So this is what a losing streak feels like

by

To say that the San Antonio Spurs franchise record best start has been smoke and mirrors after dropping two straight would be a grave injustice to the substantial and legitimate improvements this team has made since last season.

But to let the NBA’s best record cloud some lingering issues (especially defensively—okay, so completely defensively) would prove just as ignorant.

Before the Spurs set out on this five game stretch, our own Timothy Varner warned San Antonio fans to curb their enthusiasm while I remarked that between a likely 3-2 or 2-3 record, there probably would not be much difference. This team will be better come May.

Because at this point in the season, it is about the process more than the record—something San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich has tried to remind everyone not directly associated with the franchise—and there remains a lot of work to do.

Advanced statisticians would point to the Spurs healthy, but not dominant, point differential and strength of schedule, along with a multitude of other statistics beyond the box score, to state that as great as this team has been, it’s not been the NBA’s best.

Popovich, who claims to be a simpler man yet is obviously aware of such stats, would just have you go look at field goal percentage to stop anointing his team just yet.

This team still has the foundation (i.e., Tim Duncan) to be a sound defensive club, as shown against the Los Angeles Lakers and Oklahoma City Thunder. But as has been stated through these pages, this is a different style of defense. No longer a team that just sits at home, this team attacks passing lanes, rotates frantically, and generally creates controlled chaos.

But at this point in the game, it’s still a transition, and one that can be taken advantage of asZach Lowe of The Point Forward mentioned after the victory over the Lakers:

As for the high shooting percentage, my best guess is that those good looks are the product of patient possessions in which smart teams dribble-drive and swing the ball until an opening finally appears from deep late in the shot clock. Those looks will be available against clubs like San Antonio that rotate aggressively, but they’ll only be there if opponents have the confidence to wait for those looks instead of hoisting the semi-open long two or contested floater the Spurs want you to take three seconds earlier. One piece of evidence for this theory: Teams are torching the Spurs late in the shot clock. Only the Warriors have allowed a higher field-goal percentage than San Antonio on shots taken with three or fewer seconds left on the 24-second clock, and Spurs opponents are actually shooting better in that situation than on shots attempted in the middle of the shot clock — a trend that goes against what we usually see.

Not all of what ailed the Spurs during their performance against the Phoenix Suns last year has been corrected.

As the New York Knicks showed, while the Spurs defensive rotations can be sharp and still devastatingly effective in certain situations, teams that can spread them out with three or four well-spaced rotation points will eventually find an open look.

Combining three or four shooters with an interior presence to balance it out, as the Knicks (and the Suns before them) did with Amare Stoudemire, creates too many stress points for the Spurs defensive rotations to cover at this point in their transition.

From this, there are two positive tidbits we can take moving forward. The first is the number of teams that can successfully execute this, and will meet the Spurs in the playoffs, is limited.

The Lakers point guard and small forward positions are producing so poorly that they fail to hold merit as stress or rotation points, leaving Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and either Andrew Bynum or Lamar Odom as the only three members to key on–and none are devastating three-point shooters.

Oklahoma City lacks the three-point shooting. Dallas always presents troubles because the unique skill set of Dirk Nowitzki, but running the rest of their shooters off the line and recovering at the basket is generally enough to nullify their complementary players (or at least enough for a win).

The second is that the Spurs will improve, even if only by an increase in minutes from certain players. A combination of Tim Duncan and Antonio McDyess may no longer be able to snuff out two offensive players in pick and roll coverage individually the way they use to (or Splitter currently can), but paired together their rotations are still crisp enough provided the other team is not using a versatile “stretch four”.

Fortunately time still remains, and as usual, any talk of the Spurs success or failures before the looming Rodeo Road Trip is the same as this past summer’s talk of the Spurs demise: vastly premature.

