The San Antonio Spurs won their 50th game in 66 tries during the 2012-13 season on Thursday night, topping the longtime rival Dallas Mavericks in a game that saw Tim Duncan continue his brilliant turn-back-the-clock season with a game-high 28 points on 12 for 20 shooting and 19 rebounds, reserve shooter Gary Neal offer some punch off the pine with 16 points in 24 1/2 minutes, and overcome the combination of sluggish fourth-quarter shooting and hot streaks from Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki and Vince Carter to hang on for a one-point win. After a rest-the-big-guns, mortality-reminder blowout by the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Spurs returned to their winning ways without injured leading scorer/facilitator Tony Parker to become the season's first team to hit the half-century mark.
This is the 14th straight season in which the Spurs have won at least 50 games; after them, the league's longest-running such streak is a whopping two seasons, held by Tom Thibodeau's Chicago Bulls, who would have to go 15-5 down the stretch to extend it to three. Not only that, but it also made the Spurs the second team (after the streaking and East-leading Miami Heat) to earn a spot in the upcoming playoffs, marking the 16th consecutive year — that's every full season since Gregg Popovich took the bench, by the way — that we'll be watching black, white and grey unis pop up and down NBA courts past mid-April. The longest-running postseason streak besides theirs — the Dallas Mavericks' 12 consecutive postseason berths — could very well end in a month's time, with Dirk's Mavs now four games under .500 and three games out of the West's eighth seed, and the third-place finisher (the Denver Nuggets' about-to-be 10 straight) still falls a half-decade shy of Pop's pace.
It's an astounding, remarkable level of consistent achievement and excellence we're witnessing, the kind of stuff we haven't seen since the Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz ripped off two-decade-long playoff streaks between the early '80s and '02-'03. And after nailing down the win to notch a season sweep of the Mavs for the first time in 15 years, the Spurs were really feeling (the exact opposite of) good about themselves, according to The Associated Press:
"Overall I thought [the Mavericks] played better than us," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "I thought they executed better than we did. They were more physical and aggressive." [...]
"We're going through a section of time here where we're not playing the greatest of basketball," Duncan said. "Obviously, with Tony out of here, our offense is a little limited with the guys we have in there. But outside of that, we just don't have a rhythm right now." [...]
"We continued to play in mud like we have been for the last two weeks," Popovich said. "I'm not sure what to attribute it to, but it's a fact. It shows on the defensive end and it shows in a pretty dead offense. We were really fortunate to win this game."
Cel-e-brate, good times / Come on
To be fair, the coach and his chief disciple have a point. While the Spurs have gone 4-2 in the six games they've played since losing Parker to a left ankle sprain, those two losses have been blowouts at the hands of the Wolves and the Portland Trail Blazers, who carved San Antonio up in the pick-and-roll behind Damian Lillard and Eric Maynor and found open 3-point shooters all night long en route to rolling up 136 points on the Spurs. In reality, they've been a significantly lesser team over the past two weeks, ranking 14th in the league in points scored per possession and 16th in points allowed per possession, according to NBA.com's stat tool — a pretty steep drop-off from the top-five ranks (No. 4 offensively and No. 3 defensively) they'd turned in as of March 1.
Parker's replacements — primarily the duo of Patty Mills and Cory Joseph — have played pretty well in his absence, and the Spurs have continued to share the ball, actually increasing their assist ratio (the percentage of team possessions that end with an assist) while continuing to rank among the league's 10 best teams at avoiding turnovers. The big drop offensively has come in efficiency at the rim, where San Antonio is getting more attempts now (41 percent of their shots over the past two weeks have been in the restricted area, compared to 34.8 percent before) but converting much less often (57.6 percent on those shots since Parker's injury compared to 63.8 percent before). The Spurs, longtime believers in the value of the corner 3-pointer, are also taking about two fewer short-corner shots per game without Parker in the lineup, though they continue to make them at a sterling clip (42.1 percent, better than their top-10 full-season mark).
The sample sizes are small, but the findings — San Antonio's players are having a harder time finishing at the rim, even when they're being set up by a good dish, and aren't generating quite as many high-percentage corner looks, which the team primarily creates through penetrate-and-kick opportunities — track with the absence of a couple of Parker's primary skills (drawing attention, especially from big men in the paint, and making timely passes for high-percentage shots after having done so). That can tend to lead to less ball movement and more isolation-heavy possessions, which is the exact opposite of what the Spurs want to create with their flowing, floor-spreading system, and which Popovich have been displeased to see at times during the recent lilt.
“Everybody wants to do it on their own,” Popovich said after Thursday's win, according to Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News. “No people movement, no hard cuts. Nothing that’s hard to guard.”
That lack of cohesion has reared its head on the other side of the floor, too, according to Aaron Preine of Spurs blog Pounding the Rock:
Communication on the rotations has been abysmal at times, keeping opponents off the offensive glass has been even more of an issue than usual, and the defense on screens is looking more like it did last season. The result is inferior opponents shooting lights out from all parts of the floor.
That's especially true from beyond the arc, where San Antonio was one of the stingier teams in the league before Parker's injury (allowing opponents to shoot just 32.5 percent from deep) but has been significantly more permissive over the past two weeks (46.6 percent).
Taken together, you can understand why, even after a win, Pop and his charges aren't necessarily thrilled by the state of things. After all, when you've been as good as the Spurs have been for as long as the Spurs have been, you're not playing for streaks and accolades; you're playing for championships, and the Spurs team that locked down win no. 50 last night doesn't bear enough of a resemblance to the squad that quietly and methodically ran roughshod over the league for four months to leave San Antonio's coaches and players feeling like they're on the road to another trip to the Western Conference Finals or further. This, in part, is why basketball obsessives love the Spurs — the relentless pursuit of something perfect, and the dismissal of everything outside of that as mere scenery and decoration.
Still, though: It doesn't hurt to smile every once in a while, Pop. See? Even Tim can do it.