Morning Rehash: A Question of Motivation

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Spurs fall way behind early and can't claw back on the way to a disheartening loss to rival Houston Rockets on Christmas Day.

Maybe you're looking for something lighthearted here. Maybe something with a few Christmas puns, a little fun, narrative gift-giving to celebrate the holidays.

You will not find it in this article. We got things to talk about.

A little over a fortnight ago I wrote about the Spurs getting handled by the Indiana Pacers. I made note of the fact that, over the past four seasons, the Spurs have generally played exactly the same through the first quarter to third of the regular season against quality opponents; namely, poorly. Since then, nothing has changed. Maybe you'd prefer to count the underdog romp that was our win over the Golden State Warriors, but other than that the Spurs have experienced decisive defeats against what likely are the West's cream of the crop: the Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers and, now, Houston Rockets.

I (still) don't believe this struggle to handle good teams has anything to do with the quality of the team or its ability to compete and defeat any opponent in a seven game series outside of probably the Miami Heat. The Spurs are like any other title contending team (outside probably the Miami Heat) - a fantastically constructed squad with flaws that smart and motivated teams will find a way to exploit.

If things seemed easier in the 2013 playoffs, that's because they were, for a number of reasons. One reason lies in the sheer dumb luck of shooters deciding to catch fire at the right time. I don't think there is any rhyme or reason to the lengthy, alternating periods of time in which Danny Green cannot miss or cannot make a three point shot. I don't particularly think there's any predicting which version of Tim Duncan's midrange shot will up. The players themselves have a bit better idea of this, but not by much; I'd imagine if you asked Danny Green what the difference was between his 1-4 invisible performance tonight or the nights when he locked down Steph Curry or rained threes on the Miami Heat, he would tell you "nothing." A million things happen each NBA shot - it's a wonder any human being can hit 50% of them in a single afternoon, much less an entire playoff series.

The second reason is more tangible, and is what frustrates me about this current incarnation of the Spurs. Frustration is different from concern, mind you; I don't think this is a going concern. But for the last near month, the San Antonio Spurs seem profoundly disinterested in pushing themselves to win tough basketball games.

Let's look at two games as a contrast here. First, let's look at the win against the Warriors last week. Faced with seemingly impossible odds (playing against a dynamic offense in the loudest arena in the country without your three best players), the Spurs that played put together a win that was all about proving that everybody writing the game off as a schedule loss were wrong. It was a "Nobody Believes In Us" game, and the Spurs played like it. The win meant nothing in the long run, but emotionally, what a feeling for a team to put such a loud win together.

Now let's look at Wednesday night. It would've been a perfect night to right the ship and silent the over-neurotic Spurs fan who wants to blow up the season because Reggie Jackson can't miss against us. The Texas Showdown, by my own words Reignited, is gradually building up some pretty noticeable ill will inside the AT&T Center. The San Antonio crowd, here actually quite a bit earlier than they usually are (more on this in a moment), seemed poised for vindication.

Instead, Buzzcut But Still Handsome Chandler Parsons went ballistic and the Rockets dropped 40 first quarter points on a Spurs squad that looked as if they could not care less. The Spurs settled for easy pick n roll action and took lazy outside shots, caroming into Rockets rebounds that turned into Rockets fast break buckets. It was a simple formula, repeated over and over until Manu Ginobili decided that basketball games should not only feature one side scoring. The losses against good teams have featured some abominable quarters, but this might've taken the cake.

Watching this Rockets team beat up on the Spurs, it was interesting to see how little almost any Spur seemed to care when they went back onto the court. Sure, Tim Duncan led what sounded like a pretty rousing huddle during one of the first team timeouts of the game, but by the time he came back into the game, the Spurs would go back to settling for sloppy plays and whining at the officials over what might have been foul calls. Against a team like the Rockets, malaise will absolutely not get you anywhere. Against a team like the Grizzlies, maybe. Against the new Western Conference of Clips, Thunder, Warriors and Rockets? If you're not organized and over yourself getting back on defense, well constructed offenses will find a way to exploit you. Kevin McHale should be commended for the work he's doing with this Rockets team. What he's created is a sort of hybrid of the late-Aught Dwight Howard Orlando Magic teams, and the philosophy of mid-Aught Spurs teams. Namely, run a bunch of pick n' roll action, never let your shooters touch inside the three point line unless they're darting to the paint, and trust Dwight Howard to remain not a petulant child. McHale is very lucky that he has probably the second best starting five in basketball right now (obviously the Heat), but that he's gotten some disparate elements to fit into a mold is quite spectacular.

