That Miami loss, painful as it was, may have been a great loss for this incarnation of the San Antonio Spurs.
Everyone knows the story by now. Miami left their two superstars in street clothes for this powerhouse matchup and still left with a win. Maybe not as stylish as San Antonio leaving four starters at home, but more impressive because they actually, you know, won. You could argue this gives Miami a mental edge, but in my opinion that is total hogwash. This is not the first rodeo for either team and a loss here and there means little. But, this loss drove home a very important point that I have been thinking about for a while now.
As usual I have trouble sticking to a single core message so will make two points.
The first point is about the identity.
What is identity of this team? These are not your father's Spurs, or even your older sister's Spurs from the early 2000s. Those teams were 48 minutes of hell, applying defensive pressure the entire game. Guys like Bowen to lock down top scorers. Trees in the middle to discourage penetration. Opposing ball handlers constantly looked over their shoulder in case long glorious Argentinian hair was swooping in to knock the ball out of their grasp. That is not this team. Not that this incarnation has less potential, it is just a completely different team.
This team is all finesse and experience. The defense is still solid, not great, but solid, but has a different tenor. It is more crafty, not as in your face. Less pushing and prodding and poking and more graceful sliding over to help teammates. Timmy and Manu are forced to watch their minutes and their aggressiveness, conserving their health and energy for more critical times. As always, the top stars define the personality of the team as much as anything else, so the entire team follows this lead and tries to play smart disciplined ball. Even the wildly crazy instinctive Blair is adjusting and trying to play within the system.
And we love this team for this. Smart. Disciplined. Finesse. Respect from all the other teams and coaches. What a great identity to have.
But, there is a dark side to this. I was watching the Jazz a couple of weeks ago. I did not have a good internet signal to watch the Spurs so went to the gym instead and watch the Jazz just because the game was showing there. Forgot who they were playing, but that is really not important. I had watched the Jazz play early in the season and was struck by how bad they were. Terrible defense, no sense of teamwork, nothing. This time, completely different. They are still not a great team but now remind me of the Spurs a few years ago. Great energy, always attacking the ball, a frenetic pace of defense, guys diving for loose balls, the works. I was neutral to start the game, but was soon pulling for the Jazz to win that game just because they showed such great passion and gave such a great effort. And yes, they won.
It hit me. That is the dark side of being a finesse team. This team is smart and disciplined, but just does not have that frenetic energy from a few years ago. I don't blame them one bit, some of them are getting older and it is better to have one unified identity than to have two different styles, but I miss that craziness at times.
Don't get me wrong. This is not a problem. I will take a smart disciplined finesse team any day and twice on Sundays over an undisciplined mass of energy.
This happens to everyone in all walks of life. When I was a teenager I would learn by aggressively attacking a problem, pulling all nighters with the aid of massive amounts of chocolate, and generally broke down any problems that I faced with a combination of energy, brute force, and whatever natural skills I possessed. But now that I have reached a ripe old age things are different, I take a measured disciplined approach, maybe less excitement and passion, but often with good results.
My second point is about getting too used to winning.
The Spurs, as usual, have a great record. Smart disciplined play combined with great talent will win a lot of games for you. Sure, sometimes they lose focus or play less than smart and will lose to clearly inferior teams. Other times they lose to teams that were playing better that day. But in general, they just win. However, winning too easily is not always the best thing. The Spurs know their system so well that they can just sleepwalk through that system and still win. Obviously some effort is required, but they don't really have to try that hard or focus completely.
To carry on with the earlier analogy, as I got older I and/or my workplaces had good processes to handle work and I could pretty much coast through most days. And I did. Not knowingly, I really thought I was giving it my all, but honestly I was coasting. Everything was pretty much on automatic, with great systems to handle most situations.
The problem was the "different" days where the normal processes don't work. We have all had them. A changed deadline, system failure, or some other emergency. My first reaction when falling behind schedule? Let's be honest. I got disturbed, threw away some of my disciplined processes because there was not enough time to follow them, and instinctively attacked the problem with energy and brute force the way I did when younger. Sure, you can tell me that is not common practice in every single workplace. I will not believe you, but you can tell me that if you like. Except that I don't have that same energy and have almost never practiced doing things that way, so fell even further behind. And yes, every single project in every workplace in my experience has also been managed like that by my bosses.
The problem is that day to day things are so easy with our modern day systems and practices that we are not used to things happening outside that cycle.
What has that got to do with the Spurs? It demonstrates the best way to attack the Spurs. Bother them enough that their system stops working. OKC did it last year by suddenly becoming more physical than we are used to. The refs did it too by calling the game a little differently than we are used to. Neither change was enough to overcome our talent and teamwork, but it disturbed the team enough that the whole system mentally fell apart.
Miami this weekend? Same thing. They were all over the Spurs defensively and just bothered them so much that the players were just a bit out of it. Don't get me wrong, Miami played great and deserve full credit for the win, but the Spurs also mentally knocked themselves out of it at times.
What about the Heat? They are in the East with no real competition. Would they not fall into the same trap after winning all those games? Yes, they can to some extent, but they are not as vulnerable as the Spurs because they rely on energy and pure talent, not a finesse system. Disturbing their system does not mentally take them out of the game.
Does Pop know this? Of course he does! Why do you think he is fiddling with lineups so much? That is why he does some crazy stuff at times, to try and prepare his troops for a scenario that may happen. But there is no easy answer, the Spurs need to go through tough experiences a few times in order to know how to handle this mentally. No amount of practice can simulate complete disruption.
That is why I think the Miami loss was a good loss. If LeBron and Wade had played we would have taken a loss more casually and just said that they overwhelmed us. This way the players have to think about how they handle defensive pressure and other disruptions in the force.