Blown Leads Hurting Spurs’ Playoff Chances

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - NOVEMBER 13: (L-R) Tim Duncan, Gregg Popovitch, and Becky Hammon of the San Antonio Spurs talk during the second quarter of the game against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Target Center on November 13, 2019 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Timberwolves defeated the spurs 129-114. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)

The San Antonio Spurs’ 0-5 start to the Rodeo Road Trip means their playoff hopes are very close to extinguished. While the Spurs were able to get a win just prior to the All-Star break, there’s still cause for concern. If you’re a betting person, you may be wise to use a 2020 bet365 bonus code as you make your playoff projections.

Perhaps even more frustrating than the results has been the manner in which the team has lost control of winnable games during that stretch.

Some of their lost leads would not be of great concern individually. But in one week, they lost fourth-quarter leads against the Clippers and Blazers and surrendered a 23-point lead against Denver. This consistent inconsistency points to systemic limitations in their ability to close out games.

Fans may worry that this late-game curse is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy: the concern of losing a lead might hamper the team’s ability to defend it. While this aspect is hard to quantify, the season’s stats do help illuminate the team’s late-game vulnerabilities, mental or otherwise.

Offense Remains Consistent

Recalling DeMar DeRozan’s playoff and crunch-time struggles with the Raptors, I suspected that his offense was slowing down in fourth quarters as defenses keyed in.

However, statistics suggest that the Spurs offense is not the primary culprit for their fourth-quarter struggles. DeRozan’s individual offense (53.6% eFG in fourth quarters, 53.8% overall) and the team’s (110.6 offensive rating in fourth quarters, 111.6 overall) see only marginal decreases in the last period. His lower turnover rate and consistent assist numbers in fourth quarters suggest that DeRozan continues to make good decisions for himself and teammates in crunch time.

LaMarcus’ Aldridge’s shooting numbers also remain reliable in fourth quarters, and the team’s offense overall has generally stayed constant.

1Q 2Q 3Q 4Q
Offensive Rating 110.8 107.7 117.4 110.6
eFG% 53.2% 53.1% 52.6% 53.1%
Assist/TO Ratio 2.32 1.82 1.87 1.97

Poor Defenders Leading to Poor Defense

Unsurprisingly for this season, the defense has been the primary culprit for late-game collapses.

1Q 2Q 3Q 4Q
Defensive Rating 109.5 110.1 115.9 116.2

This is not surprising after examining the players Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has leaned on in fourth quarters. Like the majority of teams in the league, the Spurs have played more small lineups at the end of games. These small-ball lineups generally have an easier time creating shots, and often if one team downsizes the other often follows so their defenders can stick with opponents spreading the floor.

However, in the Spurs’ case, small lineups feature some of their worst defenders, such as Forbes, Belinelli, and DeRozan. Of their 15 most common fourth-quarter lineups, 10 have either Marco Belinelli or DeMar DeRozan at the four, sacrificing the defensive play that Trey Lyles brings to the power forward position. While on some teams, smaller players might be more effective at closing down opponents on the perimeter, opponents have been able to exploit DeRozan and Belinelli’s defensive weaknesses.

Additionally, only one of these 15 lineups features the defensively dangerous White/Murray combination in the backcourt, meaning the undersized Mills or Forbes (sometimes both together) are matched up against the opponent ballhandlers.

Opponents Hunting Weak Links

Towards the end of games, as in the playoffs, opposing coaches are more likely to deliberately target mismatches and weak defenders in one-on-one attacks. The Spurs, lack the big, physical wing defenders to guard the best scorers in isolation.

Furthermore, their policy of switching actions between perimeter defenders means that opponents can easily generate favorable matchups. For example, an opponent guarded by Dejounte Murray can call for a screen from Bryn Forbes’ man and the Spurs will switch Forbes, the far weaker defender, onto the ballhandler.

This vulnerability is exposed when the Spurs have multiple weak defenders on the floor at the end of games. Three of their four weakest isolation defenders are also three of their four leaders in fourth-quarter minutes in the perimeter positions:

Player Points/Posession Allowed when Defending Isolation Rank in 4th-Quarter Minutes Among Spurs Guards/Forwards
Bryn Forbes 1.33 4
DeMar DeRozan 1.03 1
Rudy Gay 0.96 8
Marco Belinelli 0.92 2
Lonnie Walker IV 0.88 7
Patty Mills 0.88 5
Derrick White 0.84 3
Dejounte Murray 0.78 6
Trey Lyles 0.77 9

Better Shots for Opponents

Despite theoretically sacrificing rim protection, smaller closing lineups are yielding only marginally more points at the rim, but they are giving up more three-point shots. The Spurs will execute initial help rotations well but lack the length and athleticism to recover and close down shooters.

Overall 4th Quarter
Proportion of Opponent Shots at Rim 31% 32%
Points Per Shot at Rim 1.19 1.21
Proportion of Opponent Shots from 3 26% 29%
Points Per Shot from 3 1.06 1.02

Will Rotations Change?

So far, choosing the shooting of players like Belinelli and Forbes has not made up for their defensive flaws. While Popovich has historically had very good defensive teams, the Spurs’ current lack of talent on that end is proving hard to overcome.

Over the season, Popovich has tweaked rotations, though not as quickly or dramatically as some fans would like. The Murray/White pairing has been seen more frequently recently, and Lyles and Walker are getting more end-of-game time.

The Spurs used to be known as a team that would close out games, avoid mistakes, and not beat themselves. That hasn’t been the case this year, and even double-digit leads still leave fans nervous.

However, after years of success born from stability and patience, the Spurs organization will not begin making dramatic changes now.  Their quiet trade deadline showed that they believe their coaching, player development, and smart roster moves can bring them back into the playoffs without a blockbuster trade or tanking for a high pick.

While their playoff return may not be this season, the upcoming years will be a crucible to prove or disprove that belief.


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