It is often difficult to separate the success or failure of a team in relation to the strength of their coach. As much as players lament the league being a business, it is the coaches who tend to find themselves on the hot seat first when things go awry. When things do go well, some coaches may not be given their fair due because they have an MVP candidate (or two) on the roster. However, the one thing that coaches explicitly control during an NBA game are timeouts.
Gregg Popovich has been lauded for being one of the best Xs and Os coaches the league has ever seen. This season, however, the Spurs find themselves as the fifth worst team in points out of timeouts.
Considering how much the Spurs have been struggling in crunch time situations, that stat shouldn’t be too surprising. What should give Spurs fans hope is that Pop appears to be much better off when he moves away from isolation plays after a timeout and reverts to more ball movement.
A Failure to Execute
Here, the Spurs are coming out of a timeout in the first overtime against the Houston Rockets. DeMar DeRozan is given the ball for the last shot, as usual.
What really screws up the play is Jakob Poeltl waiting far too long to set a screen. When he finally does, it is a lazy one that forces DeRozan to freelance with the shot clock winding down. DeRozan is forced into a very tough shot over the outstretched arms of Clint Capela.
Had Poeltl set a proper and timely screen, this would have given DeRozan a lot more options to work with. Considering there were 21 seconds left on the shot clock, the Spurs should have been able to get a much better possession. The lack of understanding what the Spurs were trying to run from Poeltl single-handedly destroys this entire play.
Pop understandably rips into Poeltl after this play. The Spurs already struggle in crunch time so it is absolutely imperative that any late-game plays are run to perfection. A coach can live with a missed shot from a well-executed play, but a play that falls apart right off the bat due to a lack of awareness will drive anyone crazy.
Iso, Not the Way to Go
A common play the Spurs like to run in end-of-game situations is an iso, with DeRozan almost always given the last shot. He is top 15 in the league in isos at 2.9 per game.
In the above clip, DeRozan receives the ball with 7.5 seconds left and has to settle for a step-back jumper over a lengthy defender. It is a low percentage play for a player who has shot nearly ten percent worse in crunch time compared to his season average.
When DeRozan received the ball, he had a wide open Rudy Gay. Granted, Gay is shooting just 27.4% from three point range this year, but he had hit a three-pointer earlier in the game and you’d have to prefer an open three from Gay as opposed to a contested step-back from DeRozan.
While the Spurs go to DeRozan more than any other player in crunch time, it is time they move away from that. He settles for long jumpers and when he does take a shot closer to the rim, he often gets blocked. Even when he does get fouled, he’s gone a staggering 9-for-20 from the free throw line in clutch situations, which has already cost the Spurs a couple of games this season.
The playoff race is already so tight for the final seeds in the Western Conference that the Spurs can’t afford to be giving away games in crunch time. The least they can do is put themselves in a position to succeed. Having the ball in DeRozan’s hands is the opposite of that.
An Ace Up Your Sleeve
Where the Spurs have fared well coming out of timeouts is when they need a three. Unlike James Harden, who can get a three-point shot off from an iso situation, the Spurs don’t have that luxury with DeRozan. For a three-point shot, the Spurs run plays with more variety than if they simply need a two.
Marco Belinelli receives the ball and finds DeRozan. DeRozan wisely drives to the rim. The Kings in this situation are content with giving up the two seeing as they are up three points with just four seconds left. The Spurs would normally drive and kick to the opposite corner for the open three but Patty Mills is closely guarded. Buddy Hield was on Belinelli but gets caught ball watching as DeRozan drives to the rim. Taking advantage of this, Belinelli curls to an open three-point spot and comfortably drains it. It was a very clever play drawn up by Pop, and hopefully something we see more of this season.
A Little More Variety, A Little Less Predictable
The San Antonio Spurs are 5-6 in games decided by six points or less this year. When opposing teams have a good idea of what’s coming (usually a DeRozan iso), it is obviously much easier to stop as opposed to a play that gets the entire team involved.
Pop is usually really good at plays out of the timeout. However, he doesn’t like to show his hand during the regular season, preferring to save some of his more nuanced plays for the postseason. This season, though, he may have to dig a little deeper into the playbook sooner than he would like. Otherwise, there may not be a postseason to show off those plays.