But back to the game. Did anybody notice who was on the court when the Spurs were making their runs in the early second and early third quarters? More often than not, it wasn't the starters. Sure, maybe a Tim Duncan was sprinkled in there at points, and Kawhi Leonard (whom we'll get to in a moment) did his fair share, but for the most part the Spurs began to play with tenacity when guys like Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli (who I'm counting as a bench player even though he started, because who doesn't believe he's destined to be our seventh man?), Matt Bonner, Manu and even Cory Joseph stepped on the court. We've come to expect jolts of energy from the Foreign Legion, but tonight that jolt of energy did little to move the dial on whether the Spurs were going to win or lose. What that jolt of energy did do was illuminate the utter complacency and empty-headedness of many of the Spurs starters, a state of mind that doomed this game to a loss before it even began.

But then again those jolts of energy were frequently when Dwight Howard left the court. Howard should be given a modicum of praise (even when I am absolutely going to make fun of him later) for turning his game back to the Orlando days, using his body in ways that many had start to question he might ever be able to do again. But the Rockets defense is so dependent on his fearsome presence in the paint that whenever he leaves the floor the opposing offense basically has free reign to get in the paint. Jeremy Lin, of all people, has become a not terrible defender, but the rest of the Rockets wing rotation is fair-to-poor at keeping their man contained; Kawhi Leonard abused James Harden a couple of times in the paint in the early third. A quick armchair GM tangent, but this is why I think the Rockets should think twice before trading Omer Asik, be he unhappy with a bench role or no. Asik is a terrifyingly good defensive center, and can create an anchor for those moments when Dwight Howard isn't in the game. He won't be happy about it, but he's getting back millions of dollars... deal with it.

It's not easy to point to one specific way in which the Spurs are going to right the ship against the Rockets. The Rox present an interestingly tough matchup against us, in that when hot (and they were tonight), they arguably have two of the Top 10 best players in the NBA on the floor playing complementary positions. Nobody else in the NBA can say that; not the Heat (two wings), not the Thunder (two wings), not the Pacers (Hibbert isn't Top 10... yet) and certainly not the Spurs. But the Spurs have beaten teams like this before, and should continue to do so. I'm not particularly worried about Pop's ability to find a way around the Rockets in a seven game series, should it come to that.

What I'm concerned about is that Spurs idling a little bit too long in cruise control in games when it would be nice to see a little push on the gas. The team owes nothing to the fans, they can do what they wish game in and game out. I won't complain if they malaise their way all the way to not beating a quality team for the rest of the season, so long as that malaise doesn't carry over into the times when the games actually mean something. I don't care about home court. I don't particularly care about seeding or matchups. The Spurs, and every other team that considers itself a Championship Contender (except the Nets and Knicks because LOL) should be able to handle any matchup that comes their way at any time. They aren't Championship Contenders if they can't.

For now, however, the majority of the Spurs look disinterested in the emotional ebb and flow of the NBA regular season. I don't fault them for this. Hell, the Boston Celtic teams of the late-Aughts made their living convincing everyone but their fanbase that they were too old to make another championship run. Come May, who was challenge Lebron James' shot at the Finals? The Spurs aren't in trouble, barring substantial injury or locker room dischord (of both, there really are none). It's just pretty frustrating to watch as a fan right now.

Standard Pop Quote(s)

None of your business. And I ask what you got, but I don't care.

- Pop on what he got for Christmas, also adequately summing up my feelings on what my Instagram feed has looked like today.

It's called basketball. Nothing hard about it.

- There's nothing hard about basketball. What seems hard is being interested in basketball.

Embarrassing performance.

- He wasn't talking about the Kanye West "Yeezus" Tour either, although I guess it works for both.

