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.

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