Doing analysis of the NBA regular-season schedule from a Spurs perspective is like reviewing Yiddish folk music for Source magazine. Kind of feels like barking up the wrong tree, what with Coach Pop's notorious treatment of the 82-game grind with a mindset that's part triage and part mad scientist.
That said, how should Spurs fans approach some of the big games on San Antonio's schedule during the upcoming season? How should we even define big game? David Halberstram notes in his book Playing for Keeps that many of the best basketball coaches have the ability to "let (losses) go" by keeping the big picture in mind. One of the keys to Pop's genius is how good he is at balancing the need to win enough to secure a high playoff seed while not becoming over-fixated on winning individual games.
Knowing that a fan's opinion on big games and Pop's opinion tend to differ, which often produces unexpectedly disappointing (or ironically exciting) results, here's my list of conventional big games, and whether Pop will approach each with either a Tora! Tora! Tora! mindset, or chalk it up to a "scheduled loss":
Tues, 10/28 vs. Dallas, TNT
The Spurs get their championship rings and raise the fifth banner that up to this point we've seen only in our restless dreams (and T-shirts). Barring the unexpected, everyone except Patty Mills should be suited up and ready to go. Oh, and they're playing the Mavericks, the only team the Spurs had any real trouble dispatching during the championship run. This is a game even Pop will insist on winning.
Mon, 11/10 @ Clippers, NBATV
The Clips will be at full sail following the ousting of Donald Sterling. Once the season starts, I expect them to be everyone's trendy dark-to-medium-grey horse to represent the Western Conference in the 2015 NBA Finals. Now, a normal defending champion would be dead-set on putting Chris Paul's merry band of oopers in their place on the footnotes page of basketball history. Of course, this is the Spurs, a merry band of cranky old men who have to immediately board a plane to Oakland after the conclusion of this game. Jeff Ayres may even get extended minutes against L.A.'s scary front line.
Wed, 11/19 @ Cleveland, ESPN
Pop's no dummy. He knows the odds are better than decent that if his team makes it back to the Finals, LeBron will be waiting for the third straight time. Never one to show his hand early, I expect Pop to play this one conservative. In any case, Duncan/Splitter/Diaw will have their hands full with Kevin Love. Added to that, it's the first game of a TIGAFONI which includes a brutal Minnesota to San Antonio turnaround two nights later. Call it a Welcome to the NBA gift for David Blatt, but Pop's probably O.K. with letting Cleveland have this one.
Wed, 12/10 vs. New York, ESPN
Tony will dominate Fisher. Or at least the team he now coaches. If Pop lets him suit up, that is. This one is smack in the middle of a pre-Christmas stretch against Western Conference teams that includes travels to Memphis, Utah, Denver, and Portland, interspersed with home dates against Minnesota and what could be an unexpectedly troublesome Lakers team. In fact, every other opponent for the rest of the 2014 calendar year will be from the West. Still, Tony will dominate Fisher, and the Spurs will likely win just the same.
Thurs, 12/25 vs. OKC, ABC
Wait, hold on a minute. The Wizards are playing the game before this? On Christmas?? The Wizards??? Wow. What's more, it actually kind of makes sense. This isn't Tim Duncan's NBA anymore. In fact, I suspect he'll take one look around the AT&T Center, see the vengeful Congolese standing under the opposing basket, look down at whatever ridiculous sleeved clown suit the league has mandated he must wear that day, and all but go home to his kids and the new paintball guns he still hasn't gotten to play with yet. I mean, sure, he'll put in his usual 24-27 minutes, put up 18 and 9 and pretend to be mad when Pop pulls him early in the fourth quarter. But you know how he really feels.
Oh, and did I mention the team has to fly to NOLA and play Anthony Davis and the Pelicans the next day? Ho. Ho. Ho.
Thurs, 1/22 @ Chicago, TNT
The Spurs lone visit to Chi-town this season (not including a potential Finals meeting) is also TNT's lone game on this Thursday night. The Bulls struck out in its efforts at landing Carmelo Anthony, but at least they dumped Carlos Boozer, whose eyebrows now rank as only the second-craziest in the league now that Davis and his mono-brow are wreaking havoc in The Big Easy. In Boozer's place is the elder Gasol, who'll hope to eventually renew his playoff rivalry with the Big Three.
The Spurs have a game in SA against the Lakers the following night, so count on someone getting rested, likely Manu. Still, I suspect Kawhi and Tony could win this one practically on their own, and hopefully prevent the needlessly dramatic near-meltdown that occurred the last time we played these guys in the middle of winter.
