Three days after San Antonio's Dec. 23 loss to Orlando, an ugly 22-point pasting that ended with the Magic scoring 123 points and shooting a blistering 59.5 percent from the floor, Gregg Popovich called his team in for a meeting. He directed their attention to the white board, where the defensive numbers of Boston, Miami and the Lakers were neatly written. Below them were the stats of the stingy San Antonio title teams. And at the bottom, the Spurs numbers for this season.
The message was clear: Guys, we have got to get better.
For a while, it worked. Over the next four games San Antonio didn't surrender more than 93 points, a stretch highlighted by a suffocating 74-point defensive effort against Oklahoma City. Then came Tuesday, when the Knicks lit them up for 128 points. It didn't get any better on Wednesday either, when Boston shot 61.3 percent on its way to a 105-103 win
Certainly the teams they played deserve credit. In New York, Amar'e Stoudemire rained contested jump shots -- yes, jump shots -- down on the Spurs and against Boston, Ray Allen (31 points on 13-16 shooting) knocked down tough shots and Rajon Rondo (22 assists) fed teammates for easy ones. Yet San Antonio's alarmingly mediocre defense this season -- entering Wednesday night's game the Spurs ranked 16th in the league in field goal defense (45.6 percent) and 15th in points allowed (97.6) -- has put a damper on the best start in franchise history.
"We know there is a problem," said Tim Duncan. "We know that we've got to clean it up quickly."
If only it were that simple. The core of the Spurs tight fisted defensive teams (Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker) is intact, supplemented by Richard Jefferson, DeJuan Blair, George Hill and Matt Bonner. They know the system, the schemes. They just aren't executing them.
"It's something I just haven't figured out," Popovich said. "We just go through periods. I don't know whether they are enthused with themselves because they score a few more points and think that's going to get them over, but it's frustrating."
Maybe Popovich is right. Maybe the suddenly high-octane Spurs, who rank in the top 10 in the NBA in points, assists, field goal percentage and three-point percentage, think they can simply outgun teams. More likely, however, there are deeper rooted problems. In the past, a hallmark of San Antonio's defense has been discipline. This year it can be, at times, sloppy. Rotations are sluggish. Close outs come a second too late. Tightening up at the end of games used to come natural. Against Boston, the Spurs coughed up nine straight points in the final three minutes that put the game out of reach.
"Everybody is making one mistake," Jefferson said. "That's the thing about defense, everybody has to be on the same page."
In attempting to clean things up, Popovich has had to get creative. In New York, he left the players alone, hoping they would solve the problems on their own. Against Boston, he was more vocal. He called two timeouts in the game's first four minutes as the defense started to break down. He pulled Blair a little over a minute into the game for a talking to after Allen knocked down back-to-back shots and lit into Jefferson late in the third quarter after Paul Pierce tied the game with a three.
Popovich doesn't expect the Spurs to suddenly defend on the level of the Celtics or Heat. He's after small improvements, ones that will create opportunities for the team's offensive firepower to win big games. For all of the defensive errors against Boston, San Antonio was a Ginobili blocked three from winning the game in the closing seconds.
"We may not have the same sort of stats we had in the past defensively but you don't necessarily have to be the best in those categories if we know how to play in the fourth quarter if the offense is moving," Popovich said. "For me it comes down to how hungry this group is and what kind of confidence they have in each other. I'm excited about seeing what happens with that."