Rehash: Spurs Big Four make surprise visit to Denver, inspire "wave" among delirious fans

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Spor

Pop: "You guys remember how you played in the first half against these guys?" Team: "Yeah." Pop: "Good, do that again. Now, do your remember how you played in the second half?" Team: "Yeah." Pop: "Good, don't do that again." Marco, whispering to Manu: "You were right, he's amazing." Manu: "I know, right?"

Game 72 @Denver: Spurs 133, Nuggets 102      Record: 56-16    1st in Southwest, 1st in West  Streak: W-16

Even after watching the game I'm still floored that Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker (and Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter and even Danny freaking Green, who made the trip but didn't play) were on that flight to Denver. I just never dreamed that would happen, looking at the schedule. I cashed this game in as a scheduled loss long ago, what with the SEGABABA against the Pelicans at home Saturday night.

Call me a conspiracy theorist, call me a muckraker. Even call me a dope, but I'm still not convinced that wasn't originally Gregg Popovich's plan, to spare those guys the trip.

My dumb, harebrained theory is that a couple of unplanned for events changed Pop's mind and inspired him to play the full squad, minus the injured Green and Matt Bonner, at Denver.

First off there's the streak, which now stands at 16, one short of the franchise record for regular-season only streaks. If you count ones that overlap into the playoffs then the record is 20, set in 2012, which ended... well, never mind all that.

I don't think Pop values or appreciates the streak the way you or I or even casual fans would. In fact, by all indications he feels the complete opposite about it, viewing it as an annoyance and a distraction and something that has the potential to be more harmful than not in the big picture. In Pop's view long winning streaks are recipes for disaster. They cause teams to have a false sense of security. They bring on unwanted media attention. The players start reading their press clippings and believing they're better than they are. They get fat and happy and begin skipping steps. They lose the appropriate fear of the opponent. And on and on.

I believe the beat writers who know Pop when they claim that he'd love for the team to lose a game any day now. Even for the most professional of teams, filled with hardened veterans, it's much easier for a coach to get his message across after a loss than a win.

However, to end the streak cheaply by not playing the best players at all wouldn't really drive home any kind of point that Pop would like to make and I think he understands that. Suppose he left the big four at home and they lost to the Nuggets by six. He could rant and rave in the film session the next day and all the players would no doubt think to themselves, "That's all well and good, Pop, but we would've won with with our regular rotation."

So that's one reason why I think everybody made the trip. Pop can't teach any lessons without a legit loss.

The main reason I think he played everyone was partly as a punishment, partly as a test for that woeful second half at home against the Nuggets on Wednesday. Maybe Pop told them before the game, "I don't think I can get through to you guys until we lose. Prove to me I'm wrong. Prove to me you listen to what I say after wins too. Go out there and annihilate that pathetic Denver team from beginning to end."

I know, I know, I'm probably just chasing unicorns, inventing narrative to avoid discussing another blowout in a season full of them. Maybe the plan all along was to play everyone in the first game and rest them tonight against New Orleans, even though it's a home game. We'll find out soon enough.

What else is there to say though about the Spurs at this point? What's there to analyze when Splitter and Leonard combine for 13 assists in 16 rebounds in 49 minutes? When Duncan scores 20 in 22 minutes or Belinelli hits six of seven threes in the first half? When Ginobili and Parker can basically sleepwalk through cameo appearances and still destroy the opposition?

For crying out loud, the quartet of Boris Diaw-Patty Mills-Ginobili-Belinelli (a.k.a. "The Foreign Legion") had a net rating of 70.8 in the game in their time on the floor together.

Here is what I do know for certain: The Spurs are 46-4 against teams below a .600 winning percentage. They were without Ginobili, Parker and Leonard in three of those four losses. They've basically had one bad loss in 72 games.

I think Pop, the players and all the rest of us who are simply following along with our jaws agape are thinking along the same lines right about now: The Spurs badly need to start playing good teams again because this is starting to get pointless in its predictability. Whether the team is mature to the point where they'll never underestimate any opponent or too good for such a thing to matter, the end result is all the same. March has been an endless slog of cupcakes and the Spurs have been positively ravenous in devouring them.

(Insert Diaw joke here)

"He's a teacher and wants to teach. He wants the good and the bad. Even through this streak, he's been on us a tremendous amount, making sure we don't rest on just the wins, but we're learning from game to game."

(on how antsy the team's winning streak is making Pop)

By the Numbers:

1,246: Career regular season games by the great Tim Duncan, all with the Spurs, moving him past Kobe Bryant for fourth all-time for most games by a player who played his entire career for one team, behind only John Stockton (Jazz), Reggie Miller (Pacers) and John Havlicek (Celtics).

73: The Spurs sank 13 more threes against Denver and need just 73 more over their final ten games to break the franchise record of 685 threes, set in the 2010-11 season.

40.1: The team's league-leading three-point percentage on the season. The franchise-record is 40.7 percent, believe it or not, set in the 2000-01 season.

