Spurs devoid of defensive backbone in 113-101 loss to Heat

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The Miami Heat welcomed the Spurs back to their personal house of horrors with a 113-101 drubbing on Sunday afternoon that was far worse than the final score indicated. The defending champions shot 58 percent against a porous San Antonio defense devoid of its backbone, the highest such number against the silver and black this season, and the Spurs fell to 1-10 against the NBA’s elite.

Crumple this box score up and throw it out the window.

San Antonio was a shell of the team we saw toe the line of a fifth title seven months ago. The injuries have piled up, beginning with Tiago Splitter (shoulder) in early January, Danny Green (finger/hand) in the middle of the month and, most recently, Kawhi Leonard (finger/hand). While they’ve managed to consistently stick it to the lesser teams, the Spurs have been exposed against top competition; and it’s not because they can’t score on anybody, it’s because they can’t stop anyone from scoring on them.

The Spurs are allowing 102 points per 100 possessions in January, which isn’t all that bad. But when they’ve matched up against the league’s best this month, it’s been a defensive disaster. San Antonio has given up 111.5, 118 and 125.8 points per 100 possessions in three games against the Portland Trail Blazers, Oklahoma City Thunder and Heat, respectively, over the last 10 days. These are miserable numbers for an NBA team regardless of who’s on the floor, but the Spurs are missing all three of the pieces that transformed them into a title contender in the first place.

At the end of the 2010-11 season, San Antonio was exposed so brutally it truly felt as if its run of brilliance had come to an end. The big, physically imposing Memphis Grizzlies — an eighth seed — pushed and shoved around the 61-win, top-seeded Spurs in the first round of the playoffs, overpowering an aging Duncan and a smallish perimeter group that lacked any defensive presence or physicality.

George Hill was running alongside Tony Parker in many two-guard lineups, and a broken-armed Manu Ginobili would fill in at small forward when Richard Jefferson needed a rest or became inept by the end of the six-game series. To compete against the best, the Spurs knew they had to get Duncan some youthful help on the interior and restock the perimeter with bigger athletes. At that time, Splitter didn’t get court time until the end of the series and Green — on a call-up from the D-League — logged only a few minutes throughout the first round.

San Antonio had become a fast-paced, elite offensive team, but it had moved away from the title-winning defense Gregg Popovich required. That changed. By painfully parting ways with Hill (a coach’s favorite) to acquire Leonard, the Spurs instantly upgraded their personnel grouping, and along with the development of Splitter and Green it took a middling defense to an elite level over the next year. This season, the Spurs are allowing just 91.7 points per 100 possessions when those three are on the floor together — an exceptional number.

That trio of players gave San Antonio its spine back, and it allowed Duncan to rejuvenate himself as he approaches his late-30s. The Spurs would have never been able to do what they did last season without these three players, so any measurement that’s being taken of this team’s current level of success must be explained with a major caveat or three.

This isn’t to say San Antonio has no issues. The seamless fluidity we saw on both sides of the ball during the 2013 postseason has been noticeably absent in some capacities, even prior to this recent rash of injuries. But it’s difficult to take much away from NBA basketball in December and January, especially when the team concerned has more playoff experience than any other in the league.

Rebuilt on a defensive foundation, the Spurs are now missing three of their top four defenders. And there’s an interesting dynamic at play in San Antonio. This is a team that features many specialty players and a bench whose identity is based on scoring points, not playing great defense. With hardly a high draft pick to speak of over the last decade and a half — outside of Duncan, Leonard is the highest-drafted Spur at No. 15 — the Spurs haven’t built up a base of big athletes to create depth of that sort on the roster, nor have they had the money and cap space to pursue anything more than low-cost “system” guys who fit in, culturally and schematically.

With all the offensive players the Spurs have in their arsenal, they can afford for one or two of them to go down for short stretches because the next man up is capable of filling in. But you’re now seeing the difference when Leonard and Green go down. Instead of the 6-foot-7 small forward with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, San Antonio is forced to slide Marco Belinelli to the ‘three’ and start 6-foot-3 (with shoes on, maybe) Cory Joseph next to Parker. Against the explosive wing scorers that exist out West, it’s a problem.

