I did not see this coming.
I just didn't see the signs.
After the win at Portland, albeit against a Blazers team missing their best player in LaMarcus Aldridge, I was feeling as good about the Spurs as I had in some time. They'd won three in a row, including a BABA at the Clippers and the Blazers, they'd gotten Manu Ginobili and Tiago Splitter back into the lineup with Kawhi Leonard reportedly set to return the next game and they'd even managed to get some rest for Tim Duncan, ensuring that he'd be at his best for the Suns on Friday. Even better, I knew when my head hit the pillow Wednesday night that, one way or the other, they were going to gain a game in the standings on Miami or Oklahoma City, since those two were going to play each other on Thursday and they couldn't both win – no matter how much ESPN would want them to.
In retrospect, I suppose I didn't respect the Suns enough. I kind of acted like the game was a gimme, with everyone but Tony Parker back in the fold. That was a mistake on my part. The Spurs beating any Western playoff team without Parker is still an upset, even more so when it's their final game on a nine game road trip.
As good as the Suns were, though, I'm still stubborn enough to not give them much credit for this win. They need to prove more to me. Do it again when the Spurs are whole. Beat them when they're not dog tired and road weary. I'm not disparaging them at all – I don't have anything against their team; I just feel the loss was more about the Spurs than it was anything the Suns did.
The first sign that things weren't as hunky-dory for the Spurs came in the fourth quarter of that win over the Blazers. Ginobili didn't play the final ten minutes, even though it was a tight game that came down to the end. Initially I thought it was because he was on a 20-minute playtime restriction but, thinking about that logically, his rotation would've been different then. Pop would've jiggered with it so that five of those 20 minutes came at the very end.
Unfortunately it now seems that Ginobili was scheduled to play his regular 24-minute rotation, or at least something close to it, but he reported that he was "tired and sore," (h/t Mike Monroe of SAEN.) so Pop rightly got cautious. Fast-forward to Friday, where even two days later Ginobili was still a "game-time decision" who had to convince the coaches he was healthy enough to play and even though he was successful in that regard, he was again on a limited minutes restriction.
Then we got word that Leonard, who was supposed to play at Portland and was a sure thing for Phoenix, would again be out. His broken hand has now kept him out a full five weeks.
My belief, which obviously cannot be proven right or wrong, is that the team was deflated mentally by these injury setbacks. I think the guys were feeling appropriately good about themselves and were fully expecting Leonard back for that Suns game to give them a boost. And they were expecting Ginobili to be, if not whole, at least heading in the right direction. I think the reality that faced them at tip-off was dispiriting. The team's collective body language looked off to me and they just didn't have that positive vibe on the bench. Everyone was flat, deflated.
The Spurs played poorly in the first quarter, as they did against Portland and much of this road trip, but they were up 23-19. It proved to be fool's gold as they were hit with a sudden uppercut in the form of a 19-0 Suns run and never recovered. They didn't have their legs enough to shoot and lacked the mental fortitude to avoid a rash of turnovers. The game was over at halftime. No blame to spread, no fingers to point, it happens. Scheduled loss and all that.
It's just sad from a big picture standpoint. It was another crushing reminder that you can't ever predict or project for this team to go on a long, sustained winning streak – not when they're so fragile. It's a lesson to have appropriate fear for each and every game, to never take any of them for granted, and to appreciate those rare streaks of seven, eight, ten wins when they do come around, because you never know how long it'll be before the next one.
Ginobili's case is a particularly depressing one. By now the undeniable reality is that his hamstring is a "thing." It's going to be this gnawing hobgoblin in the back of our minds every time he falls down, every time he jumps, every time he literally does anything on the court. All the off-season weight training, all the improved, seafood-heavy diet, all the positive mindset, none of it is making a damn bit of difference against Ginobili's body screaming for him to retire while he continues to plug his ears with his fingers and yell "na-na-na-na I can't hear you."
It's easy enough to understand Ginobili's state of denial. Number one, he's a competitor. Every athlete wants to go out on their own terms rather than their body telling them they're done. Number two, his skills are still there. Obviously he's not what he was at 27, but he still has the coordination, the agility, even the hops to be a good player, and he's so far ahead of his peers in how he sees and thinks the game that he can compete at an elite level that all but 20 or 30 players in the world can exceed.
What he's lost, though – and what's never coming back – is the flexibility in his legs and back. He just can't get loose and stay loose for sustained periods of time. Something always cramps or tears after too much fatigue or a sudden movement. Those fast-twitch muscles of his that are so necessary to play basketball just can't bare the strain anymore. It's no longer a case of if but when, no matter how many precautions Ginobili takes with diet, weight training and stretching. He just wasn't built to last this long.
It's going to take a borderline miracle to get him through the rest of this season healthy, without those hamstrings popping on him or something else going kablooey. Getting him through four rounds of the playoffs in some functional capacity might require medical chicanery straight out of a sci-fi movie (I'm thinkin' RoboManu).
Oh and Duncan is a year older than and hasn't had any real injuries yet and Parker is battling an Achilles problem.
The next four months won't be nerve-wracking at all.
Spurs basketball. It's like Russian roulette, but without the fun.
Standard Pop Quote:
"They made shots, we didn't, and we turned it over. It wasn't bad. Our ninth road game in a row, they played hard and we couldn't stick it in the hole. It happens. It was a great trip. Six and three on that trip under the circumstances of all the guys out and back and forth, I thought they were great."
