Gregg Popovich doesn't do inspiration. Pop does not rise to a challenge or circle dates on calendars. Instead, he does intuition, gut feeling, with due respect to the karmic balance of the universe. Perhaps that's why he kept Patty Mills from returning, despite his being medically cleared to play days ago. "I'm going to hold him off as long as I can," he told Dan McCarney of the Express-News in the wake of the Spurs 12th loss of the season, this time to Oklahoma City. "There will be a point he won't allow me to do that anymore, and that's fine. But for right now, I'm winning the battle. At some point I'll lose. There's nothing I'm going to see with my eyes. I just want to feel better."
If there's a more fitting phrase for the first quarter of the 2014-15 Spurs season, please pass it along in the comments or message me on twitter. "I just want to feel better" sounds pretty much perfect. IJWTFB probably drove much of Pop's decision-making on Christmas Day, whether it was holding out Boris Diaw (who, along with Kawhi Leonard, formed the taffy-flexible offensive/defensive punch that carried the Spurs past the Thunder last spring), or making nice with official Michael Smith despite clearly wanting stab him and his cohorts with the sharpened end of a candy cane. IJWTFB is what led Pop to confuse even basketball savants like Mike Tirico and Hubie Brown by trotting out lineups of backups at the close of a two-possession game, or to employ Hack-a-Whoever against a team whose fingertips were evidently pedicured by the Basketball gods prior to tip-off, to the extent that the same Thunder which has shot 34% from deep in their wins this season hit 60% Thursday. Described as the efforts of an ailing coach to "feel better," even a game which featured professional basketball players wearing plaid shoes and argyle socks starts to make a perverse kind of sense.
As you may have suspected, Thunder guard Russell Westbrook is different than Pop. He doesn't just thrive on a challenge, he attacks it the way Takeru Kobayashi attacks a hot dog. Is your kitten stuck in a tree? Russell will pull that tree up by the roots with his bare hands and deliver it to your waiting arms. Is the toilet plugged up? Russell will fire hose 11,000 gallons of Drano down that sucker. When he files his taxes, Russell struts around wearing a cocked visor with a green eyeshade (minus the plastic, of course) shouting "ITEMIZED DEDUCTIONS!!! YEAHHHHHHH!!!!" So when it was announced that Kevin Durant would be missing the Thunder's Christmas Day reunion with the Defending Champs, we all had to know we'd be seeing the tax-filing, toilet-clearing, kitten-rescuing, hot dog-devouring Russell Westbrook.
This is not an excuse for the Spurs losing this game, but on this particular day, the absence of Durant served to make the Thunder less predictable than they are at full strength. Other than a shameless foul-bait three-point attempt - which managed to go in - Westbrook was not chucking. Instead, he overcame some early poor shooting by living at the free throw line, then proceeded to demolish any sort of defense the Spurs threw at him while setting things up for guys who would not otherwise have touched the ball much on offense, and thus not drawn as much of the Spurs' defensive attention -- guys like Steven Adams, Perry Jones, Anthony Morrow, and Andre Roberson. Game plans exist for guys like Durant and Westbrook, and possibly occupy their own drawer inside the offices the other 29 NBA Head Coaches; game plans centered around Anthony Morrow are probably a bit scarce.
If you've talked about Spurs-Thunder any time from last May to the present, one name hangs over everything like a 40 pound kettlebell: Serge Ibaka. As in, "If Serge Ibaka was healthy for that entire series, who knows how it might have gone?" (Enough of this revisionist history. If the Thunder were the better team, they would have won, just like they did in 2012 after spotting the Spurs a 2-0 lead. Such a Thunder team certainly would have won game 6 on their floor when Tony Parker sat out the entire second half.) But as comforting as that thought is, it was undermined a little today, since OKC won with Ibaka having a relatively quiet game. At least, as quiet a game as possible when sinking 3 of 4 3-pointers, the second of which came as a trailer on a dead ball possession and caused Pop to slip even further into his madness. Instead of Ibaka, this time it was Grinchy Adams who stole the log from San Antonio's fire, scoring 16 points, pulling down 7 offensive rebounds, and even making 2 free throws to ice OKC's triumph.
Not that the Spurs were helpless. On paper, their team was healthier with "only" Kawhi Leonard out - though my heart nearly died when Tim Duncan came up limping after colliding with Westbrook in the fourth quarter - they were at home, and they theoretically possessed just as much motivation as the Thunder to make up ground in an unforgiving Western Conference in which one poor stretch of play is like mis-phrasing your answer at the Bridge of Death. In leading the team on a 15-3 run to end the third quarter, Manu Ginobili, Tiago Splitter, and Cory Joseph played suitably inspired ball, which is probably why they were there at the end, as the light was fading. But they play that way on most nights. Tony Parker endured yet another fourth quarter benching. Duncan was rejected straight up by Adams on a broken play and missed a defensive rotation on Westbrook to open the second half, causing Pop to fulfill the cliche about him yelling at Duncan the same way he yells at the 12th man on the bench. Upside-down games like this are where a player like Westbrook thrives, and where a system-based team of basketball chess masters crack and upend the table, because the rules have been violated. A universe where Matt Bonner makes a fast-break dunk is not a universe where the Spurs feel any semblance of comfort.
Ultimately, the Spurs are their coach and their coach is the Spurs. We might as well stop waiting for them to get up for big regular-season games, because that doesn't seem to happen with any regularity. There isn't one player on this team whose motivation level is key to everything. Not when it's the system that's the key. That may be why their revenge against Miami in last year's Finals was so stunning, even if they'd all insist it was nothing personal. When put into action during the regular season, this aseptic approach helps maintain perspective, but it also puts the team at risk for getting bulldozed by motivated opponents. Thing is, every opponent is motivated when they play the Defending Champs, especially if those champs happened to have ended their season seven months prior.
And if the Thunder were the Defending Champs who'd ended San Antonio's season? It wouldn't matter one bit. Pop would still be more worried about how much contact Patty Mills is taking in practice than he'd think about any single game. And his team would still go out there colorblind to their opponent ... and perhaps slightly drunk on eggnog. It's all about feeling better. Ho. Ho. Ho.
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