Spurs’ March defensive collapse has been striking

Late after the Spurs’ loss against Boston early Friday morning, an interesting comment emanated from the Turner Studios in Atlanta as their commentators tried to explain San Antonio’s striking recent defense collapse.

Back when the Spurs were winning championships, the team’s defense improved as the season progressed. It always was one of the team’s biggest strengths when the playoffs started.

Rick Fox knows all about those Spurs teams. He had the difficult chore of trying to score against them during his own career with the Los Angeles Lakers.

But Fox had an interesting explanation why the Spurs have struggled defensively this season.

“It’s because Tim isn’t 32 any more,” Fox said, referring to  Tim Duncan, who will be turning 35 on April 25.

Duncan clearly isn’t the defensive force he once was. But the Spurs no longer have the defensive weapons surrounding him like Fabricio Oberto, Francisco Elson and Bruce Bowen.  The halcyon years when he teamed up with David Robinson in “The Twin Towers” has never seemed farther away.

Another reason is that the Spurs are relying more on jump shots than any previous time in Popovich’s coaching tenure. The offense looks unbeatable when the shots are dropping. But their transition defense after misses has provided maddening breakdowns throughout the season.

Both Boston coach Doc Rivers and Gregg Popovich said that the Spurs’ defense has been challenged as the team has evolved into a perimeter-oriented team.

Popovich said the heavy reliance on 3-pointers in the second half of their 107-97 loss to Boston helped explained the defense.

“The game was won when we got a little three happy in the third quarter.  Then, the transition defense didn’t follow,” Popovich said. “Some of the shots were very good and open, some were contested.  The transition after it is really important and they took advantage of it.  They made it a 10-point game at that point, we couldn’t get back in it and that was the game.”

When jumpers are falling, the team looks strong. But when they aren’t, the defense has struggled unlike any previous Spurs team in the Duncan era.

Boston hit 54.8 percent from the field Thursday night. It marked the third straight game and sixth time in the last nine games that an opponent has hit at least 50 percent from the field against the Spurs. And no opponent has hit less than 45 percent against them since their March 2 victory at Cleveland — a stretch of 14 games.

It also was the fourth time in five games that opponents have scored at least 100 points. It marked the ninth time during March the Spurs allowed at least 100 points. In every other game but one, they allowed 95 points. In that game, San Antonio permitted 91.

“I think those (stats) are overrated a little bit because the pace of their shot is quicker now, too,” Rivers said. “When you shoot quicker because you’re scoring more points, then even a good defense is going to give up more point. Even on their good defensive nights, because they’re scoring, that means you get the ball back quicker as well which means you get more possessions. That’s probably the biggest difference.”

In a way, the Spurs of 2011 are a little reminiscent of the Phoenix Suns of the “Seven Seconds to Shoot” era  with Mike D’Antoni in the late 2000s. When their shots were falling, that Phoenix team looked like it was in championship caliber. But when they didn’t fall, they never advanced past the Western Conference finals.

The Spurs have just struggled through their worst defensive month in the Duncan era. It coming at the wrong time of the season with the playoffs approaching.

Spurs Nation has never seen a team in the Duncan era looking for a defensive identity so late in the season.

And if that defense doesn’t improve quickly, the Spurs’ post-season plans look like they will be short this season.

Here’s a look at some year-to-year March defensive statistics during the Duncan era.

Year                    Def. FG pct.          PPG        Record       Margin of victory

1998                        40.4                    84.8         11-5                      5.8

1999                        40.5                    84.3         14-2                   12.5

2000                       44.4                    91.3         10-5                     6.2

2001                        40.8                   85.8         14-3                   11.9

2002                        42.3                   87.4         13-3                     9.0

2003                        45.3                  93.9          14-3                    7.2

2004                        43.4                   87.4         11-5                     8.7

2005                        43.1                   88.5         10-5                    6.1

2006                        45.2                   90.9         12-4                     7.4

2007                        43.3                   84.8         13-2                   12.7

2008                        43.7                  90.9          12-6                     4.3

2009                       45.0                   91.1           9-8                     3.6

2010                       44,1                    94.3         12-5                     7.9

2011                       48.7                 1o2.6            8-8                     0.0

Note: The statistics are for Spurs opponents during the  month of March. Def. FG pct. represents defensive field-goal percentage. PPG are the points allowed by the Spurs in March games. Record indicates their March won-loss record.  And margin is San Antonio’s average margin of victory during March games.

