SAN ANTONIO — San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich watched an 18-point lead disintegrate Tuesday into a 3-point deficit over the span of 6 minutes, 9 seconds in the third quarter of his team’s 108-94 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Surprisingly, Popovich kept his cool the whole time.
“I didn’t call any timeouts; just let them go,” Popovich said. “Sometimes, that’s a great lesson: to try to live through it, deal with it, and not use the timeout as an out, so to speak. I let them stay out there and figure it out, and they did a good job of it. I didn’t love doing it. I was a nervous wreck, but we did it.”
What Popovich probably will do now behind the scenes is the opposite of the coolness displayed in the face of a furious 25-4 run for the Thunder on Tuesday. He and the rest of the team know San Antonio can’t continue to operate this way if it expects to seriously compete for a championship.
Sure, the Spurs avoided what would have been their first three-game losing streak of the season thanks to another brilliant showing from Kawhi Leonard (36 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists) and a gritty defensive outing by Danny Green against Russell Westbrook, who still finished with 27 points and 14 assists. But the winning performance looked eerily similar to San Antonio’s previous two outings — losses to New Orleans and Dallas — in which the Spurs squandered leads of at least 11 points on the way to defeats.
This night resembled a carbon copy of those contests, except this time the end result was different.
“What I do think is that at least we played three quarters today, not two,” guard Manu Ginobili said. “We had a very poor third [quarter]. We lost a 16-point lead. I think it was 18. At a point, we were losing by three. So yeah, poor performance in the third quarter. But we were aggressive enough in the fourth to get the lead back. Kawhi got hot, made some incredible shots and plays that gave us a little cushion. Then we gained confidence again and everything went our way.”
Interestingly, before Sunday’s loss to the Mavericks, the Spurs had won 117 consecutive home outings when leading at the half by 10 points or more, and they haven’t lost consecutive home games under those conditions since March 2003. Despite the 14-point victory, San Antonio appeared to come dangerously close to losing Tuesday at the AT&T Center.
San Antonio built a quick, 14-point lead on its way to a 31-point opening quarter, and by the 6:35 mark of the second, the advantage had swelled to 18. Oklahoma City rested Westbrook for the first 3:23 of the second quarter, but the Spurs failed to capitalize, scoring only three points during that span.
Luckily for the Spurs, the Thunder offense basically disappeared with Westbrook off the floor. Oklahoma City produced only two free throw attempts with Westbrook on the bench and shot 0-of-6 from long range, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Indeed, the Thunder were plus-8 with Westbrook on the court, minus-22 with him off it.
“It’s a combination of things. Tonight, we allowed them to get to the free throw line,” Green said. “We got there sometimes. The offense wasn’t flowing like normal. We didn’t get many great looks. We missed some free throws. When you’re not scoring and the other team is scoring and getting to the free throw line, it changes the whole flow of the game, the whole momentum. I can’t put a finger on one particular thing each game. Hopefully, we’ll figure it out soon and get the ball rolling by All-Star break.”
San Antonio certainly needs to.
The team hosts the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday, then the Denver Nuggets on Saturday before embarking on its annual rodeo trip, which features eight consecutive outings on the road, where victories don’t come easy.
San Antonio opened the third quarter on a 12-4 run and brought the lead back up to 18 points by the 9:43 mark of the third quarter. Less than five minutes later (4:40 to be exact), Westbrook nailed a pair of free throws to cut San Antonio’s lead to 5.
“I’m not sure [why the Spurs struggle to close games],” said Leonard, who has posted the three highest-scoring games of his career this month. “Maybe effort or just mental errors, but we have to just keep pushing and make sure that doesn’t happen next game.”
Not to worry: Popovich will do plenty of pushing in practice and in the film room in the coming days.
“They usually score about 106. So, we did a good job, albeit giving them 33 in the third quarter,” Popovich said. “We’ve had a tough time with those third quarters lately. But I thought overall, we played competitively for more of the 48 than we have recently. Fourth quarter, we played good D; first half and fourth quarter. But it’s still a 48-minute game. We’ve got to figure that out.”
As soon as possible.