Every NBA team has 'one of those nights' at some point during the regular season, and up until this point the Spurs had largely been able to avoid them. But San Antonio lost 105-101 in overtime to the conference cellar-dwelling Phoenix Suns on Wednesday night, proving once again there are no sure things in this league.
I mean, what are you supposed to do when Jermaine O'Neal goes for 22 points and 13 rebounds? In the year 2013?
The Spurs scored one point in overtime as the Suns overcame an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit to win in San Antonio on one of the season's stranger nights. O'Neal poured in 15 points in the final 17 minutes of play, taking it to Tim Duncan in the process. But this game probably should have never made it to the extra frame.
With San Antonio up 100-97, O'Neal corralled a Manu Ginobili missed free throw with 3.7 seconds remaining in regulation and no timeouts left and heaved it down the right sideline to a streaking Wesley Johnson, who turned and fired a three from the wing at the buzzer. The shot dropped despite Duncan and Tiago Splitter's contest, and the Spurs went on to go 0-for-10 from the field in overtime. The Suns weren't much better at 2-for-9, but something is better than nothing.
"I think overall we made a lot of mental errors, especially on that last play on the free-throw line when Johnson went all the way down the court and he wasn't picked up," Gregg Popovich said after the game. "That cost us the game."
It capped off a poor night from Ginobili and the best game of the season for O'Neal, and just like that the Spurs' lead in the West over Oklahoma City has been cut to one game in the loss column with two matchups remaining against the Thunder. We've become so accustomed to San Antonio's cruise-control setting, this is just a reminder of what can happen on a nightly basis in the NBA.
Manu, who had 10 points on 2-for-8 shooting, missed all three of his shots in overtime and voiced his disappointment after one of his worst performances of the season.
"We are all very upset, especially after the performance we had on the road," Manu said. "Coming back home and losing the first one is hard, but it happens. We got relaxed after such a long road trip, but this is what happens in the NBA when you do not play your best."
Duncan — who had 19 points and 11 rebounds on just 6-for-15 shooting — did not share the same sentiment.
"No it's not," Duncan replied when asked if it's difficult to get up for that first game back. "We're not making any excuses for it. They beat us and that's the bottom line."
O'Neal had a lot to do with that, and it wasn't like the Spurs played poorly on defense. The big man went right at Duncan all night in a modern-day throwback matchup. The Suns outscored the Spurs 40-36 in the paint and nearly doubled them in second-chance points, 21-11, and much of that had to do with O'Neal's performance.
San Antonio shot 43 percent from the field and turned the ball over 17 times, and despite scoring 32 points off 15 Phoenix turnovers, wasn't able to hold onto a double-digit lead in the fourth against the worst team in the West.
It was a weird night.
But let's avoid the 'sky is falling' mentality. The Spurs played horribly, O'Neal had his best performance of the season and it took a fortunate turn of events in the final seconds to even force overtime. These things happen. But because we're talking about the Spurs here, we're not used to seeing this. Whether it was fatigue or relaxation — as Manu put it — coming off the road trip, San Antonio didn't seem to have its collective legs tonight.
There also seems to be an overarching reaction to Tony Parker once again being guarded by a bigger player, this time Wesley Johnson. It's understandable, given the memories of Thabo Sefalosha in the Western Conference Finals likely evoked by the discussion, but don't overreact to this. It says quite a bit about the streak Parker has been on when, on a night where he drops 22 points and eight assists, the concerns about his ability to attack bigger defenders is a topic of conversation.
I'm not saying it's something to ignore — these are the kind of losses that can come back to haunt a team racing down the stretch for the conference's top seed — but bad nights happen, just not often to San Antonio. This team hasn't had much time together as a fully healthy unit, and all things considered have done pretty well. The Spurs are a league-leading 45-14, after all. They're allowed a slip-up.
For now, just relax. There should be plenty of time to stress later this spring.