Coyote Watch

For a while I was disheartened and worried that the best we were going to get of the Coyote tonight was him dressing up as a Christmas tree and wandering around. Then, in the third quarter, the Jumbotron ran a genuinely heartwarming clip montage of vintage Coyote moments, set to a stirring soundtrack and a soundalike for the voiceover guy from ESPN's 30-for-30 series. It was nice.

Then, in a second turn, the narrator revealed his incarceration at the hands of the Coyote, who was forcing the narrator to say such sweet things about him. They then revealed the fake titled card "31-for-31," as in the 31 years of the Coyote. I gave a honest laugh, then continued to chuckle as the Coyote nearly got the a laugh out of a sideline usher by berating him with a rubber chicken. Strong finish, buddy.

Game MVP

Manu Ginobili - 22 points, 3 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 turnovers on 8-17 shooting (3-7 from three) in 25 minutes.

This stat line is not impressive. 22 points sounds great until reading the under 50% shooting. For a while I was tempted to give this to Kawhi Leonard, who rebounded from a putrid first half to be the catalyst for a Spurs run in the third that nearly brought the team back from the brink.

But if Manu Ginobili hadn't stepped up in the first quarter and kept the Spurs in this game, that brink might've long past by the time Kawhi Leonard had a chance to back the Spurs away from it. Ginobili was subbed in noticeably early in the first quarter, when it felt like the game was already slipping away from the Spurs, and managed to quell the wave of Houston shooters by a small margin. The game was at one point - Houston 27, Manu Ginobili 9, Spurs 0. But beyond a first quarter that was the basketball equivalent of managing to hold back an army at the gates by pushing against the door, Ginobili contributed to the Spurs' most energetic lineups. He wasn't perfect, and those three turnovers were egregious ones in a game when neither team turned the ball over much. But in a game where no Spur wanted to take charge of the team and give our offense some life, Manu stepped up and did a passably average job.

Game LVP(s)

Tony Parker - 6 points, 3 boards, 4 assists, 1 steal, 1 turnovers on 3-11 shooting in 31 minutes.

Sigh. I wrote after Monday night's game against the Raptors that Tony's consistent ability to at least try to take over a game and lead the team to victory was one of the things I was most enjoying about watching him this year. I stand by that statement, but man did he not do his best to prove me wrong tonight. Tony showed a general lack of feeling for anything involving the offense tonight, frequently getting lost on whether or not it was his time to make a cut. When he did take the ball inside, he was pestered by the active hands of Terrance Jones and the sheer size of Dwight Howard. But instead of continuing to push his way through the trees and hope something good would come (a foul, maybe?) or draw up one play to get his patented fading left elbow jumper, Tony became passive and whiny, content to let an uncommonly pesky Jeremy Lin bother him into being a non-factor. I doubt this passivity will be a recurring thing, even against the Rockets, but tonight it was a damning indication of Tony's headspace, and a microcosm of the Spurs team's headspace tonight.

BUT WAIT, THERE'S (A FEW HUNDRED) MORE.

AT&T CENTER FANS.

Ok. I really don't want to stir the pot here, especially on Christmas when everybody has somewhere they'd rather be (likely enveloped in a blanket of new Apple products). Fans have a right to abhor and act against traffic of all kinds. I don't begrudge anybody trying to worm their way out of the mess that is leaving the AT&T Center early following a loss.

But it is frankly unconscionable that hundreds of Spurs fans would begin to rise from their seats with five minutes left in the game, with the Spurs only down ten. I go right up to the point of calling them "So-called Spurs fans," but I won't do that because I don't want to blanketly judge a group of people whose specific circumstances are all different.

My point here is this. Regular season Spurs fans enthusiasm for Spurs games this season very closely resembled the energy level apparent tonight on the faces of the Spurs themselves. I know I preach the meaninglessness of regular season games, but the fact of the matter is NBA basketball is NBA basketball. It's probably the most exciting professional sport - certainly the closest you can get to a sport. To leave a perfectly good basketball game that is still very much within reach just so you can get out of the parking lot earlier than everybody else defeats the entire purpose of going to the game anyway.

I'm not asking for the Roaracle. But what I am asking for is a little dedication to a team that has shown this community nothing but devotion and commitment for thirty plus years. Step your game up San Antonio, your laziness is showing.

