3 Keys to the San Antonio Spurs thrilling comeback in Chicago

San Antonio Spurs Keldon Johnson (David Banks-USA TODAY Sports)
San Antonio Spurs Keldon Johnson (David Banks-USA TODAY Sports) /
San Antonio Spurs
San Antonio Spurs /

Mar 17, 2021; Chicago, Illinois, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Keldon Johnson (3) reacts after making a three point basket against the Chicago Bulls during the second half at United Center. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The San Antonio Spurs pulled off a thrilling comeback to beat the Bulls

With 1:09 remaining in the second quarter, first-time All-Star Zach LaVine came off of a high screen and stopped on a dime to bury a 20-foot pullup jumper that would put the Bulls up by 23 points over the San Antonio Spurs.

It was just three nights prior when, down 23 points as well, Gregg Popovich made the business decision to sub all of his players out in the middle of the third quarter in a game against the Philadelphia 76ers. Rarely do teams give up that early, however, it was a sensible move as the Spurs’ difficult remaining schedule means there’s no need to exhaust players for a lost cause.

So what was different in the game against the Bulls, and what was it that made the comeback possible?

For starters, the Philadelphia 76ers are a much better team than the Chicago Bulls. Even without Joel Embiid, the 76ers have plenty of talent to hold off a potential Spurs comeback.

Another factor was game flow and time. In the game against Chicago, the Spurs fell into a hole early and slowly chipped at the lead. They remained in striking distance throughout the 3rd quarter before going on an absolute frenzy in the 4th.

In this scenario, hope was never lost. In the game against the 76ers, the Spurs held on for as long as possible before getting blown out of the gym in the middle of the third quarter. The sizeable run that the 76ers went on slammed the door shut on any possibility of a comeback.

Don’t expect late-game heroics to become the norm but a fanbase as hot and cold as ours should take some time to enjoy what happened last night. Here’s how it all happened.

Next: San Antonio Spurs started pressing

San Antonio Spurs
San Antonio Spurs /

Mar 17, 2021; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Chicago Bulls forward Thaddeus Young (21) is fouled by San Antonio Spurs guard Derrick White (4) during the second half at United Center. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

San Antonio Spurs broke out the full-court press to start a comeback

Down big, Coach Popovich elected to use a full-court press. Yes. A full-court press for an extended period of time in the middle of an NBA game.

Full-court presses are a staple in high school and college basketball games. They’re effective at speeding up offenses and luring players into making mistakes. However, the full-court press is rarely used in professional basketball due to the skill, experience, and poise of NBA players. Oftentimes, NBA players have the passing and dribbling abilities, as well as basketball IQ, to easily breakdown a full-court press and force a 2-on-1 or 3-on-2 at the other end of the court.

Presses get some limited use out of timeouts to throw opponents off or at the end of games to try to get the ball back quickly. This is what made the Spurs extended use of the full-court press against the Bulls such a surprise, especially in today’s NBA.

Despite conventional wisdom, the Spurs press was a massive success. The Spurs were able to speed up the game and force turnovers. When the Spurs weren’t getting the ball back immediately, they were leading the Bulls into quick, contested shots. The increased number of possessions was a major factor in the Spurs being able to increase their offensive production and cut into the Bulls’ lead.

The press was most likely successful due to the youth and inexperience of the Chicago Bulls. Against more experienced, veteran teams, the Spurs may not find as much success. But that’s a problem for the future. Last night it worked and that’s all that matters.

Next: Three-point shots started to fall

San Antonio Spurs
San Antonio Spurs /

Mar 17, 2021; Chicago, Illinois, USA; San Antonio Spurs guard Lonnie Walker IV (1) shoots the ball over Chicago Bulls forward Thaddeus Young (21) during the first half at United Center. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The San Antonio Spurs finally got some three-point shots to fall

It was an abysmal night from three for the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs were only able to knock down 4-26 three-point attempts in the first three quarters before going 4-5 in the 4th.

Every three the Spurs made in the 4th quarter was crucial. A pair of threes from Keldon Johnson and Patty Mills early in the fourth helped to cut the deficit to single digits.

Following a small run by the Bulls, Patty Mills went behind the back and pulled up in transition to cut the lead back down to one.

Up 8 with 1:29 left in the game, Derrick White came off of a down screen and knocked down a three to put the Bulls away for good.

After a brutal start, the Spurs’ efficiency from three in the fourth quarter proved integral to completing the comeback against the Bulls. Any successful comeback will need to have efficient scoring in order to make up for the large deficit.

The Spurs typically don’t rely on the three as much as other teams in the league. You have to go all the way back to the ’14-15 season to find a year where they weren’t in the bottom third of the league in terms of three’s attempted per game. But they’ve still made the most of their opportunities.

San Antonio doesn’t shoot a lot from deep but they make their limited chances count. I’ll take that over chucking hopeless threes any day.

Next: Jakob Poeltl's career night

San Antonio Spurs
San Antonio Spurs /

Mar 17, 2021; Chicago, Illinois, USA; San Antonio Spurs center Jakob Poeltl (25) and Chicago Bulls forward Lauri Markkanen (24) go for the ball during the first half at United Center. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Jakob Poeltl had a career night for the San Antonio Spurs

It took a total team effort to pull off this comeback but we need to give special recognition to Jakob Poeltl for his career night last night. He was simply outstanding.

While continuing to alter shots and deter players from driving into the paint, Jakob Poeltl made an invaluable mark on offense. Jakob matched a career-high with 20 points while shooting an incredibly efficient  9-11 from the field. Jakob also managed to set a new career-high with 16 total rebounds.

Jakob seemed to be the only one who could hit a shot early in the game, scoring nine of the Spurs’ first 13 points. At times, it felt as if Jakob was singlehandedly preventing the game from getting out of control with his finishing, rebounding, and defensive presence. Although he didn’t score nearly as much late in the game, make no mistake, Jakob Poeltl is the reason the San Antonio Spurs were in a position to mount a comeback.

We can give the big man all the praise he deserves but he wasn’t having any of it after the game. In postgame interviews, he was quick to point the credit right back to his teammates.

Here's Poeltl postgame vs Bulls… #nba #gospursgo pic.twitter.com/TPj2yR728f

— JeffGSpursZone (@JeffGSpursZone) March 18, 2021

While many Spurs fans have questions about the big man of the future, Jakob Poeltl continues to build a stronger case with each passing game. He’s one of the best players that casual NBA fans don’t know about yet. But they will.

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Let’s hope the San Antonio Spurs don’t find themselves in another hole when they face the Cleveland Cavaliers tomorrow night.