  • http://www.spursbrasil.wordpress.com Bruno Pongas

    On this subject, I published a text showing the number of negative sequences of the past three seasons when the team won the title. The interesting thing here is that in 2006/07 there were seven negative sequences, while registered five 2004/05 and 2002/03 only three sequences. These numbers show that followed losses are completely normal, especially for strong teams as the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks.

    By the Way. The link of the matter is here. Even the text being written in Portuguese is worth a look: http://spursbrasil.wordpress.com/2011/01/06/nada-de-panico/

  • ITGuy

    @Jesse
    how did you come up with the title for this article? It’s the same as a comment I made in the previous blog.
    The article is great, I enjoyed reading it. Keep up the good work.

    “ITGuy
    January 6th, 2011 at 5:16 am
    So this is how a two game losing streak feels like!”

    Go Spurs Go!!

  • Ted

    I’m not especially worried by these losses. It’s difficult to determine whether the current personnel weren’t able to turn the defensive effort up enough, or if we still need additional personnel, or both. The Celtics did indeed shoot well, but that game could have been ours very easily. Knicks- it’s just hard to know what happened in that one, based on recaps and comments. I didn’t see the game.

    I do know we have three roster spots, and some reasonably good free agent options are out there. I’m not necessarily saying that he would be a good fit on the Spurs and a quick learn on the system, but there’s Sam Dalembert stranded on the Kings with little playing time due to Cousin’s surge, and the rumor mills have him leaving in a trade.

    I think the 48MoH readers are split on whether or not we feel that the FO should go for more players, but it certainly would not hurt to have a vet big or two added to the mix. If nothing else, Dalembert (for instance) could be put on guys like Stoudemire or Davis and bang on D and get some rebounds. I do hope the FO spends some money on an FA and reinforces this group a bit more. C’mon, Peter Holt.

    Two losses do not a fan panic cause, by any means. Let’s see how the guys continue to do against the elite teams up through the All-Star break.

  • http://48minutesofhell.com Jesse Blanchard

    @ITGuy: did not read your previous comment. I was just musing about how it’s this far into the season and we only now just lost two in a row.

  • ruth bader ginobili

    Nice post, always good to remember how long the season is.

    Also, the Spurs lost to the Knicks and Celtics by a combined 15 points—the same amount they beat the Lakers by. Not too shabby.

  • Manny Calavera

    I wouldn’t be terribly worried about two road losses, depending on the circumstances surrounding them.

    Here, though, I believe there must be some concern that a KG-less Celtics was able to handle the Spurs. Watching that 4th quarter, it seemed pretty clear that the Celtics were in control. The final flurry of steals made it a thriller, but those type of turnovers are more indicative of the Celtic’s perchant for boredom/hubris than anything the Spurs did.

    Rondo won the game for the Celtics. Rondo, when healthy, has been carving up the entire NBA, so that by itself isn’t too shocking. But to me, it seemed like there wasn’t much of a game-plan for dealing with Rondo’s penetration (other than chase Ray Allen the hell off that line beyond which made baskets are worth more points). The response to Rondo-into-the-lane forays appeared inconsistent to me, as if the Spurs were uncertain exactly what the heck the plan was. Do they trap off the screen? Hedge hard and recover? Who rotates over to the big when Rondo draws Duncan/Blair? The Spurs seemed to answer these questions on the fly, rather than according to some grand Popovich strategem.

    To me, this apparent lack of organization is more concerning than the outcome of the game. Great players like Rondo often cause indecision from defenders, but hopefully that’s an area the Spurs can clean up.

  • BlaseE

    OKC doesn’t have an interior presence either….

    They desperately need a post player or even better yet, Durant to develop a post move. George Hill should not be able to defend him.

  • ITGuy

    @Jesse
    I wanted to say that this was the first two game losing streak since the suns last year but I didn’t want to go into that.

    Go Spurs Go!!

