sports blog by andy shenk

The Spurs Are Zipping ‘Em Up

In San Antonio Spurs on May 19, 2012 at 1:30 PM

On Thursday night San Antonio won its sixteenth straight game, and twenty-seventh of twenty-nine, by defeating the Los Angeles Clippers, 105-88. Though I’d made the connection months ago between the Spurs’ dominance and the Xavier Musketeers’ (my favorite college basketball team) use this season of the phrase “Zip ‘Em Up” to describe their emphasis on putting games out of reach for the opponent, I decided that it was time to statistically evaluate the Spurs’ own margins of victory over this remarkable twenty-nine game stretch.

The 27-2 run began on March 21 at home to Minnesota. Since that time they have outscored the opposition by an average of 13.7 ppg, 7.5 ppg more than their season average of 6.2. You would still expect, however, that amidst many easy wins the Spurs would have needed to grit out a number of tough wins here and there. After all, eleven and sixteen-game winning streaks don’t just fall out of the sky, right?

Here’s the margin of victory (and defeat) in each game since the Spurs’ second eleven-game winning streak of the season began on March 21:

+16,   +17,   +3,   +17,   +7,   +5,   +9,   +35,   +1,   +25,   +10,   -7,   -14,   +10,   +14,   +21,   +21,   +25,   +24,   +16,   +35,   +4,   +6,   +15,   +31,   +12,   +6,   +16,   +17

Of these twenty-nine games, twenty were undeniably blowouts. Not once in those games did the opposing team get closer than seven points in the fourth quarter, and the Spurs’ average margin of victory over these twenty games came to 19.3 ppg.

In the other nine, the final margins are highlighted in bold above, the Spurs’ record was 7-2 and the average margin of victory, 1.2 ppg. Finally, it seems, we have some evidence of vulnerability. Even if we toss out the two losses, the Spurs’ margin of victory is just 4.6 ppg. These seven games were played at New Orleans (+3), at Phoenix (+7), at Sacramento (+5), at Boston (+1), at Phoenix (+4), at Golden State (+6), at Utah (+6). Before we begin analyzing these wins, the first thing that jumps out is that they all came on the road. Apart from the humiliating loss to the Lakers in San Antonio on April 11, the Spurs’ lead in the fourth quarter at home has never dipped below seven since losing to the Clippers 120-108 on March 9.

Returning to the seven close games listed above, we can single out the three-point win over New Orleans and one-point win over Boston. In these victories, the game came down to the wire, with the Spurs’ opponent missing a shot (or shots) at the buzzer that could have won the game or sent it into overtime. Moreover, the Spurs trailed in both contests with less than two minutes to play, requiring clutch shots to pull out the victory.

The remaining five games (at Phoenix (+7), at Sacramento (+5), at Phoenix (+4), at Golden State (+6), at Utah (+6)), despite the relatively tight scoreline, tell a different story. Not once in these five games did the Spurs trail in the last four minutes of the final period. Only in the second game against Phoenix did the opposition have a chance to tie or win in the closing seconds. In the other four games, no team got closer than four points in the last two minutes.

To summarize, if we define a close game as a contest in which there are multiple lead changes and opportunities for each team to win in the last two minutes, then the San Antonio Spurs have only played three such games in the last twenty-nine. In addition, they lost twice during that stretch by healthy margins.

Looking deeper, however, two of these games, the loss to Utah on April 9 and the win over Phoenix on April 25, were played without San Antonio’s three most productive players, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and Tim Duncan, who were simply given the night off by Gregg Popovich. From the fan perspective, then, the Spurs did not honestly attempt to win these games and their inclusion in the category of “closely-contested games” feels farcical.

Excluding these two games, we find that in the last twenty-seven contests in which the Spurs have fielded an honest, competitive team they have only lost once and only twice risked losing or being forced into overtime in the final possession of the game. In the other twenty-four games they have enjoyed a 17.1 ppg average margin of victory, cruising to a win each and every time they step out on the hardwood. The Spurs have learned how to zip teams up over the last two months. Former Xavier point guard Tu Holloway would be proud.

Now, I don’t know if another NBA team has been similarly dominant in the closing months of the season, up to and including playoff action. In addition, there are still many games to be played in this postseason, so this run of dominance may be coming to an end shortly, whether or not the Spurs win the Finals. The streak, however, has undoubtedly provided the Spurs’ starters with plenty of time to relax on the bench together.

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  1. I liked the shot of Parker, Duncan and Popovich, chilling out before the start of the second half. 10 point deficit = no reason to worry. And how sweet would it be if the Spurs picked up Tu somewhere late in the first or second round?

    • That would be the happiest day of my life:) They’d have to move up in the draft, though, because they traded their first-round pick to the Warriors when they got Cap’n Jack.

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