By the Numbers

  • 5,759 - Number of women swooning over Chandler Parsons. This is an esoteric reference, but his new hairdo makes him look a little like lead singer Jesse Lacey of the Long Island emo group Brand New
  • 103.8 - Number of points per 100 possessions the Spurs have given up over the past 12 games. The defense has significantly regressed as the opponents have gotten tougher, but again I'd put the blame more on lack of effort than lack of ability.
  • 1:14 - Minutes it took into the game for Pop to call his first timeout. The national broadcast didn't know what to do with itself.
  • 6-7, 16 - Shots made, attempted and points scored for James Harden in the fourth quarter. He was a game time decision for this one, having sat out the previous game with an injury. It seems he's better.

Bird Is the Word

SO HANDSOME

Perhaps one of the uglier things I've ever seen.

Maybe I'm wrong here, but I think this is completely childish. So what if the "Old School NBA" didn't shake hands or help people up?

Rankin and Bass! Merry Christmas!

And a good night was had by all

Very good observation that merits further investigation

Three good quarters is generous, but Manu's point here is sound.

WOOF

Odds and Ends

  • Patty Mills gave a very nice Christmas Thank You speech to the crowd before the game, even if he paused a little too long expecting an applause break that didn't come.
  • I quite enjoyed the sleeved jerseys actually. It was the inexcusable striped socks that I had the most problems with. Seriously... striped socks are a thing in the NBA now?!
  • Somebody in the higher ups needs to have a chat with the team that does the Spurs intro videos. They recently earned themselves back into my relative good graces by places The Hives "Tick Tick Boom" over the montage of fans cheering, but after that all the intros are a mess. The crowd isn't very into it anyway (see above), they don't need a poorly timed and executed countdown to tell them when the lights will go down. If anything, this takes away from the drama of the lights cutting. Ever been to a concert where the band gives a countdown to the lights cutting out? No. There's a reason why.
  • But seriously, Tim Duncan running a timeout gave me butterflies.
  • It baffles me why contestants on the Whataburger Drop in the Bucket don't throw the miniature ball underhand. it provides much more control over the throw, and can actually increase accuracy in the later throws.
  • I'm liking what I'm seeing from Terrence Jones, the Rockets' starting power forward. I know that Daryl Morey is intent on getting forward help for Omer Asik, but again I would caution him against benching Jones. He's a rare example of a tweener that seems to be putting his small forward body to use as a power forward. Could be a major plus for the Rockets going forward.
  • Jeff Ayres might have the worst hands in basketball. The man had at least four basketballs go right through his fingers, either off rebounds or intentional passes to him.
  • Ok, onto to the funnest part of the night - the Dwight Howard acts like a petulant child hour! When Pop inserted Matt Bonner into the game in the second quarter with Howard in the game, I thought to myself "this is about to get good." Bonner delivered. After pulling down an offensive rebound right under the basket, Bonner did what any decent big man should do when faced with Dwight Howard potentially posterizing you; he wrapped both hands around Howard and made sure he didn't get the shot off. Howard, because he apparently never expects this to happen, flailed his arms backward, made a pouty face, then wisely removed himself from the situation. What happened next baffled me. Although the foul was clearly on Bonner, and apparently forgetting that he was a sophomore NBA tweener, Terrence Jones aggressively approached Tim Duncan and required the ref to get in between him and a confrontation. Tim Duncan. My memory may be failing me Spurs fans - does anyone remember the last time a player aggressively approached Tim Duncan, either warranted or otherwise? Either way, it was yet another hilarious example of how Matt Bonner somehow sends all Rockets bigs into defensive, whiny pissant mode.

Going Forward

at Dallas Mavericks (16-12), Thursday December 26, 7:30 pm CST: Ok, time to get back on track with a slightly less daunting Texas Rival. The Mavericks have been pretty pesky this year, however, with Monta Ellis defying everything we knew about advanced statistics and having a pretty great season. Maybe Rick Carlisle is the great coach everybody's been saying he is. Either way, this seems like the perfect game for certain, recently lackadaisical Spurs players to get some anger and frustration out and take a decisive win against a team that is at least sniffing the playoffs. I'll be manning the Twitter feed so stop by and explain to me why exactly you had to leave the Rockets game early! Go Spurs Go!

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