A few days ago, The Hand talked to Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News about his ongoing recovery from pink eye:
"I’m still not 100 percent," Leonard said after the Spurs’ 121-92 victory in Minnesota on Friday. …
"There’s really nothing I can do about it," Leonard said. "I just have to play through it."
It's things like this for which the term "silver linings" was coined. Kawhi still isn't himself, Tiago Splitter is still out, and Patty Mills won't be back and stealing our hearts until at least Valentine's Day. And yet. The Spurs are now 9-4, having won seven of their last eight games following their 2-3 start. The team is still turning the ball over too much, but it's also not allowing teams to take advantage. The defense has been stellar, particularly against the 3, and the few close games the Spurs have been involved in have seen good execution down the stretch.
Also, the Spurs aren't really among the teams dealing with big injury problems this season. If you divided such teams by tiers, it would look something like this:
Tier 1: OKC, Indiana
Tier 2: Chicago, Washington
Tier 3: Spurs, Golden State
As of Sunday, the first tier had combined for 8 wins, the second tier 17, and the third 18. Though their injury problems are relatively minor, and though their continuity is the strongest of any team in the league, the loss of the Spurs' primary rim protector has forced team adjustments on defense. Matt Bonner and Boris Diaw have had to adapt their roles to make up for Splittler's absence in the starting lineup and Aron Baynes has had to double his one-footed reverse layup production. Cory Joseph has played heavier minutes as the #2 PG off the bench. Lastly, Leonard is beginning his transition from opportunistic scorer to the Spurs' primary perimeter weapon. Each of those changes puts stress on the system and introduces variables that mimic the addition of new players.
So their record isn't anything more or less than we should expect. After starting the season against a series of playoff contenders, the schedule has lightened considerably of late, Diaw is flashing his springtime form, Tony Parker and Bonner occasionally appear to have switched bodies, and this is happening:
Tim Duncan's full court touchdown pass to Kawhi Leonard https://t.co/IqIeUMGxRl— Jesus Gomez (@JejeGomez_PtR) November 23, 2014
To watch the team, whether it be this weekend's back-to-back or their road wins over the Clippers and Golden State, is like watching last year's team through a slightly opaque window. You see them the way Kawhi is seeing the basket right now. The execution looks familiar, but things are a bit hazy around the edges.
Ask the man charged with operating the vast machine that is the Spurs offense, and he'll tell you that, even after putting up 220 combined points on Minnesota and Brooklyn, the valves could use a bit of adjustment:
"Tonight I thought our focus was really good," Parker said. "It's not easy to get back to the level that we were at last year in the Finals, but we'll try hard. We've got a long time before the playoffs start."
The silver lining? We're barely a tenth of the way through the season. The conjunctivitis will clear, but the Spurs won't truly be 100% until they're the last team standing. Whatever may ail them between now and then, it surely won't be malaise. Last June's title answered all the questions, all except the one it could never answer. Remember how ridiculous the asterisks used to be? "The Spurs never played in a memorable Finals." "San Antonio is death to TV ratings." "Tim Duncan never even made back to back Finals appearances." Everything was answered in 2014, if not 2013. Those two series against Miami have already earned their place alongside the all-time great championship battles in NBA history, leaving us with one remaining question: Can the Spurs repeat?
They aren't waiting until they get healthy to pursue the answer. It's true the Spurs haven't dealt with the snakebites that have devastated the Thunder and the Pacers, but their own mixture of injuries to irreplaceable rotation parts combined with the hangover suffered by all defending champions would be enough to send any team into a fog to open the season. After losing to Anthony Davis and the Pelicans on November 8th, the Spurs looked they were succumbing to that fog.
"I think it's more mental than anything," Danny Green said (after the Pelicans loss.) "But I can't speak for everybody. When I talk to some of the older guys, some guys' bodies are hurting a little bit. We have some back-to-backs coming up, but we've done this before. They've been here before. I feel like we're in decent shape; still getting there. We're not in the greatest shape. We're just not in our normal team rhythm, our chemistry."
The Spurs have responded like they've been there before, with the knowledge that the only thing left to drive this team is getting to the one place they haven't been before. Only then will the Spurs truly be whole.
"It’s not like we’re the Bulls in ’93," Ginobili told the Washington Post last month, "We aren’t the best by far. We’ve got to fight it. We’ve got to work hard. Things have to go our way." It sounds like he's talking about luck, about the game breaking in your favor in ways you can't control. Injuries are obviously a crucial component of that, but as a Hall of Fame-bound 57th draft pick would know, sometimes you have to just push through the fog. Sometimes, you have to make things go your way.