers have really impressed me already, particularly the rebounding. As a point guard he’s averaging 13.1 rebounds, 3.6 offensive rebounds, and 18 points. According to Basketball Reference, Murray has grabbed 10% of all available offensive rebounds while on the court – as a point guard. That seven-foot wing span is incredible. One nitpick: He hasn’t gotten to the line a ton, and Murray is only connecting on 75% of free throws when he does get to the line.

That said, Sweet Honey Dejounte is exactly what San Antonio needed to power through the opening stretch with true superstar Kawhi Leonard and Parker recovering from injury.

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Spurs Defense Prevails Over Bulls in Chicago

Season 51, Game 02
San Antonio 87, Chicago 77
2-0

There’s a reason Pop preaches defense above all else.

While both ends of the court require tremendous skill, athleticism, and intelligence, offense still comes down to “luck”: shooting.

Of course, shooting is more than just luck. But even the best shooters in the world hover around 50%, which is about the same as a coin-flip. All the skill, athleticism, intelligence, and system in the world will still lead to a simple proposition: will the shot go in or not.

Defense, on the other hand, mostly comes down to effort. Sure, you need a certain amount of skill, athleticism, and intelligence; and you need a system to organize the foundational principles. But what makes it hum is effort.

Effort is controllable; luck is not.

And every few weeks or so, you’ll get a game like the one the Spurs played in Chicago, when offense is hard to come by and luck seems to be turning against you. But the one thing the team can still control is effort. Defense.

So even in today’s offense-heavy NBA, there’s still a role for defense. Particularly when most teams are loading up on the offensive side of the ball, defense can be the zag while others zig.

The Bulls might be the most talent-depleted team in the NBA; on any given night, they shouldn’t be competitive with the Spurs. When the Spurs shoot 40% overall, and only make one 3-pointer all game, though, any team will have a chance. Field a good defense, though, and you’ll stick in just about any game.

Put another way, if you’re only going to score 87 points, you damn well better be able to hold the other team to 77.

A few other thoughts from Saturday night’s win over the Bulls:

• One of the fun things about the beginning of the season is seeing what skills players have added to their game. On the Spurs, nothing is more obvious than Danny Green’s sudden ability to dribble, drive, and dish. Through two games, he looks like a point guard out there at times.

After historic seasons shooting the 3, it was only a matter of time before the league caught up to him. So he added the dribble-pull up to his game after defenders ran him off the line. But watching him dribble was always torturous.

This season, though, he looks great dribbling. Not only that, he is making passes ranging from moderately difficult to Manu-esque difficult. He is penetrating to the rim (thus breaking down defenses) and both finishing and finding open players. He is shooing off the dribble with defenders in his face.

All while still playing great defense.

Green has always had value with his defense and offensive gravity, even when he wasn’t making shots. If he can become a versatile offensive player to boot, his contract really is one of the best values in the NBA.

• Aldridge had another great game, the kind of performance you need from a star when nothing else seems to be working. Again, it will take a few weeks to see if this really is a “new and improved” LaMarcus, but the signs are there.

And then we’ll see how he looks playing with Kawhi.

• Gasol and Aldridge are showing great chemistry this season, particularly playing the high-low game on offense. Pau has always been a wonderful passer, and is very comfortable in the high post. The two have built a nice rapport playing off of each other.

• The NBA eliminated the automatic under 9-minute timeout in the 2nd and 4th quarters this season in a hope of speeding up the game. I love it. It allows for almost 6 minutes of continuous action if neither coach calls a timeout.

But it can also lead to players getting tired and play getting a bit ragged near the end of some of those stretches. It will be interesting to see how coaches adjust their rotations to this, or if they start calling timeouts differently.

Either way, the fan experience is improved not getting a timeout so quickly after a quarter starts.

The Spurs return home to face the Raptors on Monday.

Go Spurs Go.

Photo Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski/AP

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