  • TD = Best EVER

    @Jesse
    Nice read but I do have a fee bones to pick. I know most here are of the decidedly optimistic variety and that you seem the same. But to say :
    “This team still has the foundation (i.e., Tim Duncan) to be a sound defensive club, as shown against the Los Angeles Lakers and Oklahoma City Thunder.”
    LA hurt themselves as much as we hurt them. And if that LA team shows in the playoffs, we won’t need to worry about beating them, they won’t get out of the 1st round. But more realistically the LA of last year shows up come playoff time and the game will be very different then.
    OKC – BlaseE summed them up Best.

    You also left off Denver, who have shown they can take it right to us 2 times, and we have never played them when they were fully healthy.

  • TD = Best EVER

    @ Ted – great post + 5

    @ All moderators, members, and guests.
    Please take a moment to read the following and use to observe/analyze our remaining games. This way we can really get down to the meat and bones of our issues.

    First – History Matters: Exhibit A – Derek Fisher/clutch shooter.
    “The Lakers point guard and small forward positions are producing so poorly that they fail to hold merit as stress or rotation points.”
    If you leave Fish Open he will Drill you all night long come April/May. Always has and always will.

    Exhibit B – Controlled Chaos & Defense in transition…
    “No longer a team that just sits at home, this team attacks passing lanes, rotates frantically, and generally creates controlled chaos.”

    There is a very good reason why in years past we sat at home and didn’t attack passing lanes and didn’t double team as much. They both lead to open lanes to the basket. Which then puts more pressure on an already Overwhelmed front line. Look at how a short-handed Boston team just played us. They stayed at home and didn’t double team, and then look at the shooting percentages. No team has ever played this style of D, or a zone(alot)for that matter to win in our league.Name one team that has won a title in the last 15 years or so that played this style of D. You can’t because nobody has ever done it successfully.

    Second – Improved Offense = Better Defense

    Better ball/player movement will lead to better looks on O and more energy on D. Just think – when’s the last time that you saw RJ block a shot or even go for a SWAT…… Yeah it was back when he was scoring 15+ points a game and felling good. Offensive minded players/teams get their mojo to defend from feeling good on O. So spread the love around and run some more sets to get guys off and running. So fewer picks and more of what we saw Boston do, which is keep all players active and alert thought the game on Both ends by getting them shots where they can be most effective.

    This same thing goes for Blair/Tiago(when ever he gets out of POP’s dungeon) and IndyG.

    So what say you?

  • http://48minutesofhell.com Jesse Blanchard

    Fisher has been terrible, even in the playoffs as of late. If you want to say don’t let him get a clean look at a last second shot, so be it. But the trick is not to allow a team to get in that situation.

    Nuggets: Talk to me if they still have Melo after the deadline.

    The stay at home defense is not going to work, mostly because the Spurs don’t have the quality big to put next to Duncan for long stretches during the regular season. Maybe paired with McDyess come playoffs–or, of course, if Splitter comes around.

    Otherwise matching the Lakers or Mavs strength for strength is futile.

  • Tyler

    Isn’t it only natural that we come back down to Earth? That we revert back to the mean?

    We started 29-4 – far better than even the most optimistic predictions. Were we really as good as our record indicated at the time? Probably not quite. One play here or there and we probably drop a couple games (both MN games and the Houston game come to mind).

    I believe there was a post a few weeks ago about how were were probably closer to an 22-8-ish type team (or something like that). I think that’s about right, so it’s only natural for us to drop a few games.

    That doesn’t mean we have to like it, but I think that’s the reality. Teams go through good and bad stretches. Welcome to our first bad stretch.

  • Daniel T

    Ted:

    Dalembert has a $13.4M contract. A one for one trade would mean giving up either Tony or Manu for him. Bonner is often suggested as trade material, but his contract falls $10M short of Dalembert’s; so he’d work if you throw in RJ. You could hang on to RJ if you add both Tiago and McDyess to Bonner.

    It seems very unlikely the Spurs acquire Dalembert.