By the Numbers:
18,422: The paid attendance at the US Airways Center
12: Assists for the Spurs.
18: Turnovers for the Spurs. When your A:TO ratio makes college teams look good by comparison, you have a problem.
34.9: Field goal percentage for the Spurs.
9.5: Three-point percentage for the Spurs. I feel like most of these stats are negative.
92.6: Free-throw percentage for the Spurs. There, that's more like it.
15: Offensive rebounds for the Spurs. Yeah, that's what I'm talking about.
2-of-14: Shooting line for Patty Mills. Oh dammit-so-much.
25:00: Playing time for Matt Bonner. Okay, I get it, please stop. I'm asking nicely.
16:46: Playing time for Aron Baynes. Please, why are you doing this? Stop.
16:30: Playing time for Shannon Brown. NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.
Sequence of the Game:
It was either Ginobili's acrobatic reverse layup off an offensive rebound at the end of the first quarter or all the stuff that happened during the Suns' 19-0 run in the middle of the second quarter. Definitely one of those.
Tweets of the Night:
Asked Pop what are his expectations for Austin Daye. His response: 'Who?'— Mike Monroe (@Monroe_SA) February 22, 2014
One would think that the way his NBA career has gone that Daye has already "gotten over himself," but just in case, Pop is gonna break him quickly.
You don't often see a team get 2 back-court violations in first 5 min., as #Spurs have gotten in PHX— Mike Monroe (@Monroe_SA) February 22, 2014
Hindsight is 20/20, but this was probably a telltale sign that the boys weren't quite locked in mentally for this one.
Pop gets the T with a choice MF bomb. That came out of nowhere. Still 40 minutes left. Pace yourself.— Dan McCarney (@danmccarneysaen) February 22, 2014
He'll probably look back on this and tell himself he should've yelled a couple more of those.
I'm not saying Lebron is a fun-hating sadness monger, but he's said no to the Dunk Contest and now Space Jam 2. Maybe he just hates kids?— Pounding the Rock (@poundingtherock) February 22, 2014
As far as I'm concerned LeBron only chose a career in professional basketball after his art professors in Austria told him his paintings weren't good enough.
You kind of think Tiago's a bit of a goon, and then he finishes a pick-and-roll layup with the grace of a figure skater.— Dan McCarney (@danmccarneysaen) February 22, 2014
I think every noun and adjective in my vocabulary (probably like, 582 words, total) is more applicable to Tiago than "goon."
With the way he's playing, the Spurs jersey is not likely to have any effect on Shannon Brown's status as a "fan favorite" in Phoenix.— Pounding the Rock (@poundingtherock) February 22, 2014
He's either a rogue or perhaps maybe possibly a terrible basketball player.
MT @bigal_com How much do Suns fans hate Spurs? Poll question on TV broadcast is, Which Spur do you like least (Manu, Tim, Tony or Pop)?— Dan McCarney (@danmccarneysaen) February 22, 2014
Can't believe that Horry didn't make the cut.
Man, these guys are really depressed about Nando, huh?— Pounding the Rock (@poundingtherock) February 22, 2014
He still puts up 28-8-9.
Spurs missed 25 of 30 shots with six turnovers during miserable 18-minute stretch in which Suns outscored them 43-17.— Dan McCarney (@danmccarneysaen) February 22, 2014
And during the other 30 minutes, they were nearly as bad.
I realized during work today that according to the age-appropriateness formula, the youngest gal I can date without it being creepy is 25. 25! I'm so old.
I also realized that my mood seems to get disproportionally affected by whether the Spurs win or lose. I should probably consult some kind of professional about that because that can't be healthy.
Your Three Stars:
3) Tiago Splitter (20 pts): During most of these rehashes I agonize over the three stars, even though it's completely subjective, arbitrary and meaningless, I still spend so much mental energy on it, and really struggle to narrow it down to three guys when typically six or seven are deserving.
2) Aron Baynes (9 pts): This was not one of those nights.
1) Matt Bonner (10 pts): Tonight it was more like, "Which three guys played the least crappy?" So, congrats, Rocket.
Vs. (that's right, an actual home game!!!) Detroit Pistons (23-32), Wednesday, Feb. 26:
The next Spurs game is going to be weird in that A) it's not going to be until Wednesday B) They'll be playing it in this little-known military town in southeast Texas for some reason and C) just about everyone is expected to be available. Lord knows they need the break after having been on the road for a solid month, so the layoff will be nice. They might even be able to hold a couple of practices and introduce Austin Daye to the end of the bench. Leonard is expected back, but we've heard that for three games now so at this point -- I'll believe it when I see some cornrows on the court. As for Parker or Ginobili, who knows? The latter in particular is basically day-to-day forever, including whenever they schedule his jersey-retiring ceremony. The Pistons, meanwhile, are ninth in the East, 2.5 games behind Atlanta for the right to be dump-trucked by the Pacers (oh, who are we kidding, it's gonna be the Heat). If you need a quick reminder on how the last Spurs-Pistons game went, reread the above 2000 words and simply replace every mention of the word "Suns" with the word "Pistons" and there you go. Or you can just stick your head in the oven until you're a nice golden brown.