Gregg Popovich and the Spurs have angered the Basketball Gods, and they need to fix it if they want to survive the night.
Basketball is a game of physicality, strategy, skill, execution, communication and teamwork, but that’s not how you score points that decide games, playoff series and legacies. Players work on the muscle memory for their entire lives, but even the most precise shooters lose control once the ball flies rimward off their fingertips, a random coin flip in the best of circumstances. The outcome is up to the Basketball Gods, and right now they are clearly not pleased with San Antonio.
The Spurs had a golden opportunity at home to seize a 3-1 series lead over the Denver Nuggets, but instead they put forth one of the worst jump-shooting performances in recorded history. For nearly 40 straight minutes of game time, a team known for mid-range marksmanship and 3-point accuracy missed every single attempt outside of the paint. They shot 0-21 from the floor and 0-10 from deep, which makes less and less sense the more you think about it and look at the shot chart.
This is what the Spurs did from 4:55 in 1Q until garbage time.
Not a single made jumper. HOW???? pic.twitter.com/ql3SGy2m8p
— Tom Petrini (@RealTomPetrini) April 21, 2019
As well as Denver played, there is no defense that is 100% effective. They also shot 15-31 from deep as a road team to win a game of extreme shooting anomalies. The Basketball Gods spoke clearly.
So who are they, and how do they work? Since Dr. James Naismith nailed those peach baskets up, there have been legends of this game. You know all those game-day superstitions you have about where you sit, what you wear, and how your actions may impact a game being played miles away? I promise you they don’t.
But perhaps the deities of the game, living and dead, Old and New, have some sway one way or the other, and the balance of their collective will decides whether or not the ball goes in the hole. One of them will probably be in attendance tonight, celebrating his 43rd birthday.
Most of the time they won’t all agree, but it’s seemed near unanimous as Denver has won two in a row to take a 3-2 series lead and put the Spurs on the brink of elimination. Surely some have beef with Pop over a playoff series or a spot on the all-time coaches list, but not all of them. This is about something more, something fundamental in the Spurs’ approach to this series that seems to have angered every spirit with a say in the matter.
From the outset of the series the Spurs have employed a simple plan to slow down the Nuggets: limit Nikola Jokic as a scorer and let everyone else shoot. It worked for the first seven quarters in Denver, as they watched the wide-eyed Nuggets miss nearly 80% of the shots they took from 15 feet or more.
Letting an opponent shoot until they prove they can hit shots is a tactic as old as basketball itself. It made sense to try on a team this unproven, and the Nuggets shot just 12-44 on open and wide-open treys before that fateful fourth quarter. Perhaps the Basketball Gods felt that the Spurs should do more to earn the upset than just hope the two seed continued to miss and beat themselves.
Since the start of that spectacular fourth, the Nuggets have shot a blistering 42-88 (48%) on wide open three pointers. For comparison, the Spurs have shot 31-92 (34%) from deep all series.
Derrick White destroyed Jamal Murray in Game 3, scoring 36 while helping to hold his counterpart to just 6 points on 2-6 shooting. However, the Nuggets still shot 15-29 from long range in the road loss. They were 12-25 on open and wide open looks.
On the first Nuggets possession in Game 4, Bryn Forbes sagged off of Murray in early transition, and Murray had a decision to make. With no numbers and 21 seconds left on the shot clock, he pulled up without hesitation and drilled the triple over a late contest, setting the tone for the rest of the game.
It isn’t just gameplan, it’s effort as well. San Antonio’s defense contracts to contain penetration, but doesn’t subsequently rotate to the shooters left open on the perimeter. That’s about s good as a lung that only breathes out. There seems to be very little resistance from the Spurs outside of Jakob Poeltl and Derrick White, and even they have been beaten off the ball at times if not on the bench in foul trouble.
Even if the Spurs got max effort out of everyone, the lack of defensive personnel has been an issue all season. It’s hard to stop penetration with guys like Bryn Forbes, Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli, Davis Bertans, and DeMar DeRozan. Next year that will change with Dejounte Murray back and Lonnie Walker IV more involved, but right now Coach Pop has to make do with what he has.
The Spurs have continued to give these inexperienced Nuggets enough room to shoot, even after they proved they were more than capable. Sometimes a defender offers an outstretched arm, sometimes it’s more of a wave before watching the shot fly and neglecting to box out. They have given Denver shootaround conditions, and the Basketball Gods handed down a just and righteous decision.
Everybody who has ever been dared to shoot in a pickup game can sympathize with the Nuggets, but not everybody possesses the finely-tuned skills needed to make defenses pay over and over again. Denver employs professional basketball players, however, and those guys hit the shots that make confidence grow for the entire team.
San Antonio started the pivotal Game 5 with an emphasis on closing out at the arc, but it didn’t last long or really matter. The Nuggets now have so much confidence after hitting the open shots that they don’t seem to care much about the defense. The Spurs haven’t bothered Denver, and now Denver is completely unbothered. Letting them shoot worked, until it backfired spectacularly.
Pop and the Spurs now have their backs against the wall, fending off an untimely end at the hands of a monster they created. Their own confidence has nose dived as they fed their opponents’, as evidenced by embarrassing misses on layups and some truly confused sequences on both ends in a Game 5 loss in which they trailed by 30.
As much as the Spurs are being punished for their lack of effort and appropriate fear, the Nuggets are being rewarded. They have imposed their will physically, they have dictated the shots that their opponents take, and they continued to shoot even though they couldn’t hit anything to start the series.
Popovich regularly notes, particularly after losses, that you can’t control whether or not the shots go in, but you can control effort, physical aggression, shot selection, defensive communication, and other things that impact the game. Think of these little things as sacrifices to the deities of the game, sacrifices the Spurs largely have not made in this series while their opponents have.
The man who once implored his team to give him some nasty should make that same request again tonight, considering how tremendous a letdown it would be if the Spurs season ended because they didn’t respect their opponents enough to contest their shots. They need to run shooters off the line, rotate, box out, work harder for their own shots, and fight like hell. They need to leave it all out there, and live with what the Basketball Gods decide.