San Antonio Spurs: Points of emphasis heading into the playoffs
By Dylan Carter
With just nine games left in this whirlwind of a regular season, the San Antonio Spurs have some things to figure out before tackling the Western Conference playoffs.
Highs have been high, and lows have been low in the 2018-19 regular season for the San Antonio Spurs. The basketball world, or at least those that’ve been paying attention, is now aware that Gregg Popovich’s motley crew can go toe-to-toe with the league’s elite on any given night.
When firing on all cylinders, San Antonio is capable of locking down opponents on one end of the floor while methodically picking them apart on the other.
Unfortunately, it takes a conjunction of factors for San Antonio to reach this point of basketball superiority. A concentrated team-effort on defense must be matched by masterful execution of Pop’s flowing offense. Without all cylinders firing, the Spurs are prone to stagnate on offense and give up an excess of shots from range.
Off-ball screens, quick cuts and flashes around the perimeter by spot-up shooters seamlessly chain together to ensure open looks when the Spurs grasp their identity and execute the game plan. Reaching this point can be stressful and daunting, but nothing is impossible for the San Antonio Spurs. After a year of overcoming obstacles both on and off the court, this team has a chance to expand the revered lore that comes attached to the organization.
Great ball movement and @spurs basketball go together like marshmallows and graham crackers!#GoSpursGo pic.twitter.com/N7KCOjsWfq
— FOX Sports Southwest (@FOXSportsSW) March 17, 2019
In many ways, this season has been a true testament to the coaching ability of Popovich and his staff. As new additions scattered throughout an injury-laden roster, the team has relied on a handful of starting lineups to experiment with player combinations and balance the rotation. Still, there is some delicate criticism to be given.
While Popovich’s periodic trial-and-error with various lineups is necessary, it’s also gotten in the way of team success at certain points of the year. Without the kind of structure that we’re all used to in San Antonio, it’s been strenuous for this iteration of the Spurs to maintain an identity.
With just nine games left to go, this is the time for Popovich and the coaching staff to work out the kinks and prepare a well-oiled machine moving into the postseason.
Next: Setting aside ego in the clutch
Setting aside ego in the clutch
Star shooting guard DeMar DeRozan is many things: a natural-born leader, talented scorer and true student of the game. One thing he is NOT is a proven closer.
It’s not ideal for a team’s go-to guard to struggle in the clutch, but it’s an issue that could easily be remedied with some good old fashion logic. During a heated Eastern Conference Semifinal meeting between Toronto and Cleveland last season, former Raptors head coach Dwane Casey benched DeRozan during the final minutes of a playoff game. It was clear that DeRozan was burnt out physically and mentally, so the leader made a harsh decision and put his star on the pine.
The Raptors were still swept at the hand of the King, LeBron James en route to his eighth consecutive finals appearance and both Casey and DeRozan moved onto their next chapters. While benching DeRozan may not be the best route for the Spurs, the concept leads to an important revelation for the 29-year-old.
Sometimes great players need to set their ego aside and defer to their teammates in certain situations. Despite ranking sixth on the team in clutch field goal percentage while leading the team in turnovers during clutch scenarios, DeRozan still leads San Antonio in field goal attempts during the final moments of close games.
Joining the Spurs has created a pathway for DeMar DeRozan to unleash his true potential as a player. He’s grown to be a well-rounded leader with the intensity and effort to keep the team afloat, but his decision-making is still questionable at times. The Spurs are at their best when DeRozan is drawing the attention of defenders and creating plays for his teammates, this is what he’ll need to do for San Antonio to make a run in the postseason.
In order of clutch field goal percentage, Jakob Poeltl, Rudy Gay, Derrick White, LaMarcus Aldridge and Marco Belinelli would all be better options for San Antonio to rely upon in the final moments of tightly contested matchups.
