Not too surprisingly, the third quarter is often the catalyst for Spurs losses.
The Spurs got out to a hot start and capitalized on it with back to back wins in Phoenix, but since then, they have now lost six straight, bringing their record to 3-8 on the season. From the eye test, it seems that when they perform well in the 2nd and 4th quarters, those surges are enough to keep them in close games. Meanwhile, sluggish third quarters have been the primary reason they have been blown out by teams, especially in their giant 152-112 loss to the Pacers and 123-87 loss to the Thunder earlier this week. Nevertheless, I set to dive into this quarter-by-quarter production and split the data into wins and losses to see which quarter of play is the X factor in these games.
A nice plus about the data set this week is that every team in the league has at least two wins and two losses on the season so far. While the strength of their opponent may still widely range this early in the season, it is a good starting point to see the volatility of team production throughout the game. Below is the offensive rating vs. defensive rating for each team for the first quarter. The best performing teams will be floating towards the upper-right quadrant of each graph. The scatter plots are differentiated by whether the team won or lost their game. Throughout this series, I have distinguished the data point for the Spurs with a black diamond. I also labeled teams who stood out on either extreme in terms of offensive, defensive, or net rating.
San Antonio has impressive starts defensively, ranking as a top 5 team in the first quarter regardless of the outcome of the game. This could be indicative of the young roster having that fresh, extra burst. However, they float towards the bottom of the pack in offensive production. My gut attributes this to the continued Jeremy Sochan experiment at point guard as the starting lineup plays a solid chunk of the first quarter. He has tremendous upside, but his strength at the moment seems to be a paired chaos downhill with Keldon Johnson rather than constructing a well-oiled offense.
Some of the best performers aren’t really surprising; Miami, Boston, and Sacramento have all been staple teams in the production column for the past year, while Atlanta and Charlotte are notably disappointing. Minnesota has gotten off to a tremendous start behind Anthony Edwards and they still have a high powered offense in their three losses. The Clippers are an interesting anomaly. They only have three wins, but in each of these, they rank first in the league in pace. Although they have the ball for a lot more possessions, their offensive performance is staggeringly low, but they are able to scrape by with a staunch defense on the other end of the court. Next, let’s look at the second quarter.
This is where things begin to get unstable for the Spurs. Even in their three wins, they have been lackluster on defense, allowing 129.9 points per 100 possessions. During this time they rank last in rebounding percentage at 41.7%. They are above average on the other end of the floor and possess the fourth best assist-to-turnover ratio too. I view this as Tre Jones leading the bench and a slight drop off in their field goal percentage comes with that too.
Orlando and Philly currently are the best in the second quarter regardless of the outcome of the game. But we can begin to see where the limited sample size can skew the results. Washington has just two wins, last in standings, but those two wins showcased an extremely high level of offense in which their true shooting percentage was 75.9%. While the Nets have had six wins, they continue to average a jaw dropping 21.6% turnover rate, practically ruining the momentum they gain during other periods of the game. Below are the splits for the third quarter.
As predicted, the Spurs losses are correlated with the worst net rating in the third quarter. On average they score 89.8 and allow 127.8 per 100 possessions. This is not really improved in their wins either as they score 123.6 and allow 134.7 per 100 possessions. Their assist-to-turnover ratio drops to 26th and their rebounding percentage is 27th. A major difference that could aid is just slowing the rate of play down. The Spurs are second in pace in their losses, averaging 26.7 possessions in this quarter, but they fall to 24th in their wins, settling on 24 possessions per quarter.
The Clippers starting rotation brings back a tough defense that has been the difference maker for them. They essentially need all stars to be at full capacity on both ends of the floor for things to go their way and that has been a big hurdle for them in the Kawhi-PG era. A major surprise is the Rockets locking things down in the third. They allow a league low 22.5 points in the this quarter which can be traced back to Alperen Sengun, Jabari Smith Jr, and the acquisition of Dillon Brooks. Finally, let’s tackle the fourth quarter.
Also as expected, the Spurs wins do contain fourth quarter surges where they rank top five in offense and top 10 in defense. I can’t go as far to say that they possess that clutch gene because in games decided by less than 10 points, they have also failed to rise to the occasion. In their losses, they fall closer to the pack, showing that this team is still developing and can be relatively hit-or-miss. More experienced teams such as the Celtics and the Lakers are the only ones who rank top five in net rating in both their wins and losses.
On that note, it is interesting to see the unsteady projection of net rating in wins versus losses. The Spurs net rating in their 4Q wins is 22.6 while in their losses is -16.5, a difference of 39.1. This currently ranks fourth in the nation as far as fourth quarter volatility goes, behind the Pistons, Rockets, and Pacers (their difference is 69.6!). This further adds to the argument that young lineups can fluctuate heavily from night to night. One last comment I want to make on the rollercoaster of production is with Washington’s wins. They go from having the best net rating in the second quarter, to the worst defense in the third, and then the worst offense in the fourth.
The Spurs will host the Kings tonight. Unlike most teams the Kings actually have a better net rating in the fourth quarter in their losses so far this year compared to their wins (0.4 vs -16.2). Their wins are typically marked by huge leads constructed in the first half so if the Spurs can contain them early on, they stand to close out strong.