Spurs falter in Utah for fourth straight loss

The Spurs submitted another dreadful defensive performance on the road Saturday against the Jazz, losing 125-105. San Antonio is now 0-4 on its Rodeo Road Trip and 32-26 for the season.

Are the Spurs in trouble? To be fair, starters Derrick White (heel) and Rudy Gay (ankle) were out on Saturday. But it definitely wasn’t an inspiring performance.

Let’s look at three observations, two questions and one prediction I have for the Spurs after watching this game.

3 Observations

This Spurs defense is painful to watch

If you’ve watched the Spurs play defense in the last couple weeks, you’ve cringed more than a few times. The team is offering very little resistance or physicality at the point of attack, and opponents are getting into the paint at will against them.

San Antonio was 17th in the league in defensive rating (109.6) on January 22. Since then, the squad is last in defensive rating (120.3) with a sample size of 10 games to slide to 23rd for the season.

The absence of White for the last four games has been a factor. The team also missed Gay’s length and versatility on Saturday. White and Gay are the only two players on the roster with a league-wide perimeter defense percentile of better than 70, according to BBall Index’s talent grades.

Because of that poor perimeter defense, the Spurs’ rim protectors often had to leave the basket to help on Jazz drives in this game. That left the restricted area extremely vulnerable to easy finishes.

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Utah also drained 16 of its 41 three-point attempts on Saturday. The Jazz probably should’ve made even more, considering that most of their attempts were essentially practice shots. The Spurs left Utah “wide open” for 28 of those shots and “open” for 12 others. Just one Utah three-point attempt was classified as “tight” and none were “very tight”.

Rudy Gobert made his All-Star statement against LaMarcus Aldridge

I believe Aldridge has at least a case as one of the Western Conference’s best 12 players so far this season this season. In that sense, his All-Star recognition for this season was deserved. It was just a year where the crop of West frontcourt players was deeper than the backcourt group.

This may enrage some Spurs fans, but if you take emotion out of the equation, it’s clear that Gobert deserved a spot over Aldridge. A host of advanced metrics support that assertion wholeheartedly. Gobert has also been consistently great all season (not since December started) and his DPOY-level defense along with his underrated, uber-efficient offense should have made him a no-brainer All-Star.

The “Stifle Tower” gave a little bit of insight into his impact on Saturday against LMA.

Gobert finished with 21 points, 13 rebounds, four assists and two blocks on 8-of-10 shooting from the field and 5-of-6 from the three-throw line. More impressively, he limited Aldridge to 15 points on 5-of-16 shooting from the field and 4-of-4 from the line. In terms of raw field-goal percentage, this was Aldridge’s worst shooting game since November 21. Gobert contested many of Aldridge’s jump shots, short hooks and layups.

It’s a major problem for the Spurs when Aldridge doesn’t score well. They’re just 4-16 when he scores 17 points or fewer this season, compared to 28-10 when he has 18 or more. Gobert’s work on both ends ensured that San Antonio’s best player couldn’t get going on Saturday.

DeMar DeRozan’s strong shooting is helpful

Moving to San Antonio’s second star, DeRozan had an efficient shooting game for the third outing in a row. He’s scored at least 23 points and made at least half of his field-goal attempts in each of those three contests after reaching those numbers simultaneously just four times in the previous 23 games.

DeRozan’s midrange jumper has started to fall more frequently, but he’s also mixing in more drives to the hoop to draw help and utilize his excellent footwork and finishing ability. He looks like he has his swagger back.

Of course, none of this really matters when opponents can toy with the Spurs’ defense. But if San Antonio’s respectable stopping unit from mid-December to mid-January ever comes back, DeRozan heating up will greatly help the team’s playoff push.

2 Questions

How many wins will be required for the West’s No. 7 seed?

The injury to White, combined with the four-game losing streak and overall defensive free fall, are forcing fans to reconsider their expectations on the Spurs. The No. 3 seed was in reach not too long ago, but now it’s 5.5 games away.

San Antonio is currently seventh in the West, but the team has the Clippers (one-half game back) and Kings (1.5 games back) on its tail.

Moving up would be great, and it could happen if the Spurs rediscover their defensive chemistry and get White and Gay back at 100 percent. But for now, the team should just hope to stay in seventh.

Falling to eighth likely earns them the right to get destroyed by the Warriors in the first round. The Spurs had that honor last season, and it wasn’t fun. And falling back to ninth place means missing the playoffs for the first time since 1997.

Can Rudy Gay stay healthy for an extended period of time?

Gay has been very prone to injury over his career. Between the 2010-11 and 2017-18 seasons, he missed an average of 18.5 games per year. This season, he’s on track for close to that number, with 11 games missed already.

The veteran forward has dealt with heel, wrist and now ankle problems at various points this year. It’s such a shame that those issues have broken up his campaign, because he’s in the midst of a very efficient offensive season and he’s done a good job adjusting to the modern NBA even has his athleticism has declined a bit.

San Antonio now has a 4-7 record with Gay on the sidelines. His versatility on both ends allows a variety of lineups to work for the Spurs.

1 Prediction

Derrick White will earn at least 35 minutes per game in the playoffs

How can Gregg Popovich afford not to do this? Patty Mills, Bryn Forbes and Marco Belinelli have shown over and over that they don’t have the size or athleticism to hold up defensively playing big minutes against playoff competition. DeRozan hasn’t been terrible this season on defense, but he’s still far from a stopper.

White is extremely active defensively and has the requisite length, strength and athleticism to hold up well against a variety of players. Offensively, DeRozan’s the only guy in the perimeter rotation who is better.

When White comes back from his plantar fasciitis and starts reacquainting himself, I’d like to see Pop start to creep his minutes into this range even before the playoffs start.

Note: All statistics and video clips are from NBA.com unless otherwise indicated. 

Photo: Melissa Majchrzak // Getty Images

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