Next: Two-way aggression in the backcourt
Two-way aggression in the backcourt
Guard defense is going to make-or-break the San Antonio Spurs in the postseason this year. It’s no secret that there’s an abundance of talent lurking in the Western Conference, so it’s safe to say that the Spurs will be tasked with defending against some gifted backcourts come mid-April.
Holding down the guard positions for Gregg Popovich are Derrick White and Bryn Forbes, two players that have grown from within the organization over the last few seasons. After paying their dues with the G League-affiliate Austin Spurs and Summer League teams, both White and Forbes have become perimeter threats ingrained with San Antonio’s corporate knowledge.
Because of their development from within the system, both players know the importance of locking in on defense. The modern game caters to three-point shooters and dynamic ball handlers, so the majority of teams rely on scoring point guards and versatile shooting guards to carry scoring responsibilities. For this reason, it’s wildly important for both White and Forbes to push themselves each and every night.
Forbes has quietly been the stabilizer of the San Antonio Spurs this season, starting in all but one game for Gregg Popovich while leading the team in three-point field goals. Sparty has shown huge growth as a slasher after establishing himself as a crafty shot-creator early in his run with the Spurs.
On any given play, Forbes could draw his defender to the perimeter before taking long strides to the rim, blowing through contact and converting and-one opportunities. Having a reliable shooter that can put the ball on the deck to make opponents pay is wildly important to the team’s success. When Forbes brings his A-game, the Spurs generally heat up and build off of his energy.
Due to his size and stature, it’s difficult to expect Forbes to lock down on the defensive end, but his closeouts and hustle will prove pivotal once the playoffs roll around. If Bryn’s working his tail off as a scorer and defender, his teammates should fall in line.
DERRICK. WHITE.#GoSpursGo pic.twitter.com/nmPosmQZtb
— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) March 23, 2019
As for White, the sophomore’s aggression and precision in the half court are essential to San Antonio’s playoff hopes. Outside of DeRozan, White has been the team’s best distributor this year. His careful watch and 20/20 vision on the pick-and-roll makes for easy buckets for himself and his teammates.
Furthermore, White has been San Antonio’s best perimeter defender through the majority of this season. With an incredible knack for predicting his assignment’s movements, the 6-foot-5 combo guard is adept at disrupting opponent’s jump shots or layups.
Popovich will look to his youthful backcourt to display a culmination of their many combined years within the Spurs system – Now is their chance to shine.
Next: Controlling everything inside the arc
Controlling everything inside the arc
San Antonio has spent the majority of this season as the most proficient three-point shooting team in the NBA. By carefully planting screeners around the perimeter and drawing the defense’s attention elsewhere, playmakers seamlessly kick the ball to open shooters around the three-point line for open jumpers.
In contrast, San Antonio gives up an average of 11.9 treys per game at a 36.4 percent clip from deep. During their 2018-19 campaign, the Spurs have ranked No. 24 and 25 in those categories respectively.
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On either end of the floor, three-point shooting is not the bread and butter of this year’s group of Spurs. While the rest of the league trends in one direction, Popovich and the Spurs are taking an alternative approach by scoring primarily in the mid-range and paint. By piling on two-pointers in rapid succession, the Spurs have built and sustained leads this year.
With the rim protection provided by LaMarcus Aldridge and Jakob Poeltl, the Spurs have been one of the best teams in the NBA at protecting the interior. They rank sixth in opponent points in the paint with 45.8 per contest. For reference, this is ahead of top-rated defensive clubs like Oklahoma City and Utah with established defensive centers.
Three-point shooting is crucial to each game, but the Spurs need to focus on playing their own brand of basketball in the playoffs. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of a shootout, especially with a group of shooters as poised and distinguished as San Antonio’s. Still, that’s simply not the Spurs way and would likely result in imminent failure.
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It’s wildly important for San Antonio to dictate pace and keep a level head in the playoffs. If not, a first-round exit could be in the cards for a team that’s fought and clawed so diligently through the Western Conference for another shot at the Larry O’Brien trophy.