  • TD = Best EVER

    @ Jesse

    “The stay at home defense is not going to work, mostly because the Spurs don’t have the quality big to put next to Duncan for long stretches during the regular season. Maybe paired with McDyess come playoffs–or, of course, if Splitter comes around.”

    + 10

    I’m not a huge Splitter fan, but he can’t be no worse then Blair/Bonner on D and he has more potential than both. So I would love to see him playing to get a better understanding of his game and weaknesses.

    But you also state that we no longer have the personnel to play how we used to play and I agree as well. But you didn’t address if you think the chaos method of Defense can win deep in the playoffs.

    Also since we have to sign somebody to get to 13. Should we go with a Rodney Carney type. Or a traditional Big?

  • jaydog7

    I think what’s important is that we show in this part of the season is that we can compete with teams like the Celtics and OKC for 48 minutes (no pun intended) to get us ready for April, more importantly, show we can make smart plays down the stretch in late game situations that will put pressure on opposition. That’s what also made those championship Spurs teams so dangerous, was that if you made mistakes against us, we would definitely make you pay with our execution.

    I definitely would like to see more playmaking come from the bench and not just scoring, which I believe will develop over time. Giving up 62 points in the paint to the Knicks, I will take as an aberration and hopefully not as a pattern. We’re still trying to put the pieces together, but there’s no doubt that we are letting teams know that we will not be an easy out in these coming playoffs

  • DorieStreet

    @ TD= Best EVER

    I agree with you about RJ- I believe he goes into scoring slumps because he seems an afterthought offensive-wise most games. Before he became a Spur, he was an 18 ppg player (I threw out his rookie year). He is still skilled enought to do better than the 12ppg in ’09-10 and the 13ppg this season.

    As far as road games go— I suppose because of the record start, we are going to get the host teams’ best shot every arena we visit. Despite subpar D, the last 2 games still winnable down to last half of the 4th qtr. I expect future road games to go our way, especially against inferior opponents.

  • Ed

    Knicks game was a trap game. Basically the Knicks played at a playoff intensity and the Spurs played at a (poor) regular season intensity. It happens. Nobody smart expected Boston to roll over and it was a 2pt game with a chance to win or tie. On the road. B2B. Win some of those and lose some. Hate to be the Pacers tomorrow.

  • ChillFAN

    (1) The Knicks loss would be insignificant if wasnt so similar to the Magic blowout loss. The Spurs lacked the ability to put some stops together and get run out of the gym. The Spurs will not go anywhere in the playoffs if those lapses on D continue.
    (2) Boston is forgivable because they were tired, They had no gameplan for Rondo, yet they were still close.

  • Nef-Spur

    So why are some of the Spurs fans continue with the gnashing of the teeth? The Spurs are on the top stop in the NBA anyway. Now, I know that a loss is a loss but these two losses were not as signigicant as many continue to ponder. Here is the reality of our team stand.
    First thing is that they still holding the NBA top spot, forget the power rankings until next week.

    Second the NY loss represented a beating for the Spurs but chances are that the Nicks will not make it out of the eastern conference. So that is why this team will not be a threat to the Spurs anyway.
    The Celtics have potential to come out of the east but we all know that they were not playing at the level they played before because they are older and are showing some wear and tear, therefore they are not really a threat to the Spurs.

    Third the Spurs did not play basketball like they played in December, why? Because they know the importance to win games in the WESTERN Conference and they have! By winning WC matchups they can really gauge the possibilities of playoff challenges. Let not your heart be troubled my friends the Spurs will rebound and make things better for them by building on a new winning trend just like before. Go Spurs!

  • JMCA

    Start Tiago with Timmy. The Spurs won all their four championships with a legitimate center. Blair is undersized, they need to have the Twin Towers for shot blocking and defense. Small ball doesn’t win them championships. I hope Pop will use Tiago more often, he isn’t a MVP for nothing.