The Spurs and Fourth Quarters: The Worrying Trend of Faltering Late in Games

A couple weeks ago, the San Antonio Spurs were riding high. They had impressive back-to-back victories over a couple of the strongest teams in the league. They handed the Milwaukee Bucks their worst defeat of the year, and proceeded to avenge a humbling loss to the Boston Celtics by crushing them in Boston.

Since those wins the Spurs have stumbled, going 4-4 in their last eight games. To make matters even worse, three of their four losses during this stretch have been by six points or less. After suffering another heartbreaking loss against the Phoenix Suns the other night, let’s take a look at why the Spurs keep shooting themselves in the foot in the fourth quarters of games.

A Sputtering Offense

In their last eight games, the Spurs have the fourth worst mark in the league in fourth quarter scoring. At a paltry 25.3 points per game, the Spurs are only ahead of the Orlando Magic, Charlotte Hornets and Brooklyn Nets. In two of their four losses during this eight game stretch, the Spurs twice had a lead going into the fourth quarter.

This year’s Spurs are no stranger to fourth quarter struggles. However, what doomed them earlier in the season (too much iso plays and too many mid-range shots) was seemingly rectified the past month by placing a greater emphasis on three-point shooting. Since the Dec. 23 game against the Memphis Grizzlies, LaMarcus Aldridge has led the way by attempting 4.7 threes per game, up from his 1.7 attempts for all games prior. He’s also shooting a career best 42.7% from downtown.

However, as great as it is for the Spurs to be looking to spread the floor more, the differences in their shooting percentages from the third quarter versus the fourth is staggering.

The Spurs have some very solid numbers in the third quarters of games. However, their percentages plummet in nearly every spot on the floor once the fourth quarter comes around.

While earlier in the season the Spurs needed to improve on their playcalling and not be so iso-heavy late in games, their three-point shooting now needs to improve if they want to close out games.

Take the recent Suns loss at home, for instance. The Spurs started the fourth quarter with a Patty Mills three-pointer. His three would cut the deficit down to three points, after being down as many as 15 earlier in the game. With momentum on the Spurs side at home, it felt like it was looking good for the Spurs to eventually take the lead. Yet the Spurs would proceed to miss their next seven three pointers, finishing 1-for-8 from downtown in the final stanza. The Suns ended up winning the game by just four points, 103-99.

What made the loss even more irritating was that the Spurs weren’t forcing up bad shots. They had solid ball movement to create open looks. In the clip below, we will see DeMar DeRozan with the nifty behind the back pass to a wide open Bryn Forbes. Forbes would also be given another solid attempt just 20 seconds later.

Sadly, despite the nice plays to generate the open looks, the end result was the same.

Mental Lapses Defensively

In between the missed shots from Forbes, we saw Kelly Oubre Jr. go coast-to-coast without a single Spurs player making any effort to get in his way. This type of lackadaisical defense so late in the game is inexcusable. The fact that the Spurs have the fifth worst defensive rating in the league in fourth quarters says it all.

In the next clip, we see the Spurs play 24 seconds of good defense, yet they fail to box out as Dario Saric gets the easy putback to make it a two possession game. These are the plays that kill you.

The Spurs are already one of the weaker teams in the league defensively so teams will always know they have a chance against them regardless of the deficit. When the Spurs do manage to play good defense, they absolutely cannot afford to have a mental lapse and give up easy points. In games where the margin of defeat has been so small, all these little plays add up and always come back to haunt the Spurs.

A Flaw in Execution or Merely A Shooting Slump?

Unlike earlier in the season when the Spurs were having all kinds of issues creating good looks in crunch time situations, Gregg Popovich and company have certainly improved the team in that regard. When analyzing the Spurs fourth quarter against Phoenix, a majority of their missed shots came from poor shooting and very little to do with the Suns defense. Even players who struggled late like Forbes were hitting a franchise record 7 three-pointers in a half against this same Suns team a few days ago. While the Spurs aren’t as good of an outside shooting team as they were that night, they definitely aren’t as bad of one as we saw in the home contest.

The Spurs have a daunting rodeo road trip coming up in a week. They don’t have the talent or defensive moxy to overcome poor shooting nights. With the Grizzlies heating up and already ahead of San Antonio in the playoff race, the Spurs will need to find their fourth quarter shooting in a hurry if they want to remain a legit candidate for the postseason.