If the San Antonio Spurs beat the Los Angeles Lakers in their regular-season finale on Wednesday, they will finish the year at 63-19, tying a franchise record for wins. Even if they don't, they will enter the postseason this weekend as the No. 1 overall seed in the 2014 NBA playoffs, having earned home-court advantage in every series by virtue of posting the league's best record.
They've been sensational all year, weathering a wide variety of storms by simply going about their business, calmly and completely crushing opponents en route to a fourth straight Southwest Division title, a 15th straight 50-win season, a 17th consecutive postseason berth and a franchise-record 19-game winning streak that spanned five weeks from late February through early April. In yet another season replete with impressive individual and team statistical accomplishments, though, the Spurs' legendary head coach has found himself most impressed by an achievement that can't be measured or quantified: his squad's commitment to exorcising an extraordinarily (and understandably) persistent ghost. From the great — and award-winning! — Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News:
For all those benchmark successes, coach Gregg Popovich believes nothing has been more remarkable than the ability of the 11 holdovers from last season to get beyond the crushing disappointment of the final two games of last year's NBA Finals.
To Popovich, simply moving ahead resolutely after just missing on the franchise's fifth championship in Game 6 against the Miami Heat — and then losing Game 7 — is nothing short of amazing.
“What does impress me about the group is the fact they've competed and gotten themselves in this position after a devastating loss in the Finals last year,” Popovich said. [...]
“I thought they were pretty amazing after Game 6 to play as hard as they did in Game 7, when I think a lot of teams would have just given in,” he said. “Beyond that, they came back, put it aside and have done what they've done.
“I think that's pretty impressive. I don't think a lot of people have picked up on that, but I have. And I'm really impressed with them.”
As well you should be, coach. Especially because there were plenty of new roadblocks that would have made it easier, simpler, more understandable for the Spurs to give in to the hangover.
There was Tim Duncan's early-season shooting struggle. There was the monthlong spate of injuries — Tiago Splitter's shoulder, Danny Green's left hand, Kawhi Leonard's right hand, Manu Ginobili's left hamstring, Tony Parker's "variety of maladies" — that stripped them of four key contributors to last year's NBA finals run for weeks at a time.
There was the challenge of playing in a brutal Southwest Division that will wind up fielding four playoff teams — the Spurs, a Dwight Howard- and James Harden-led Houston Rockets team that's won two-thirds of its games, the incomparable Dirk Nowitzki's Dallas Mavericks and the grit-and-grind Memphis Grizzlies — as well as a New Orleans Pelicans team that, while injury-ravaged and well under .500 for the season, still meant having to contend with emerging force of nature Anthony Davis three times. (The 'Brow missed the fourth and final meeting.) There was the challenge of keeping pace in a Western Conference so loaded that a Phoenix Suns squad that could wind up finishing 48-34 is headed to the lottery.
There was the issue of doing all that with Duncan approaching 38 years of age and 52,000 combined NBA minutes on his legs. With Ginobili nearing 37 and trying to prevent last year's hamstring tears from rearing their ugly head again. With Parker needing a lighter load to prevent him from breaking down and running out of gas as he did late in last year's finals. And yet, with every chance for the team to step back, somebody stepped forward and kept the silver-and-black chugging along.
Marco Belinelli thanked R.C. Buford for a two-year, $6 million contract by turning in 2,000 minutes of career-best shot-making (48.5 percent from the field, 43 percent from 3-point range, 84.7 percent from the foul line) and perimeter positional versatility, fitting hand-in-glove in the vaunted "Foreign Legion" second unit that routinely ran Spurs' opponents off the floor when the starters sat down. Boris Diaw became, of all things, a multifaceted defensive tool to whom Pop could hand a variety of assignments without fearing that San Antonio's offensive flow would fall off a cliff.
Patty Mills went from end-of-the-bench curiosity to relentless attacker and high-volume (7.5 3-point attempts per 36 minutes of floor time) high-accuracy (42.5 percent from 3) long-range bomber, seizing the backup point guard spot behind Parker and become an integral part of Pop's rotation. Jeff Ayres and Aron Baynes contributed 1,400 minutes of rebounding and defensive dirty work. Hell, even Austin Daye became a thing for a second there.
At every step of the way, somebody pitched in to play the part to which Pop assigned him, and at every step of the way, the Spurs just kept plugging along. They were starting to get there before the All-Star break, and they hit that so often sought-after syncopation in late February, with the entire rotation reaching rhythm and, as so many different incarnations of the Spurs have done so many times over the past two decades, regularly routing the opposition, this time for a stretch that lasted nearly a month and a half. And now it's late April, and it's time to put the money on the table, and not a single player on the team is averaging more than 30 minutes per game this season. Everybody's healthy, everybody's available, and everybody believes, in large part because Pop has shown he believes in them.
Recall this illuminating answer to a question about offensive system buy-in, as relayed by Jeff McDonald of the Express-News:
"A lot [of getting players to take ownership] depends on the competitiveness and the character of the player. Often times, I’ll appeal to that. Like, I can’t make every decision for you. I don’t have 14 timeouts. You guys got to get together and talk. You guys might see a mismatch that I don’t see. You guys need to communicate constantly — talk, talk, talk to each other about what’s going on on the court.
“I think that communication thing really helps them. It engenders a feeling that they can actually be in charge. I think competitive character people don’t want to be manipulated constantly to do what one individual wants them to do. It’s a great feeling when players get together and do things as a group. Whatever can be done to empower those people …
"[...] It’s a players’ game and they’ve got to perform. The better you can get that across, the more they take over and the more smoothly it runs.
“Then you interject here or there. You call a play during the game at some point or make a substitution, that kind of thing that helps the team win. But they basically have to take charge or you never get to the top of the mountain.”
And Popovich's recent comments about relating to his roster in a great column by CBSSports.com's Ken Berger:
"... Now, when you're selecting a player, if you can find a guy that shows some proclivity or innate desire and ability to do those things and to care, that helps you.
"So when you're scouting players," he continued, "when you're doing background checks on players, when you're talking to people about a player, you want to know how he reacts with his teammates. How does he react in practices? What kind of effort does he put in? How fundamentally sound is he? Do mistakes bother him? Can he be coached? Can he be criticized? Can you show him film? Does he want to get better? All those kinds of questions you try to answer ahead of time. It's still a bit subjective and you can be fooled, but in general, if you can get answers to all those questions in the positive, you're in pretty good shape." [...]
"Players are human beings and they need to be aware that people care about them," Popovich said. "When somebody believes they're cared for, they're going to give more."
It might sound simple — treat players like people; what a novel concept! — but it matters. Recognizing and appealing to players' humanity and making them believe that they're not being valued as mere numbers in a box score or fungible functionaries in the much-lauded and ever-whirling Spurs system (even if, to some extent, many of them are) makes it more likely that you're going to get the very best of what they have to give. And if everyone gives more, then what happened last year not only doesn't have to happen again; it doesn't have to matter at all anymore. We can start again and build something new, so long as we share the burden of building it together.
That's how chemistry gets built. That's how good teams get great, and how contenders become champions. And evidently, that's how exorcisms happen in the NBA.
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