We see these things happen in the NBA all the time. Big game approaching, Team A pulls its star from the lineup, Team B reacts with an emotional let-down, Team A's role players find incentive to bust their butt for 48 minutes and Team B fails to match the intensity level ... oftentimes in a losing effort. It happens.
But at this point of the season amidst the hell week in which the Spurs currently find themselves, last night's loss was borderline unacceptable.
To be clear, it's impossible not to suffer some sort of emotional let-down when you find out two hours before tip that the team you're playing won't have its two best players, one of which is literally the best basketball player on the planet. It's like a crash from an energy drink. You become mentally hyped to compete at the world's highest level of basketball, only to find out Rashard Lewis and Mike Miller will be starting in place of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
Kawhi Leonard expressed disappointment in the locker room beforehand, Danny Green disbelief. Tim Duncan purportedly remarked, "That's awesome," when hearing the news, but Parker warned of what happened in Miami.
It still didn't matter.
A Chris Bosh three and a follow-up miss from Parker sent the Spurs to their 18th loss when it seemed a 56th victory was inevitable just four hours earlier.
As Duncan said afterward, "It's gone." This game is behind the Spurs as another awaits them tonight. But the biggest problem is, they'll have to try and win this game without Duncan and Leonard. And make no mistake about it, this was coming. Gregg Popovich had likely already made the decision to sit both players tonight well before tip-off in San Antonio last night. Maybe they don't look at it as a "scheduled loss," but the Spurs were never planning on putting their best foot forward tonight, from a personnel standpoint, at least.
Now, all of a sudden, instead of sweeping through a homestand, the Spurs are left with only a two-game cushion in the loss column as the West's top seed hangs in the balance. Duncan and Leonard are inactive tonight, but if ever there was a time to rest anyone, it's now, because what comes next is looking like the biggest game of the season for San Antonio. It's why Pop is resting his players.
After a quick trip home to face the Orlando Magic on Wednesday, the Spurs travel to Oklahoma City to play the Thunder the very next night, potentially with their lead in the Western Conference standings on the line.
The Spurs aren't operating outside of some sort of vacuum, obviously. The number of Thunder losses is a variable, not a constant, and they've demonstrated that they, too, can lose games they shouldn't. But something the Thunder have that the Spurs don't is their health. The injury to Manu Ginobili's right hamstring — the one he strained on Friday against the Clippers — has turned out to be significant enough to keep San Antonio's sixth man out possibly through the rest of the regular season. This team, this bench, will miss him badly, even with his struggles shooting the ball.
So while last night's loss wasn't an outlier of a situation — teams lose games they shouldn't all the time — it was still atypical of the most level-headed group in the league, especially one that should have been accustomed to the taste of their own medicine. But as the Spurs prepare for the Grizzlies tonight, they're the ones that find themselves in that familiar situation.
No Duncan. No Ginobili. No Leonard. Memphis better be ready.