Out of nowhere, out of quite literally 15 years of acting the nice guys and go-to role models, the San Antonio Spurs are suddenly a bunch of bad dudes. The team was fined a quarter of a million bucks for benching four starters and rakishly reporting to the media that the benchings were set in motion in order to rest starters in anticipation of a season that could last until June. Soon after, a Halloween photo surfaced featuring All-NBA good guys Tim Duncan and Tony Parker pointing toy guns at a party-goer dressed as NBA ref and longtime Duncan adversary Joey Crawford, earning boos for its lack of tact but understanding for the knowledge that we all do stupid things at Halloween parties.
And then there was Stephen Jackson's Friday night on Twitter, dishing insults to Oklahoma City's Serge Ibaka that were inscrutable to seemingly everyone but his team and the NBA, who promptly fined the forward.
Through it all, the Spurs pay the nonsense absolutely no mind. And, following Monday's road victory over the Houston Rockets, the team stands at 18-4. That's the best record in the NBA, with a winning percentage that would bleed out to 68 wins if sustained throughout an entire season. Sixty-eight wins, in a season that ends in the year 2013. A full decade after the "too old" Spurs shocked some by downing the three-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in the second round and taking their second NBA title.
Coach Gregg Popovich shrugged, and spoke to the great Mike Monroe:
"It's drama to other people, but things happen, and we move on," Popovich said after his team's morning shootaround before the Spurs' 134-126 overtime victory over the Rockets. "We don't even discuss it. Nobody even talks about it.
"We don't worry about any of it. I don't bring it up. Players don't bring it up. It's like when you're in a game. You make a mistake, and you move on. You miss a shot, and you move on. Something off the court happens, and you move on."
(It would be nice to see one of the Spurs youngsters remind Coach Pop of this quote the next time they're caught with their back to the ball on defense, or fail to execute a proper entry pass into the post. "Make a mistake and move on, coach!")
Monday was the latest in the killing of so many NBA buzzes for San Antonio. All avid league-watchers were obsessing over the fabulous return to February form of Rockets guard Jeremy Lin, and a career night offensively from Houston center Omer Asik (who even banked in a jumper … on purpose). And yet the Spurs hung in there, matched the Rockets offensively, and never seemed out of control even though the game could have gone Houston's way in regulation. They ruined Linsanity, for everyone.
The best part, after taking 18 of 22 games to start a season, is probably the idea that most of this has been going unnoticed. For years NBA scribes have enjoyed a go-to joke about writing easy columns about how the Spurs are flying under the radar and back in the title chase again, and this is one of those columns — with the caveat that the Spurs' brilliant record is being overshadowed by some less than brilliant decision-making off the court. And that even goes for Popovich's candid response when asked why his players weren't going to be on the court in Miami two weeks ago, even if we sharply disagreed with David Stern's saber-rattling in response.
That winning percentage, more than likely, won't sustain. Pop will sit his starters from time to time, even if he'll find better ways of circumventing Stern's slippery slope, and the league will catch up to a team that probably won't end up threatening 70 wins. That's the common sense take.
The giddy take, if you're a fan of the black and silver and sometimes gray, is that the team has played 13 road games to nine home ones, and that the team's three-point shooting might be due for an improvement to the mean. San Antonio led the NBA in three-point percentage last year at over 39 percent, but needed a white hot 46.7 mark in Monday's win to jump into the top 10 this year (now seventh, at 37 percent). Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are combining to shoot around the league average from long range, and they'll be expected to keep the fires burning in spring should the Spurs meet the Oklahoma City Thunder again during the postseason, and OKC again decides to pack the paint against San Antonio.
Then again, the Spurs shot well over 40 percent from long range in their four losses to the Thunder in last year's Western conference finals, as the team's usually stout defense failed them. Things have picked up on that end, from 10th in defensive efficiency last season to fifth this year, but things have a way picking way, way down when faced up against Oklahoma City. Away from the spotlight and well before ABC sets up its basketball cameras, the Thunder are playing even better this year on the offensive end without James Harden.
Don't think the Spurs don't know that, which is why they think postseason-first all season and aren't too giddy at the prospect of a hot start in the cold of December. The same mannerisms that steel them in the wake of fines and off-court silliness also keeps them in check as the wins pile up and dumb-dumb sportswriters like me start to notice.
Stranger than they've ever been, same as it ever was. Good news, for all of us.