AT&T CENTER – Before January 1, the San Antonio Spurs had lost just six total games in the first three months of the season combined. With one more game left in January, San Antonio has faced its most difficult month of the season thus far, as they’ve already suffered five losses in January, and yet, there’s still one more game left in January, Tuesday, when the Spurs face the Oklahoma City Thunder for the first time.
While overall the Spurs are still on pace to win 63 games this season, their losses in January have been very odd, as four of five of them have come against teams below .500. Sunday’s loss to the 17-30 Dallas Mavericks was just the latest trend of the Spurs continuing to have trouble on the area of the floor that is usually their backbone when their offense is struggling to score – the defense.
“Too many mental errors defensively,” said Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich Sunday. “I thought we did a really poor job discipline-wise. Weak side defense wasn’t there.”
Heading into Sunday’s contest, the Spurs were a perfect 24-0 when taking a 15-point lead in a game this season, but, that streak would be snapped, as they got torched defensively in the second half, as the Mavericks scored 28 points in both the third and fourth quarters of the game.
“But too many weak side errors defensively where they got to the rim just too easily,” continued Popovich on Dallas. “You know we scored points. I know we got 100 points, 101 points, that’s fine, but the mental mistakes defensively were really costly.”
This season, the Spurs’ bread-and-butter quarter defensively is the third quarter, where they’re holding teams to just 98.0 points per 100 possessions. Usually, the team can make the necessary adjustments at halftime and try to execute them in the second half, which normally shows in the numbers and as the Spurs start to gain separation from most teams. But, lately, especially since Pau Gasol’s injury, the defense in the third quarter has struggled in those 12 minutes on the floor.
In their last six games without Gasol, the Spurs’ defense has been giving up 111.7 Pp/100 to opposing offenses in the third quarter, and in their losses, that trend has continued into the fourth quarter.
“Our defense was pretty poor,” said Manu Ginobili Sunday after the game. “Mainly miscommunication. We were always late, too many missed communications. Somebody thought it was ‘switch,’ someone that it was ‘step.’ We were not as attentive as previous games.”
“When you make the simple mistakes, you kind of shoot yourself in the foot, especially defensively of us,” added Danny Green after Sunday’s loss.
There’s two ways to look at the Spurs’ recent losses – especially with four of them coming against teams below .500 and with San Antonio leading by double digits against each opponent. A) Maybe like the players said, the team just isn’t mentally focused for a full 48 minutes and they’re making the mental errors that allow teams to make comebacks and stay within games. Or, B) maybe with all the recent injuries and lineup shuffling that has taken place, the constant movement within the roster might have rotations and lineups out of sync, especially defensively, where help situations are very obvious when there’s a miscommunication error, as the opposing player might get an easy basket near the rim or from the outside.
One other trend that has been happening in the Spurs’ January losses is when opposing players are scoring season, and in some cases career-high games against San Antonio’s defense. Here are a few examples.
- In the Spurs’ loss to the Atlanta Hawks on 01/01/2017, Paul Millsap had scored (then) a season high 32 points and his teammate Tim Hardaway Jr. also scored a season high 29 points.
- In the Spurs’ loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on 01/10, Michael Beasley scored a season high 28 points.
- In the Spurs’ loss in Mexico City to the Phoenix Suns on 01/14, Devin Booker matched his season scoring high with 39 points that day.
- In the Spurs’ loss to New Orleans Friday, Solomon Hill was two points shy of his season high (18 points), as he finished with 16 points against the Spurs’ defense.
- Finally, Sunday, Seth Curry had a career high 24 points and 10 rebounds against the Spurs’ defense, as his late layup in crunch time was crucial for the Mavericks’ win.
As of Sunday evening, the fact remains, the Spurs have lost six games this season to teams below .500 and they’ve only suffered five defeats to teams with records above .500.
For Popovich, a loss is a loss, regardless if it’s to the worst team in the Western Conference (Suns 15-32) or to a team above .500 (Hawks 28-20). He’ll use the Spurs’ mistakes in those losses as teaching points going forward.
“No different than any other game,” said Popovich of the Spurs’ loss Sunday. “When you lose, there are teaching moments and things that you can go over. It doesn’t matter if you won or lost.”