SAN ANTONIO — The 2020-21 season came to a fitting end for the San Antonio Spurs, who lost to Memphis 100-96 in a play-in game that mirrored the best and worst parts of this team in a frustrating 33-39 season.
The San Antonio Spurs dug themselves an early hole by playing passively, shooting poorly, and allowing their opponent high-quality looks from dirty areas of the floor. They took a huge punch but never stopped fighting, even though the odds were never in their favor to begin with and seemed to only get worse as time passed and misfortunes added up. That fight is what gave some fans a glimmer of hope, and it’s what made it okay that those hopes didn’t end with a playoff spot.
"I don't know if I've ever been more proud of a team that just doesn't quit, no matter what the mistakes, no matter what the circumstances are, they really fight," Coach Gregg Popovich said after the game and season.
That fight will serve the Spurs well moving forward from this disappointing game to end a frustrating year, but so will learning from what went wrong.
The most glaringly obvious problem for the Spurs this season was a lack of three-point shooting. San Antonio attempted a league-low 28.4 triples per game, hitting just 35% (seventh worst). They were bottom two in the league in terms of pull-up threes attempted and made.
San Antonio attempted nearly 70% of their field goals from inside the arc, got 57.5% of their points from there and almost 15% of their points from mid-range. All of those figures lead the league, and none of those categories are ones you want to lead the league in in 2021.
It makes sense when you consider the two players who shot the most were slashing mid-range maestros in DeMar DeRozan and Dejounte Murray. Both shot about 15 times a contest, and they got about 70% of their points from two and 25% from mid-range. DJ hit 32% on three triples per game while DeRozan managed just 26% on 1.2 per game.
That pair led the team in assists as well, often able to draw multiple defenders by attacking the rim and find open teammates either rolling to the three-point arc. That inside-out attack may have worked better with more willing shooters around them, but Patty Mills was the only Spur wh got a majority of his points (65.6%) from deep. Devin Vassell, Rudy Gay, Derrick White, and Lonnie Walker IV all hovered around 45%. Gay and Mills hit about 38%, making them the only shooters on the team who hit better than league average.
Still, basically everyone on the roster except for Jakob Poeltl could theoretically catch and shoot an open three. When they hit, the Spurs were fantastic.
They went 21-13 when they hit better than their average of 35%, and in games when they hit 14 or more from long range, they went 7-2. One of those games was a 20-40 night in a win over the Clippers, and another was 16-35 in the same building a few nights later to beat the Lakers. In a late-season victory over the Bucks, they hit 17 and a season-high 58%.
When they missed, it was pretty ugly. They went 11-20 in games where they made fewer than ten attempts from deep, and went 12-26 when they hit worse than 35%.
San Antonio’s throwback offense could explode depending on the matchup, but ended the season with an offensive rating worse than average at 110.5 points per 100 possessions. Their fast pace was a point of excitement in the bubble, but they played at an average speed this year and didn’t get out in transition as much as they would have liked.
The shot profile was a huge problem, but not just because 3 > 2. The cardinal sin of San Antonio’s offense was how predictable it was. Scouting this team at full strength was simple: DeRozan and Murray attacked in pick and roll while the other guys mostly spaced the floor and made plays when the ball came to them. When the game got close, it would likely be won or lost on DeRozan Island.
Player development was a big goal for San Antonio this year, and while plenty of young players got more chances than normal for the Spurs, it seemed like Coach Pop knew he would rely more heavily on the veterans he trusted when it mattered most.
Patty Mills and Rudy Gay were sometimes the only players keeping the three-point numbers on the chart for this group that struggled so mightily there, but Mills ended the year in a slump that lasted over a month, and Gay was near the top of the roster for usage rate. They left a lot to be desired on defense, and that showed especially after Jakob Poeltl ascended to the starting role.
On the flip side of the experience coin, Lonnie Walker IV and Keldon Johnson showed plenty of growth, but plenty of room for growth too.
Lonnie Walker IV’s minutes situation improved dramatically over the previous year, but his role was consistently inconsistent. He started as a 3-and-D injury replacement for White, then transitioned to a sixth-man role with more offensive responsibility, then went back to starting. On nights when DeRozan was out, he stepped up as a playmaker. In games when he played over 25 minutes, the Spurs went 18-13.
Johnson brought the chaotic energy of a chocolate lab puppy in his trademarked big body, and in the beginning of the year showed that he could produce reliably as a starter because of that in his first full NBA season.
Both of them showed improvement throughout the year at changing speed and direction, not just going 100 mph in a straight line on every touch. They both guarded difficult matchups and showed impressive intensity guarding the ball, but they also both struggled with positioning, communication, anticipation, and off-ball attention.
