For a team typically depicted as staid, run on equal amounts of orthodoxy and Naismith-aged fundamental precepts, the San Antonio Spurs sure do find interesting ways of turning goofy. Be it by way of injuries, planned obsolescence, or the age-defying antics of some of its stars, the Spurs always find a way to dig out of the trad and turning into something unique.
Thursday night’s game against Brooklyn will be played without Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili. It will be the first time in 17 years that the team will take on the Nets without any of those three – and that contest was placed in the middle of a just-about tank job season by a San Antonio team that would draft Tim Duncan five months later. The Nets were still in New Jersey then, and Gregg Popovich was a much-maligned rookie coach, criticized for firing ex-head man Bob Hill on the day that David Robinson returned from injury to play his first game of the season.
One would think that the ever-improving Nets would have an easy time working their way against the Big Three-less Spurs, but you’ll also have to recall that infamous Thursday night game from 2012-13 before completely signing off on San Antonio. That game was also pitched without the Spurs stars, against the eventual champs from Miami, and Gregg Popovich’s crew hung in there to nearly pull out a win against the Heat. Coach Popovich’s resting of his Spurs legends drew a heavy fine from then-commissioner David Stern, but Pop’s prescience paid off later when his team looked just about daisy fresh some seven months later as they battled the younger Heat in a seven-game NBA Finals.
Even in losing, and even with that fine in place, Popovich had to be proud of his bench corps for hanging in there. It’s a distinction that no doubt passed his mind on Wednesday night, when he addressed the media after a (mostly) Tony-less, Manu-less, Kawhi Leonard-less double overtime win over the Washington Wizards:
“One of the finest wins I've ever been associated with,” Popovich said, “and I'm saying that truthfully.”
It was rather inspiring. The Spurs were pitched against an ebullient Washington Wizards squad at full health, and with a vocal Spurs fan contingent (including one rather annoying chirper) in attendance, hung in there and eventually prevailed after 58 minutes of play. Tim Duncan, battling a clearly frustrated Nene, finished the contest with 31 points, 11 boards, five assists, three blocks, two steals, and only three turnovers in over 40 minutes of action. He, along with co-horts Danny Green, Tiago Splitter, Marco Belinelli, and the excitable Patty Mills, were fantastic.
Of course, Tim Duncan can’t do back to back road games when the lead-off contest sends him out there for 40 minutes of on-court work, spread out over nearly three hours of action. The Spurs will become Green, Belinelli, and Splitter’s team on Thursday. They’ll rely more than ever (they hope, at least) on Boris Diaw’s strange array of defensive acumen, and Popovich will attempt to counter the counters of his polar opposite amongst the coach hierarchy: Brooklyn’s Jason Kidd, who is less than nine months removed from his final game as a player.
The Spurs are somewhat safely ensconced with the second seed in the West, a game up on the fading if formidable Portland Trail Blazers, and three games behind the Oklahoma City Thunder for the top spot in the Conference. The Spurs swear up and down that they don’t mind taking part in their yearly February, nearly nine thousand mile, “Rodeo Trip” – and the historical winning percentages bear that out – and it would seem that the next slate of games is more than doable even if Parker and Duncan have to miss the odd contest, and even with Ginobili out for a few more weeks.
Charlotte, Detroit, Boston await, giving the team more than enough time to circle the wagons before the trip yields games against the Trail Blazers, Clippers, and surprising Phoenix Suns to end things. Those last three games, all featuring solid playoff opponents, come after the All-Star break’s allowance for frayed nerves and inflamed arches.
The trick is getting to April in sound standing, as Popovich knows. To be able to potentially spread out a playoff series over two weeks, with relatively minimal travel, and the ability to focus all of its attention on one team, and the work of one opposing coaching staff. The Spurs may have disappointed themselves in losing to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2012 playoffs, but last season’s near-championship run proved that this team, and its fabled coaching staff, has the ability to think on its feet and not only adjust correctly, but execute those called-for adjustments.
The question, with these older players, is if the legs will hang in there long enough. As of the first week of February, a week that nobody will remember once April and May hit, the Spurs don’t have those legs. Or backs. Or hamstrings or fourth metacarpal.
What they do have is a coach that is surveying familiar territory, and a retinue of bench corps that has proven to be no easy out, even with a litany of future Hall of Famers sitting on the pine in street clothes.
Whether that’s enough to win is anyone’s guess. Opponents should understand, though, that there is nothing scarier than facing a team that has been there before. And these Spurs have been everywhere, man.