“It’s only the preseason,” they say: Houston Rockets 101, San Antonio Spurs 87
I know what you want to talk about. Kawhi Leonard didn’t look bad, and he certainly outplayed Richard Jefferson. James Anderson shot terribly (1-9), but that was easy to forgive because he got the shots he wanted and played with relentless confidence. Good marks for Anderson. And then there was the Cory Joseph preseason surprise. Cory Joseph looked like a basketball player. A real one. NBA style. All positives from tonight’s loss. Those are the things we didn’t know.
This game, on the whole, was about the stuff we already knew.
The Spurs are deep in the backcourt. Parker, Ford, Ginobili, Neal, Anderson, and (perhaps) even Cory Joseph will form a solid rotation. The Spurs are green on the wing, but they have enough talent to compete, especially considering James Anderson and Danny Green can fill minutes behind Jefferson and Leonard. That’s not our biggest problem, anymore. The Spurs front court, on the other hand? That is a problem. It was all messy and sideways and embarrassing tonight, especially the interior defense.
Gregg Popovich started Tiago Splitter and DeJuan Blair together. We learned what most of us already expected. That isn’t going to work. Pop’s major halftime adjustment was starting Matt Bonner in the second half. Splitter and Blair did not play a single minute together in the second half.
DeJuan Blair led the team in points and rebounds, with 16 and 7 respectively. Which would be nice, but he also posted the team’s worst plus/minus (-19) and most turnovers (5). The Spurs were more competitive in the second half, and that’s when Blair gave his best minutes.
Splitter finished with 13 points and 3 rebounds. He posted a negative 2 plus/minus, but played very well in the second half. So both Blair and Splitter played well in the second half, but—as we just said—never together.
A quick glance at the Game Flows shows that the Spurs had three runs in this game, a 14-2 in the first quarter and third and forth quarter bursts of 17-4 and 9-1. Blair and Splitter only shared the court for a couple minutes of the first run. Otherwise, the most positive action of this game saw Blair or Splitter paired with either Bonner or Novak.
Why is it such a problem to pair they Blair and Splitter together? In short, neither can shoot anything outside the paint. Paired with a shooting big, both Blair and Splitter are each capable of hurting teams inside. But when they’re together, they’re constantly creeping into the space the other needs to be effective.
The front court issues are compounded by the fact that, outside of Tim Duncan, the Spurs’ interior defense is abysmal. The Spurs’ front court gave up 37 points and 18 rebounds to Luis Scola and Jordan Hill. Tiago Splitter is a competent defender, but it’s hard to pair him with Blair because of the all offense-centric reasons I’ve outlined above. Blair’s plus/minus in this game had everything to do with his defense. As part of his preseason preview, John Hollinger summarized Blair’s defensive abilities in this way:
Blair’s defensive stats are scary, and not in a good way. According to 82games.com, opposing power forwards lit him up for a 21.3 PER; at center, where he played more than a third of his minutes, it was 24.3. The Spurs gave up 3.06 points per 100 possessions more with Blair on the court, according to basketballvalue.com, and Synergy Stats weren’t too keen on his play either. Oddly, he led all power forwards in steals per minute, but that may have been part of the problem — too much reaching and not enough fundamental defense.
I haven’t calculated the one-game PERs of Hill or Scola tonight, but I bet those numbers are perfectly consistent with Hollinger’s synopsis.
Let me put this differently. Matt Bonner is a below average defensive player, but Bonner is a much better defender than Blair. Tim Duncan obviously improves the Spurs’ defense considerably. But what we saw tonight wasn’t any different than what we saw in the Spurs series against Memphis, it was just 7 months later and without our best defender. The Spurs’ interior defense is soft, porous, and utterly incapable of defending talented front courts. This isn’t going to change unless the Spurs make some sort of personnel change.
I know that’s a lot to extrapolate from one preseason game, but that’s not really what I’ve done. What I’m saying is this game showcased all the things we learned about last year’s Spurs. The personnel is the same, minus McDyess, who didn’t play very well last year anyway. Kawhi Leonard, James Anderson, and Cory Joseph are all fine young players. We suspected that before, and this game supported our suspicions.
But none of that matters unless the Spurs find a way to improve their interior defense. And we’re not there yet.