The Spurs get trounced in a meaningless regular season game against the Heat, but does it bely a concerning trend regarding their defense?
Posted by Matt Moore
Somewhere, in the bottom of his cold, unfeeling heart, Gregg Popovich knows what the loss to the Heat represents. In the grand scheme of things, it's a blip, a bump in the road, nothing to be concerned about. The team's still 54-12, still the best team in the league, still a juggernaut and a near-lock for homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. Popovich will remain a big picture guy, never overreacting to a single game of the regular season. But somwehere he knows the really concerning thing to take away from the Spurs' 110-80 loss to the Heat Monday night.
The Spurs entered Monday night 7th in the league at defensive efficiency (which estimates points per 100 possessions, removing the element of pace and providing a more true image of defensive productivity). That's not as good as they typically are, but it's still a top ten mark. But they also entered Monday night's game against Miami having averaged giving up 102 points per game in March, as opposed to their typical mark of 97. Their season defensive efficiency has been a solid 101.1. In March? The Spurs have averaged a 108.5 defensive efficiency, including marks of 117 to Memphis, 112 to the Lakers, 114 to Detroit,and the abomination, a 122 mark to the Heat. For reference, the worst team in the league, the Cleveland Cavaliers, average a 110 defensive efficiency. So in a supremely small sample, this month the Spurs are surrendering a defensive efficiency that would be the worst in the league if spread over the season. Looking at the Spurs' defensive efforts per game, you'll notice some solid efforts betrayed by huge breakdowns, with a concerning increase as of late.
Now, that's a small sample size to consider, but given that the Spurs have not played brilliant defense all year, it's got to be concerning for Popovich. This is especially true when you look at the kind of style that has led the Spurs' huge winning percentage. They've been an offensive juggernaut, with one of the best marks in the league. They've been balanced, they've been consistent, they've been impressive. But beneath it is the defense, the mark that's always held the Spurs up in the playoffs, even when their regular season success was limited. The Spurs have always won championships with stellar defense and deliberate, efficient offense. This season, when they've had the most regular season success in team history, it's been their offense propelling them forward while their defense has been quietly inconsistent. What's more, their defense is trending slightly worse as the season goes on. As teams are finding their playoff gears, the Spurs are giving up some of their worst defensive efforts of the season. In the chart below, I found the differential for the past month, starting with the February 17th game against the Bulls, for the Spurs defensive efficiency against their season average of 101.1. So for example, they surrendered a 122 efficiency against the Heat (shudder), so I subtracted the Spurs' season average of 101.1 from 122 to find the difference between what the Spurs normally do, and what they've done this month. The results are stunning.
If you're not big on the whole numbers vibe, essentially the Spurs have only performed at or better than their season defensive average three out of their past twelve games. Even in the first romp against the Heat, the Spurs allowed their average of 101 points per 100 possessions. In three of those games, against playoff teams in L.A., Memphis, and Miami, the Heat have allowed more than 15 points more per 100 possessions in those games. That's bad.
Against the Lakers a week ago, it was their positional physical disadvantages that were prominent. DeJuan Blair, Antonio McDyess, and Matt Bonner were helpless to keep the Lakers off the glass, and it was the length of L.A. that gave them the advantage. Conversely Monday against the Heat, it was positional skill matchups that aided the Heat. George Hill was isolated in space against Dwyane Wade, as the Heat deliberately forced the double then started their perimeter rotations, finding open threes. Then when Matt Bonnner was inserted and placed against Chris Bosh, the Heat ran that mismatch into the ground, and it resulted in point after point. When Popovich was forced to switch Blair onto Bosh putting Bonner on Joel Anthony, the Heat ran a play for Joel Anthony... let me restate that one more time for emphasis... the Heat ran a play for Joel Anthony that resulted in an open dunk. Bonner's arguably the best bench three-point shooter in the league, but he's a nightmare for the Spurs defensively, and it showed.
So now the Spurs try and forget about this loss, shrug it off as "one of those games," focus on the huge win they had two weeks ago against the same team and keep pushing forward. But as their fans continue to wonder why they don't receive as much respect as other star-laden teams, this game should serve as a notice. Previous years it was simply a matter of overlooking a great team that often proved everyone wrong by winning championships. But this team has an issue on defense, and if they don't find the extra gear by the time the playoffs roll around, they could be in a world of hurt and fall short once again of the fifth title for Duncan's Spurs.
(All per-game defensive efficiencies courtesy of HoopData.com. Basketball-Reference.com calculates defensive efficiency using a slightly different formula, as a result, the Spurs' defensive efficiency season average is calculated at a slightly higher 104.3. The effect would be standardized across the different per-game efficiencies, meaning the impact would be the same, but it should be mentioned there is a differential there.)