445: How many threes, out of 1,094 attempts, the 00-01 Spurs made. That team obviously had a few dead-eye shooters including Sean Elliott, Terry Porter, Derek Anderson, Danny Ferry, Steve Kerr and even Antonio Daniels had a great season from downtown that year. None of them were as prolific as Danny Green or Patty Mills though.

82:34: How many minutes, combined, Duncan, Ginobili, Parker and Leonard played Friday night, and Green not at all, of course.

16: How many times the Spurs have exceeded 30 assists in a game this season.

7: Tiago Splitter tied his career-high with seven assists.

6: Kawhi Leonard did likewise, with six.

8, 6, 5: The Spurs' magic numbers versus the Thunder, Pacers and Heat, respectively. At this rate the only team to scoreboard watch will be OKC by April Fool's Day.

Sequence of the Game:

Down 20-14 midway through the first quarter, Pop reinserted Belinelli back into the game and he promptly hit four threes and had an assist in a 17-3 run that gave the Spurs a 10-point lead they'd never relinquish. The last of those threes was from like six feet behind the top of the key.

Tweets of the Night:

We could've used some of that in the 2011 playoffs, but the way that series went he probably would've made those too.

Big deal, that's still like ten passes already into the sequence. Barcelona does the same thing and they're hailed for it. The Spurs do it and America yawns. Go figure. (Then again, most Americans don't dig soccer either...)

Somehow I doubt the Knicks would've gotten this kind of production out of Marco, call me a cynic if you must.

I'm absolutely outraged he didn't use Westbrook for this. [Editor's note: I'm equally outraged. -jrw]

To be fair, my percentage from threes would be infinitely higher than on dunks as well.

Subtle between-games adjustment from Pop there. Had Leonard cheat a bit more in the paint, figured Faried wouldn't make the pass out of the late double.

"If you could kill someone on your way out that would be of great help."

Maybe they can teach him in the off-season. He's only been a Spur for like three minutes. I think he's already outscored De Colo for the year.

Random Observation:

Nobody on the Spurs, not even Pop, looks more bored these days than Tony Parker. The team has played precisely one opponent worth anything in the last 17 days and these days the rest of the starters are playing so well, with Leonard and Green seeming making every three and Duncan and Splitter engaged in some kind of Vulcan mind-meld in the post, that there simply hasn't been much for Parker to do. He never got out of first gear against Denver and he didn't have to. My guess is he's really looking forward to this April stretch where he'll actually face some quality competition.

Your Three Stars:

3) Tiago Splitter (39 pts): Splitter's never quite approached the heights he reached last season but the Brazilian big-man is definitely playing his best ball of the year, recording his fifth double-digit rebounding game of the month against the Nuggets, while also tying a career-high with seven assists. We hear a lot about the passing of bigs like Joakim Noah and Kevin Love, but no team has a collection of tall dudes who can dish it like the Spurs do.

2) Tim Duncan (124 pts): Piggybacking on Splitter's comment, the tic-tac-toe passing that he and Duncan (or either of them with Boris Diaw) can perform inside working in concert with a wing like Leonard or Ginobili initiating the action has just been devastating opponents and thrilling for us to behold night in and night out. They're flat out embarrassing people out there. Meanwhile, Duncan's jumper is looking straight and a bit more parabolic of late, and he had an easy 20 in 22 minutes against the Nugs.

1) Marco Belinelli (48 pts): Fairly quiet early on and yanked by Pop for not being aggressive on a loose ball, but once Rocky realized that the Nuggets weren't all that interested in contesting his outside shot, he feasted, hitting six threes in a nine-minute stretch overlapping the first and second quarters to put the Spurs well in front.

Up Next:

Vs. New Orleans Pelicans (32-40), Saturday, Mar. 29:

The Spurs will try to make it 17 straight with a SEGABABA against the NOPEs, who are streaking themselves, having won five straight. I was way off about these guys a month ago when I thought they'd tank like mad in a desperate effort to finish with a bottom-five record so that they could keep their first-round pick in the ill-fated Jrue Holliday-Nerlens Noel trade with Philly. Instead, wunderkind Anthony Davis decided to just become a top-five player instead and start dominating a bit ahead of schedule. It appears that the Spurs caught a major break though, as Davis hurt his left ankle early in the Pelicans' win over Utah on Friday night and it appears highly unlikely that he'll be available against the Spurs. They beat the Jazz anyway because their injury epidemic has forced coach Monty Williams to try a super big lineup, with Tyreke Evans running point. Not only was Evans' 15 assists a career-high, but it doubled his career total, so kudos to him. Your guess is as good as mine as to who will be available for the Spurs. Duncan only played 22 minutes against Denver while Ginobili and Parker both played fewer than 20, but Pop hasn't sat the big three collectively at home very often. I'll step out on the limb and predict that they will indeed tie the franchise record for the longest winning streak, previously set in 1995-1996 by the David Robinson/Sean Elliott crew.

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