Notes on a scorecard: Whatever happened to San Antonio’s vaunted defense?

Remember back in the glory days of the San Antonio Spurs?

You recall that era don’t you? Back when “The Twin Towers” of David Robinson and Tim Duncan made shooting a nightmare for Spurs opponents.

Even after Robinson retired, the Spurs found serviceable replacements like Rasho Nesterovic, Nazr Mohammed, Francisco Elson  and Fabricio Oberto to make it tough inside.

And Bruce Bowen, of course, flashed the kind of legendary skills that enabled him to harrass the leading scorers of his era as one of the best on-ball defenders in NBA history.

Those days have never appeared farther away than over the last 20 games or so as the Spurs have evolved into their new order.

They are winning as much as any team in the NBA this season. But the defense had taken a big step back along the way.

In Monday’s 100-92 loss to Portland, Portland shot 52.3 percent from the field. It marked the third time in the Spurs’ four-game losing streak that opponents have topped 50 percent. Opponents have topped 50 percent in four of  six games and six of eight contests.

The strong recent shooting has been bad enough. But a more telling statistic can be found in the minimums that opponents have shot during the recent games. Since limiting Cleveland to 39.6 percent on March 2, the Spurs have allowed every opponent to shot at least 45.2 percent from the field — a span of 13 games.  

For the month of March, Spurs opponents are hitting 48.3 percent from the field. It’s a trend that a distinct retreat from most Gregg Popovich teams that traditionally improve defensively after the All-Star break.

It’s a vexing problem as the playoffs near, particularly as no jump-shooting team has been able to win an NBA title in recent history.

The Spurs will have to pick up their defense if they want to make a long playoff run this season. 

Here are a few other notes and tidbits from the first game where either Duncan, Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili wasn’t in the starting lineup since the final regular season game last season.

  • George Hill led the team in scoring for the second straight game, scoring 27 points. His two-game, 57-point scoring binge over the last two games is the largest two-game production in his career. He’s hitting 62.5 percent from the field and 76.2 percent from the line during that span.
  • Tiago Splitter had a strong game again, notching 14 points and nine rebounds in 28:21 — his longest playing stint of his career. It was his third-highest scoring game and tied for his second-highest rebounding game. During his last six games, he’s averaging 9.0 points and 8.0 rebounds while shooting 60 percent from the field.
  • Some nights shooters have the kind of game that Gary Neal struggled through Monday night. His 3-for-14 shooting effort — including 2-for-10 in the fourth quarter — represented one of his 10 worst shooting nights of the season.
  • The team could have used more of Neal after  he hit two of his first three shots to start the fourth quarter. From there, he missed his final seven shots. Neal matched his career high with two steals. And his shooting effort ended a recent spree where he’s hit 58.6 percent from the field, shot 62.5 percent from beyond the 3-point line and averaged 15 points in his last three games.
  • Danny Green showed some of the talent that made him one of the top players on North Carolina’s 2009 national championship team as he produced two dunks and a 3-pointer in his 3-for-3 shooting effort. His seven points and 20:15 in playing time both were career highs.
  • DeJuan Blair was limited to three points and five rebounds. His three points were his smallest scoring effort since scoring two points on March 18.  Blair has failed to score in double figures for the last seven games. It’s his longest streak of non-double figure scoring games since starting the season with seven games without double figures. But most significantly, his minutes played are up over last season, but his scoring, rebounding and shooting all have dipped from his rookie season.
  • The Spurs did  show  some defensive improvement during stages of the Portland game. After allowing 58 points in the paint against Memphis Sunday night, they permitted only 34 against Portland. And they limited the Trail Blazers to nine points in the third quarter — lowest production in any quarter by an opponent this season. But they then allowed the Trail Blazers to score 33 points — tied for second-most by an opponent this season — in the pivotal fourth quarter.
  • San Antonio had only three players with positive plus-minus scores with James Anderson at plus-7, Chris Quinn at plus-3 and Steve Novak at plus-2. Neal had the worst score at minus-16, Matt Bonner was at minus-10, Splitter was at minus-8 and Richard Jefferson was at minus-8.