Derrick White’s season was broken up by four injury absences, and before the last one he was regaining his form as the team’s most versatile player. He led the team with almost 7 triples attempted per game, and the Spurs sorely missed that shooting volume and his spectacular defense when he was out.
Devin Vassell got the most minutes of a Spurs rookie since Kawhi and even started for a bit after White’s season ending ankle sprain, but couldn’t hit his bread-and-butter three in the final month of the season.
Coach Popovich said that Luka Samanic was earning some more minutes with strong play as the team battled injuries and COVID recoveries, but he must not have told whoever is in charge of that.
Gorgui Dieng seemed to be the floor-spacing big man this team needed after the departure of LaMarcus Aldridge, but he was limited by an injury suffered on his first possession in San Antonio. Drew Eubanks served as the backup center, and while he showed explosiveness and fearlessness and a hook shoot that got fans calling him Drew Alcindor, we also saw enough holes in his game to see that the Spurs probably need someone else at the backup 5.
Add that all up with the challenges of this pandemic season, which included the Spurs missing several games in the first half and making them up in a jam-packed schedule with no practices and 10 different back-to-back sets after the All Star break, and it’s pretty impressive they made it to the play-in game at all.
The first time San Antonio had two days off in the second half of the season was before they faced Memphis in the play-in. In the final 12 games of the season, they faced 11 opponents with a better record than the Grizzlies.
In that game, we saw the good, bad and ugly that we saw from San Antonio all season. Unfortunately for them, it was ugly first. The Spurs dug themselves a 21-point hole in the first half, which was an absurdly large number but part of a pattern. The Spurs fell behind by double digits in well over half of their games, losing 33. They won the other nine, though, and erased a 17-point deficit to beat the Bulls earlier in the year.
The early deficit was about timid, predictable offense that was defended with a high-level of attention to detail. Memphis was able to contain DeRozan with Dillon Brooks, who spent more time on DeRozan Island than anyone else this year. DeMar got to his spots, but when he did, Brooks was there playing playoff defense. Dejounte Murray couldn’t hit shots or generate much of an advantage either, and they finished the game 5-21 and 4-17 from the floor, respectively.
Memphis center Jonas Valanciunas was the intimidator at the rim who made drivers settle for jumpers. He gobbled up an abundance of defensive boards, and bullied Drew Eubanks out of the game completely in just three minutes. Poeltl put up a decent fight, but JV still finished with 23 points and 23 boards. Part of that was that the Grizzlies emphasized keeping Poeltl off the glass.
After the ugly, it was actually pretty great. Valanciunas went to the bench for about five minutes, and in that time the Spurs ripped off a 22-3 run to get right back in it. They did most of their damage attacking the rim in pick and roll, forcing Valanciunas back into the game.
When Valanciunas went to the bench again in the second half of a more even game, San Antonio failed to take advantage or test the lack of rim protection. Rudy Gay missed a couple of post fades, Patty Mills missed a pair of moving triples, and in 11 shot attempts, only three went in and only two came at the rim.
Lonnie got pulled halfway through the third quarter, and Pop didn’t put him back in until the final possession.
San Antonio was able to start the game over, but they couldn’t finish the job. Dillon Brooks scored four buckets in a row attacking Keldon Johnson, first by pulling up for jumpers, then by blowing past him. Pop switched Johnson onto Morant, who went right at him for a score before Pop took Keldon out and put Rudy in.
Gay hit two big threes late to keep things close, but those were the only points the Spurs scored in the last three minutes of their season.
San Antonio shot just 8-22 ( 36%) from deep in the game, and Mills and Gay had three apiece. San Antonio actually shot worse overall from the floor, 35%, on a night when nobody except the centers shot better than 50%.
Even with a shooting performance that terrible, they had a chance until the final moments because of their defense that held Memphis to just 62 points in the final three quarters.
The season started with Pop making light of the fact that the Spurs weren’t exactly title contenders, even before White’s injuries and the coronavirus derailment. Many fans wondered about what’s the point of winning any games and hurting draft lottery odds if the end result would be a lost season anyway.
The point for the Spurs, though, is fighting even when it seems like it isn’t doing anything. These players are frustrated with how this year went. Many are frustrated with how they performed themselves. They talked about taking each loss as a lesson, and how they were able to erase a 21-point deficit with their season on the line because they’d been in battles like that all year.
San Antonio took difficult steps toward a brighter future. They were working in the dark a lot of the time, but didn’t stop working, caring, and trying. As this core group of young players continues to grow, their skills, understanding and confidence will expand while that fight and desire to win remains.
You can see it in Dejounte Murray taking responsibility for his poor performance, and in Lonnie Walker’s devastation after the game. You see it in rookie Devin Vassell telling Keldon Johnson that this would be the last time they missed the playoffs. It’s something they want and believe they can achieve. No matter what changes for San Antonio this summer, that fight is here to stay.