Why the Spurs’ defense falls apart late in games

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

San Antonio is merely mediocre at stopping opponents early in games but gets downright awful at it in the last two quarters. In this week’s roundtable the PtR staffs tries to figure out why.

The Spurs rank 18th in the league in defensive rating in the first half of games and second to last in the second half. Their offense actually gets better in the last two quarters but their defense gets so bad that we keep seeing collapses or close calls.

Why are the Spurs so bad at defending after the break?

Marilyn Dubinski: I think it’s a culmination of a lot of the issues that has plagued this team since the Big Three era ended, and it all starts with a lack of leadership. This is not to say they don’t have any leaders — Patty Mills is an amazing leader and pumps his team up, as are several of the other vets on the team — but they lack that guy who is going to take the bull by the horns on both ends of the court and steer the team in the right direction, a la Tim Duncan or Manu Ginobili. LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan will get (or keep) the offense going, but they aren’t the type of players who will instruct, take over on defense, or make that big play that pumps everyone up and gets everyone engaged on that end. On a similar note, this team just has a bad tendency to get complacent when anything resembling a comfortable lead is built, and then they have trouble recovering (although they’re better at it now than they were earlier in the season).

Mark Barrington: There could be a lot of skill-related and statistical reasons for this, but I think it boils down to mental toughness. And I don’t think it’s just one player, but a combination. This team doesn’t trust each other enough to handle adversity well, and when things start to go badly, they tend to cascade. I hear some people try to put the blame on DeRozan, but I actually think DeMar handles pressure well, but the rest of the team is so bad in tough situations that he often ends up going 1 on 5 in key situations when the rest of the team loses it. That’s not sustainable, and he’s going to have to trust his teammates if the team is going to start finishing better, and I think that’s already starting to occur.

Another factor is that NBA teams don’t play hard for 48 minutes in regular season games, because it’s pretty much impossible to do that in an 82 game season. A lot of stars turn up their effort in the second half of games, and role players are already at or near their ceilings and don’t have another gear they can shift into to respond to that. One encouraging sign for the Silver and Black is that Bryn Forbes isn’t finishing games lately. I like Forbes, but I’d rather have the more athletic Lonnie Walker IV trying to get stops late in game instead of him. It seems obvious that you want your best players on the court at the most important times of the game, but Pop has often gone against that idea with his lineups. The Spurs are still blowing leads, but it seems like lately they’re holding on a little better at the end than they were earlier in the season. If they can keep improving, maybe they can get away from the heart attack finishes that they’ve become accustomed to for the last couple of weeks.

Bruno Passos: We hear coaches and media chalk up a lot of these losses to the Spurs being inconsistent from night to night and quarter to quarter, which is definitely true, but inconsistency isn’t usually a cause of poor performance so much as another symptom. With the defensive drop-offs in particular, it feels like the Spurs get away with some combination of decent front-end game-planning and gumming things up with the occasional timely use of a 2-3 zone, which make up for the actual personnel they’re throwing out there. My impression’s been that opponents adjust over time and settle into their sets, and the defense hasn’t had the focus or physical talent to make up for it.

Jeje Gomez: Just looking at the first and second half splits reveals that the biggest changes happen in defensive rebound percentage and opponent free throw rate, meaning that late in the game San Antonio allows offensive boards and fouls a lot more. Any fan who has been paying attention at any point in the Popovich era knows that not doing those two things has been a core tenet of the Spurs defensive philosophy for literally decades.

A lack of competent size, especially in the frontcourt, could explain why both things are happening more in the second half, when the Spurs typically go small and have to rely on an increasingly less effective Aldridge. Their guards outside of Murray are not great rebounders and with Aldridge having to stay close to the rim to be effective, the perimeter defenders probably have to be more aggressive in order to not give up open looks.

I’m sure there are other reasons for the poor defense in second halves, but Aldridge’s decline as a rebounder and defender and the lack of size on the perimeter are probably near the top of the list.

J.R. Wilco: The closer you get to the end of a close game, the more effort teams expend. So, the more clutch the situation, the more the game is played at its peak. It’s the Deadpool Corollary: since it’s impossible to play 48 minutes at MAXIMUM EFFORT, ultimate energy exertion must be saved for when/if the game requires it.

Ergo, the Spurs defense is lit up more frequently in the 2nd half because the top end of what they’re capable isn’t as high as their opponents’, which doesn’t bode well for the long term prospects of this season, but certainly helps us set our expectations accordingly.

TL:DR version — the Spurs defend about as well as possible for a roster that contains as many mediocre/sub-par defenders as San Antonio’s.

Why the Spurs’ defense falls apart late in games
Why the Spurs’ defense falls apart late in games

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