The Spurs played several minutes worth of four-guard lineups in their loss to the Heat, which was a result of necessity more than anything. Belinelli isn’t the ideal small-ball ‘four,’ I hate to say it. Without the length of Splitter, Leonard and Green, you’ll find plenty of high school teams around the country more physically imposing than San Antonio seemed at times on Sunday. Defense, depth, size, level of talent — it’s all affected by the absence of the three injured Spurs. They were having a hard enough time beating the “big boys” as it was, so patience must be preached in this situation.

Miami’s American Airlines Arena perhaps induced nightmares for many of the Spurs upon their first regular-season visit to the place that so recently claimed their title hopes. But the mental images from June weren’t of the injury-riddled team that took the floor on Sunday, they were of Leonard’s 19 points and 16 boards in Game 7, Green’s record-breaking 3-point performance and Splitter’s … um … well let’s not talk about Tiago.

One by one these players will soon return from injury; until then, just take your lumps, San Antonio fans. Luckily the Spurs built that cushion to start the season, because every NBA team is bitten by the injury bug at some point. In the shootout atop the Western Conference, it will come down to who can keep their ship righted through chaos or even eliminate it altogether.

The Spurs might lose some games while their trainer’s room remains full, but through Popovich’s system and veteran leadership, they’ll never lose their heads.

Notes:

    • Tim Duncan was at least one guy who picked up where he left off in Miami. He was fantastic in this one, putting up 23 points in 24 minutes. The Heat really do not have an answer for Duncan, something that could once again be a major factor in the future if both teams get their minds right.
    • Manu Ginobili was … ugh. He went 1-for-7 from the floor and has now hit just five of his last 22 shots since that 29-point outburst against the Blazers. Yesterday wasn’t pretty, but really it wasn’t pretty for anybody.
    • I already hit on this in the column, but man is this team tiny on the perimeter without Leonard and Green. That Mills-Joseph-Nando-Belinelli-Ayres lineup we saw late in the game was cringeworthy. That player combination couldn’t stop a runaway toddler.
    • The Spurs haven’t lost two consecutive games all season, but that streak is in danger on Tuesday night in Houston. On the bright side, the starters hardly had to play against the Heat, so there’s that.
    • Nando is still so fun to watch when he gets a chance. Jeff Van Gundy is hilarious here, too. It’s all hilarious really.


  • mb

    memphis really scored big by picking up james johnson. he would have given the Spurs some sorely needed depth on the wing, both defensively and athleticly. i have to sigh at what could have been

  • PF

    Manu was horrible yesterday.. his shot was completely flat. It looked like he still had his Finals struggles on his mind.

  • fkj74

    Spurs are 6-9 vs. this week’s top ten and 12-9 vs. the top 15. Go Spurs!

  • lvmainman

    So, basically the front office failed. Not signing a replacement for Stephen Jackson has proven to be detrimental to the team. Why not just specifically say the front office failed?

    Why sign a 6’4″ Othyus Jeffers and not a 6’9″ Devin Ebanks??? Why not trade a Joseph, De Colo, or Mills for a bigger player? They did it with George Hill for Kawhi Leonard.

  • rj

    yeah. i’ve read enough of these articles to know not to panic. I knew that game was a loss in the making.
    as far as Miami’s answer for Duncan, that is what Oden is for. let’s see if he can get healthy enough to actually contribute……doubtful.

  • Graham

    Danny Green’s become the de facto replacement for Stephen Jackson. Kind of brilliant, actually, since it gets Marco more court time without it all having to come at Green’s expense. Jeffers was signed because as a 20 day deal he makes more sense than 20 days of Ebanks, especially on the end of the bench. We aren’t signing a permanant backup, just someone to plug the leaks till we get healthy again. I’d rather have a guy with time in-system than not.

    I guess the spurs lost their magic trade wand somewhere. Comeon man, trades don’t happen because WE want them to. Who would give us a meaningful piece back for one of those guys without us having to eat a bad contract?

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