Fri, 2/6 vs. Miami, ESPN
Haha, did ESPN have you fooled for a second? It did me. "Uh, is it 2013 again?" You crack me up, Bristol. With no games on either side of this one, expect Pop to bring out the guns against D-Wade and the Bostrich.
Sun, 2/8 @ Toronto, NBATV
The RRT gets underway with a back-to-back at Toronto and Indiana. Kyle Lowry's Raps are on the upswing ever since trading Rudy Gay to Sacramento, while the Pacers, well... Right, moving on. For the Spurs, we should be near the return of Patty Mills, which bodes well for both troop morale as well as a burst of fresh legs and volume heat checks. After weeks of lineup shuffling, experimentation, and possibly even more austere minute rationing, the Spurs' real season unofficially starts with this game.
Fri, 2/20 @ Golden State, ESPN
The post-All-Star break western leg of the RRT replicates the SO Cal-NO Cal back-to-back from November. Pop is bound to have a pickle on his hands here. This is the time when road trip momentum traditionally starts building, sling-shotting the team into a dominant March and beyond.
However, February is already the fourth full month of the season, and the team is bound to be dealing with its share of bumps and bruises, if not more serious maladies. Thankfully, the All-Star break is a full week long this year, so everyone should theoretically be on fresh legs by the time regular play resumes. It will be a game-time decision, but I ultimately see Pop giving at least 2/3rds of the Big Three the night off against the Warriors.
This in turn could lead to a dominant showing from Kawhi - despite Klay Thompson's best effort at proving to his team they made the right decision not trading him for Kevin Love because he's "too good on defense" - and an inspiring surge from the bench leading to one of those undermanned wins the Spurs seem to pick up two or three times a year. This will inevitably lead to at least a half-dozen stories about how awesome Popopvich is for having such a great bench, which in his mind will almost mean the strategy actually backfired on him. Still, Pop knows winning a game like this without the Big Three could be the spark that ignites Kawhi's jet fuel.
Thurs, 3/12 vs. Cleveland, TNT
Both teams follow this game with two days of rest. Pop just might look at the calendar, see that it's mid-March already, shrug his shoulders and let everybody go full "Horns" on LeBron & Friends. Tony might even get to play more than 30 minutes against Kyrie Irving. On the other hand, the Spurs will have preceded this match-up with home games against Sacramento, Chicago, and Toronto, so they may be on a bit of a hot streak. And we all know what Pop thinks of hot streaks.
Sun, 3/29 vs. Memphis, League Pass
The last of a six-day, four-game gauntlet against Western Conference playoff teams which includes Dallas twice, a back-to-back against OKC, and this locally-broadcast/League Pass game against the Grizz. After the RRT, the Spurs will be in need of a second wind heading into April and the playoffs. Whereas denying teams a full complement of oxygen is the Nuggets' specialty, the Grizzlies forte is pounding the oxygen out of them. Pop will certainly have an eye on playoff positioning at this point. If the Grizzlies are in SA's bracket, he'll grit and grind his teeth and suit everyone up.
Fri, 4/10 @Hou, NBATV
What's that, you say? That "gauntlet" I just mentioned is like playing NBA Jam against a 4 year old compared to this SIGAINTENI against Golden State, @OKC, home and home against Houston, bookended by games against Denver and Phoenix? Well. I stand corrected. The Spurs should get a little bit of parity against the Rockets, since Houston has games against Dallas and OKC before twice facing San Antonio.
Wed, 4/15 @New Orleans, League Pass
I didn't include this game just because it's the last of the regular season, or even because NOLA is a potential playoff team. I included it because this could be last time we see Tim Duncan play Davis, the man most suited to take up Tim's mantle as the league's premier fundamental-yet-transcendent big man. Given that ESPN has wisely chosen to show a spellbinding Toronto vs. Charlotte match-up rather than this game (or even Washington at Cleveland), the moment will likely pass by unnoticed to the general pro basketball population.
However, if you look closely and pay attention on KENS or League Pass, I bet you'll be able to see just what this game means to Davis, and perhaps even to Duncan. It will just be a flash, some moment, maybe nothing more than a single play or drop step delivered with a bit of extra mustard and followed by the subtlest of respectful nods. Unless, of course, playoff races render the game meaningless to one or both teams, in which case the greatest source of intrigue becomes the battle between Ryan Anderson and Matt Bonner for "whitest stretch four."
Also, the Spurs could meet the Pelicans in the first or second round, which I think we can admit would be pretty delightful.