‘Embarrassing’ Spurs rolled by Rockets as their search for confidence continues
SAN ANTONIO — For the second time in three games, the Spurs allowed their opponent to score 40 points in a single quarter; for the second time in three games, San Antonio was run off its home court.
Gregg Popovich was fairly diplomatic on Saturday after his team’s double-digit loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. But when the Spurs were beat down in a 111-98 loss to the Rockets on Christmas Day, Pop wasn’t interested in suppressing his thoughts.
His post-game comments echoed the sentiment of a fan base, and they reflected the mood in the San Antonio locker room.
“I thought that was an embarrassing performance. For a good portion of the game we played with no discipline, no physicality, and several people who needed to play better just didn’t give very good performances,” Pop said. “You can live with that from time to time. Nobody’s going to play perfect every night but you can’t combine poor performances with a lack of physicality and a lack of discipline and they whipped us.
“They whipped us good. That’s an embarrassing loss.”
There was no direct inference as far as exactly who he was talking about, and you wouldn’t expect there to be, anyway. But a quick pore-over of the Spurs’ box score results in a few glaring substandard offensive stat lines — most notably the numbers to the right of the names ‘Tony Parker’ and ‘Tim Duncan.’
And Parker had perhaps his worst game of the season on Wednesday. The point guard finished with six points and four assists in more than 30 minutes, a level of contribution almost unheard of from him in that much time on the floor. He hit just three of his 11 shot-attempts, and the spark he often provides in tight games was nowhere to be found when the team craved it.
He struggled to find good looks around the basket; passes weren’t finding their way out to open shooters, mainly because there weren’t many available; those vintage step-back jumpers were off the mark; and the size of Rockets defenders and Jeremy Lin’s aggression seemed to bother the All-NBA point guard.
It was a screaming reminder that when Parker becomes a non-factor, San Antonio has to scratch and claw to generate any offense and has virtually no chance to keep up with the likes of Houston.
And Parker was a man of few words. He walked into the scrum just moments after Pop left the room much hotter than it had been prior to his arrival.
“We didn’t play well,” Parker said, not interested in elaborating. “We’re moving on to the next one.”
So did the Rockets do anything to change Parker’s offensive looks?
“Just missed shots,” he said. “That’s it.”
Not only was Parker clearly and understandably upset by the loss, but there was a bit of an angry aura about him. One he covered up with that patented smirk. This team had been called out by its coach and admonished for a lack of discipline, and he appeared intent on burying what had just happened in the AT&T Center and leaving it for dead.
“We don’t do it on purpose, that’s for sure,” Parker said, a little sarcastically.
As for Duncan, the line was a bit different. While Parker was quick to hit the exits, Tim was one of the last to leave, which isn’t the norm. By the time he appeared, only a handful of players were left changing in a quiet locker room. Each of them had a better shooting night than the franchise cornerstone, though it was somehow easy to look past the unreal box score he put up elsewhere.
Duncan hit just four of his 12 shots from the floor and three of his six free throws for an 11-point total in 34 minutes. But he racked up 14 rebounds, five assists and six blocks in the process, doing everything he could to contribute in a game that needed his impact.
But his shot isn’t falling, and teams are now gifting him that open 18-foot jumper. They know he’ll likely miss it, and even if it goes in it’s only two points they can cover with a three on the other end on the next possession. On this night, Duncan hit just one of his four shots from the 15- to 19-foot range, and when he and Parker struggle to score on the same night it’s normally curtains for the Spurs.
“We came out of the gates and got our butts kicked from the go. I thought we played much better the last three quarters; got ourselves within fighting distance and just couldn’t get over that hump,” Duncan said. “That’s kind of been a theme for us, especially in games like this where we can’t make enough stops in a row at the right time to kind of get over that hump.”
And it’s been a theme most prevalent against the NBA’s elite. The storyline has been well-charted: San Antonio has not looked good when matching up with other supposed contenders. Even in the games they’ve managed to keep close, it’s been the other side that has the extra gear to propel them to the finish line and leave the Spurs trudging in the mud.
It’s still early, but there is a point where the accumulation of these losses has an effect that causes a different kind of issue.
“In December it doesn’t matter as much, but it’s starting to matter more and more,” Duncan said. “I think everyone of our losses have kind of been against a team that we consider some of the top teams in the league, so we need to start winning those games and start building our confidence.
“We need to start playing better in those games; so it does matter.”
San Antonio’s once-elite defense has been crumbling steadily since the first time these two teams met back in late-November. The Rockets plastered 112 points on the Spurs that night; it was only the second time the team had allowed 100 points or more through its first 17 games.
Since Nov. 30, San Antonio has allowed 104.8 points per 100 possessions, which is good for 17th in the league during that stretch of time. But on Christmas, Houston rolled out an offensive rating of more than 118 points per 100 possessions; and the Spurs pitched in at a middling rate of just better than 102, four points less than their 7th-ranked average.
The loss pegs San Antonio at 22-7 on the year, and in those seven losses the Spurs have allowed more than 110 points per game. They’re being killed by the best offenses and slowed by the toughest defenses; and because they’ve managed to demoralize the sub-.500 teams on their schedule, they’ve been able to maintain their place near the top of the standings while they try to figure things out on other fronts.
I’ve mentioned it several times before, in this space and elsewhere: December losses (especially those prior to the one that took place on Wednesday) shouldn’t cause a loss of sleep, particularly when the team’s record is what it is with plenty of time left to hash things out. But I’ve also mentioned that the turning of the calendar year represents a sort of a highway marker of sorts for me, if no one else.
At some point, if losses against the good teams continue to pile up, San Antonio will no longer have the comfort of the cushion that was built on the bones of the many bad teams in the league. At some point, if the wins don’t start showing up, the Spurs will be looking up in the standings at their competition with an ever-shrinking slate of games remaining in the brutally long NBA season.
Manu Ginobili did mention how important it has been for them to take care of the lesser teams, and that those results have allowed them to keep a decent distance between their fingers and the ‘panic’ button.
But now, the word “confidence” is being uttered by more than just one player in that locker room. The longer a team wrestles with its identity, the more of a struggle it becomes as the year crunches into shorter and shorter segments. The Spurs have hit a crossroads after their coach called them out, and while there is no panic, there’s certainly a sense that they must prove themselves sooner rather than later — to themselves, if not the rest of the league.
Parker said Tuesday he was looking forward to Christmas at home with a lot of friends and family in town. But whatever leftover holiday spirit that may have bogged him down was sucked out of the locker room door the second it closed following the game, and perhaps a quick, uncomfortable exit to Dallas will provide a respite from a home court that was anything but welcoming on Wednesday.
The Spurs got rolled on a night their floor-leader was a relative no-show in the box score, and there are no guarantees of a full-strength lineup in the second game of a back-to-back on Thursday against the Mavericks. But Pop made it clear he expected more from a certain few players against Houston, and by drawing attention to that in front of microphones he’s put his team on high alert.
It was only the second time in Duncan’s career the Rockets swept both games in San Antonio, and the Spurs would do well not to let a streak start on Thursday against the Mavericks.