Forty-eight games into the 82-game NBA regular season the Spurs have their first losing streak of the season.
No, their 117-103 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena was not a second straight defeat. It was, however, their second consecutive road loss, the first time all season they have suffered back-to-back losses of any sort.
It was their second loss in three games in the space of six days. In a season which the Spurs recorded the best start in franchise history (38-6), losing two games in six days nearly constitutes a slump. They still have the second-best record in the league, now 39-8, and will return to San Antonio, where they remain unbeaten on their AT&T Center home court (25-0) for a Monday night game against the Orlando Magic.
Just as in their disheartening, 30-point loss to the league-leading Golden State Warriors in Oakland on Monday, the Spurs gave up more than 60 points in the first half. This time the Cavaliers put up 66 first-half points, the highest-scoring half by a Spurs opponent this season.
The common defensive denominator in the two blowout losses: the absence of defensive anchor Tim Duncan. The 39-year-old team captain has played only once in the last 13 days and has missed four of the last five games. There is no timetable for his return because Gregg Popovich doesn’t do timetables.
It didn’t help matters when Spurs center LaMarcus Aldridge picked up a third personal foul with a little more than three minutes left in the first quarter against the Cavs. After scoring eight first-period points Aldridge had to sit out the remainder of the first half and watch while Cleveland rolled to a 17-point halftime lead.
Duncan has helped newcomer big men Aldridge and David West learn the intricacies of Popovich’s defensive system and, as the team’s smartest defender and best communicator, often could be seen verbally guiding them to proper defensive position.
West, tasked with defending power forward Kevin Love to start the game, clearly missed Duncan’s help.
“We’ve just got to talk all the time,” West said in a televised post-game interview. “That’s our key and there’s a lot of familiarity with these guys and you’ve got to be able to talk through certain situations. We didn’t do a good enough job of that tonight.”
Things got so bad that Popovich resorted to a zone defense to start the second half, clear indication of how important Duncan’s presence is to a defensive unit that has been the NBA’s best most of the season.
The zone worked for the first two-and-a-half minutes of the third quarter, when the Spurs scored eight unanswered points and got within nine points of the Cavs.
James took command of the final nine minutes of the period, scoring 16 points as the Cavs extended their lead back to 16 points.
When the Spurs defeated the Cavaliers by four points at AT&T Center David Blatt still was coaching the Cavs and Duncan made a major impact at the defensive end, if not as a scorer. Neither was in the arena during Saturday’s nationally televised game (ESPN on ABC). Blatt was fired despite an Eastern Conference leading record of 30-11, and replaced by one of his assistant coaches, Tyronn Lue.
Since taking over, Lue has asked the Cavaliers to play at a much faster pace to leverage his players’ athleticism and that has opened the floor and allowed Love to be the dynamic scorer Cleveland believed he could be when they acquired him as a free agent last July. After scoring 25 points in each of Cleveland’s previous two games, Love scored 14 in the first quarter against the Spurs. He finished with 21 points, 11 rebounds and three assists.
Love was one of three Cavaliers to score at least 21 points, joined by James (29) and point guard Kyrie Irving (21). It was the second straight game for Cleveland’s star trio to combine for more than 60 points.
“Coach Lue has been on us every day to push the pace and we’ve been able to do that without turning the ball over,” James told ABC-TV sideline reporter Heather Cox after Saturday’s game.
*Top Image: The San Antonio Spurs 2015-2016 Roster and Coaching Staff. Photo by Scott Ball.