The Spurs’ Difficulties in Recent Close Games


Since the beginning of February, the San Antonio Spurs have had a -11.2 points per 100 possession net rating in the fourth quarter. This issue has been even worse at home, where they have a -25.7 net rating in the fourth, including a defensive rating of 125.8. This mark would be worse than the league’s worst defense by about 15.1 points per 100 possessions.

NBA’s stat page classifies the “clutch” as the last five minutes of any game that was as close as five points at any point during that five minute period. Since the beginning of February, the Spurs have had 7 games that qualify, and are 1-6 in those 7 games, with their only “clutch” victory being against the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday. Their net rating gets even worse in these situations as they sit at a league-second-worst net rating of -50.2 since January ended. Their offense in the clutch has certainly been bad in February, at 86.8 points per 100 possessions. Their defensive rating, however, has been abysmal in the clutch, with a league worst 137.0 points per 100 possessions.

The failure to win these close games, especially at home, has hurt the Spurs. If the Spurs would have won just two more of these games, their hypothetical record of 39-25 would have them still sitting at 3rd in the Western Conference. At the time of this writing, however, they are in 5th with their playoff positioning moving two or three seeds in either direction each night, regardless of if they are playing.

A large factor in this has been the Spurs’ difficulty to hit three point shots late in games. In the clutch, 3 point field goal attempts make up 47.4% of all the Spurs’ field goal attempts. Only 19.1% of their points come from 3-pointers in this time frame though, a rather large disparity that translates to a 16.7% 3-point percentage. This does make some intuitive sense – teams that are behind late in games often shoot 3’s to make up the gap quickly. Opposing teams know this and are quick to throw extra coverage and attention to defending the perimeter. When looking at these same stats before February, though, 41.9% of the Spurs’ field goal percentage comes from 3-point range in the clutch, while 30.3% of their points come from 3. They shot 35.2% from 3 in the clutch during this time frame, good for 8th best in the league.

Turnovers have plagued the Spurs in these situation as well. Since the start of February, opponents are scoring 31.4 points per 100 possessions off the Spurs’ turnovers alone at the end of close games – the worst mark in the league. The Spurs are also allowing 59.1 points per 100 possessions in the paint, with opponents shooting 54.5% from 3 as well.

Since the beginning of February, the Spurs have gone 1-2 in games that were within 5 points in the finals 5 minutes when LaMarcus Aldridge plays through the end of the game, going 0-4 without him. In the final moments of a close game, teams are often playing their best players. When the Spurs are without their two best players, they have had trouble matching up against opponents’ best lineups. The Spurs’ most played 5-man lineup in fourth quarters since the beginning of February has played only 9 minutes together – a testament to both the Spurs’ various injuries and their experimentation’s to find something, anything, that will work for them in these late game situations.

Late in close games, defenses hone in on hindering their opponent’s strengths and offenses tighten up. When the game bogs down, even teams lauded for their system or strong team-oriented offense will often give the ball to a player who can make a shot in isolation and let him go to work. It’s one of many reasons why the Golden State Warriors signing Kevin Durant has worked out so well for them. Kawhi Leonard provided that for the Spurs last season, and Aldridge has this season. But after catching teams on winning streaks, an injury to Aldridge, and plenty of other factors, the Spurs have had trouble generating offense late in games since the end of January. With one of the league’s toughest remaining schedules coming up, these numbers may hold steady until the Spurs are healthy once again.

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