The Spurs beat Golden State on Wednesday night for their franchise-record 19th consecutive victory. They will look to run their streak to 20 Thursday against Oklahoma City, and there's a chance the run ends there against a fantastic Thunder outfit led by the should-be league MVP Kevin Durant.
From there, the Spurs could work through the playoffs and possibly be toppled by a Houston Rockets team that has beaten them three times this season in the second round, one possibly working with a healthy Patrick Beverley. Or the Spurs could lose to the Thunder in the third round, as was the case in 2012 when San Antonio tied for the league’s best record. Or they could fall to the Heat in the Finals, as happened 10 months ago.
Players get older, matchups don’t quite work out, things fade away. This isn’t a call to arms to enjoy the Spurs right now, before things go pear-shaped and Tim Duncan retires to the garage. Rather, we’re mainly here to point out how brilliant this run could be, and how it could lead to Duncan’s fifth NBA title this June. Or, should the matchups go right, his sixth in June of 2015.
Because he remains that good, and the Gregg Popovich-led supporting cast remains that formidable. Remarkable work for a man in Duncan that likely would have gone second (people, genuinely, were that high on Joe Smith) in the 1995 NBA draft had he declared, or top overall in the 1996 draft. It’s about to turn warm, in 2014, and Tim Duncan is leading a team with the NBA’s best record. It’s 2014.
You may have awoken to the viral sharing of this tweet on Tuesday morning, with the Spurs half a day removed from thrashing the Indiana Pacers by 26 points in Indiana:
And on Wednesday, you no doubt saw this television graphic …
… before muttering Duncan would have had 17 50-win seasons in 17 years had the NBA not screwed up the “1998”-99 season. The league’s lockout only allowed for 50 games that year, and Duncan’s Spurs won a league-best 37 of them. Pro-rated, that’s 61 wins in a regular 82-game season. The second-year forward went on to win the title that June.
History-making is one thing, but proper perspective is paramount, which is why San Antonio Express-News beat writer Jeff MacDonald smartly went back into those history books to look at just how relatively poorly teams with long winning streaks went on to fare following the streak, before asking Popovich if he wanted to get one loss out of the way prior to the start of what will be a grueling playoff run:
“I think it would be a good idea at some point to do that,” said Popovich, whose team can extend its streak Wednesday night against Golden State. “I don't know when it will happen, but it will happen. When it does, that will be good.”
The issue here is that the Spurs aren’t like any other team. When they tell you their focus genuinely is directed toward the next play, the next rotation, the counter, they mean it. This isn’t some 25-0 college team needing a kick-in-the-pants loss before heading into March Madness. This isn’t the 2008 Houston Rockets, who somewhat luckily ended up on the winning end of a series of coin-flip games. This isn’t the Miami Heat, often unsure of how to play while ahead.
These are the Spurs, and they know what they’re doing. And if they lose on Wednesday, Thursday, for good on May 20 or for good on June 19, it will be because the matchups didn’t work in their favor, and they missed some shots they usually make. There is more to this team than any other club in the NBA, nothing is as complex and as layered as their offensive and defensive schemes, and yet they are the easiest read in the NBA.
Which is probably why you’re not reading much about them, even as they threaten to win and win again and again, even if there was practically 24-hour surveillance footage of the Miami Heat’s 27-game winning streak in 2013.
This isn’t some lame columnist attempt to break the bloody news about the Spurs being throwbacks, or to chide media, TV networks and viewers from writing about, televising and watching this team. To the last point, well, America has spoken: For whatever reason, the Spurs aren’t a ratings draw.
To the throwback ideal? It’s bollocks. Despite its fundamental low-post franchise player, the Spurs are the most progressive, forward-thinking team in basketball. There’s nothing in Gregg Popovich’s playbook that looks anything like what he tossed out in 1999, or 2003, or 2005 or 2007. And when Pop lines up against one, two, three or potentially four coaches during the playoffs, nothing will look the same. All over again, within the course of a series.
What does set them apart, in ways that won’t be talked about as we scramble to our typewriters following the initial loss, is how the team folds, when it folds.
The Spurs fold for basketball reasons. Popovich’s droll and often demeaning mid- and postgame interviews aren’t hiding some Grand Truth. When San Antonio loses a regular-season basketball game, it will be because the opponent played better basketball than whatever iteration Popovich fielded that night. And when and if it loses a playoff series, it will be because matchups led to what turned out to be a better basketball team having an edge San Antonio couldn’t counter, despite its experience, smarts, research and talent.
Because of this streak, the San Antonio Spurs are turning into a slight slideshow, even if it isn’t promoted nearly as much as Miami Heat’s three-ring circus from 2013. Do buy a ticket, though, if you can. While you can.
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