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Spurs blow big lead to Pistons and lose at the buzzer

I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of Spurs fans' voices cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Game 36 Vs. Detroit: Pistons 105, Spurs 104   Record: 21-15   4th in Southwest, 7th in West   Streak: L-1

You see, the analogy makes perfect sense if the Spurs are the Empire, Pop is Emperor Palpatine, Tim Duncan and his knee brace are Darth Vader, and Brandon Jennings is the young punk who nails the "one in a million" shot to destroy the Death Star...

Okay, you're probably not in the mood for mirth and frivolity after watching that game, even though the references would be so easy for a lazy hack like me on "Star Wars" night at the AT&T Center. The truth is I'm not either, and if this was a year ago, I'd be right there with you, kicking tables and throwing remotes. What a ridiculous, aggravating loss. Not only did the Spurs screw up another inbounds pass late, but even before then they missed six of their final ten free throws, with Tiago Splitter, Boris Diaw, Patty Mills and Cory Joseph all taking turns in doing their best Andre Drummond impression. Splitter's 0-for-2 was particularly costly in that he got fouled a split second before dishing off to Danny Green for a corner three.

The blunt truth of the matter is not only do the Spurs have nobody to blame but themselves for the loss, but that the outcome was probably the just one. San Antonio got off to a brilliant start, winning the first quarter 37-20 and completely flummoxing the Pistons with the pick-and-roll, with 22 of their points coming in the paint and Tim Duncan and little-used Jeff Ayres (Aron Baynes was out with neck spasms) scoring nine each early.

The Spurs got up as much as 18 points, leading 54-36 midway through the second quarter when the game turned. The home side had a stretch with eight straight empty trips (five misses and three turnovers) and the Pistons mixed threes by D.J. Augustin and Brandon Jennings with a couple of inside buckets by Greg Monroe, and all of a sudden the Spurs went into half only up nine.

Watching the third quarter felt like being digested in the belly of the Sarlacc for a thousand years (you knew it was coming) as the Spurs played perhaps their softest and certainly most unwatchable quarter of the season. Jennings and Augustin drove relentlessly to the rim past Mills and Joseph, Monroe and Andre Drummond played volleyball with the backboard, and the Pistons dominated the paint scoring in the period to the tune of 24 to 4, turning the nine point halftime deficit into an 82-72 lead with less than a minute to go before the Spurs answered with a little spurt, mostly Marco Belinelli's desperation 30-footer at the shot clock buzzer.

The Spurs crawled back to take small leads in the fourth, and their offense mainly consisted of five three-pointers (two from Green and one each from Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw and Mills) but couldn't pull away because of all the missed freebies. A host of clanks from Drummond, Jennings and Anthony Tolliver kept the Spurs ahead, barely, and then Gregg Popovich did something he never does, something his critics have implored him to do for a decade.

He fouled up three late. ("Because I wanted to," he said later.) Jodie Meeks sank both with seconds to go and all that was left was the relatively simple matter of the Spurs inbounding the ball, making two more free throws and forcing a desperation miss. Instead, they never got the chance. The pass from Duncan clanked off Mills' hands, the ball founds its way to Jennings, and he raced down the court and past Diaw and floated in a banker with 0.1 seconds left for the win, Detroit's sixth in a row with a loss since they offloaded Josh Smith. They've gone from 5-23 to a team a couple games out of the final playoff spot in the East. Meanwhile the Spurs are only a half game ahead of the victorious Suns --Friday's opponent-- for the seventh spot in the West and only three ahead in the loss column from Oklahoma City, which is sobering.

"This is not the first time in the history of the NBA that anyone has given up a lead," said a predictably grouchy Popovich afterward. "It happens frequently in the league because there is a 24-second clock, people make shots and miss shots, and people turn it over. It is not remarkable at all. It is disappointing and you don't like to be a part of it. I thought they out-competed us in the third quarter. I thought their aggressiveness and defense was really good. I thought the ball stuck with us and we didn't move the ball on offense. They really put it to us on the board with second-chance points and fast break points in the third quarter, and I thought they really manhandled us."

It was a game that was as confusing as it was distressing. The Spurs went from playing about as well as they have all season to a third quarter where they literally could not create a worthwhile look at the basket or grab a rebound. The lineups Popovich played were bizarre and nonsensical and he's toying with people's roles on a whim, like not playing Diaw at all in the third quarter and then the full 12 minutes in the fourth.

Strangest of all was how Pop handled his two main stars in Duncan and Tony Parker. Duncan started well but was rather soft and unfocused in the first 7:26 of the second half, in which the Spurs got outscored by 12. Pop sat him the rest of the way, until the final eight seconds, when he summoned him in case Meeks planned on missing his second free throw, intentionally or not. Then he made the fateful call to have Duncan be the inbounder, despite him having calcified on the bench for darn near an hour of actual time.

As for Parker, tonight was supposed to be something of a benchmark for the Spurs in that he finally returned from a five-game absence with that so-called "mild" strained hamstring, an injury he originally suffered on Dec. 5 at Memphis and re-aggravated twice in premature returns to action. Against the Pistons Parker played 13 lifeless first-half minutes, missing all three of his shots and notching two assists and two turnovers. The most distressing sign was that on a would-be breakout pass from Splitter to Parker, where the Frenchman was well ahead of the pack, Parker got easily beaten to the ball by Detroit's Kyle Singler, who no one has ever described as fleet of foot. There's just no way a healthy Parker doesn't get to that ball.

Parker didn't play in the second half, but stayed on the bench instead of the locker room and Popovich insisted he was healthy afterward, saying, "He wanted to play, but I was being conservative. He had 13 minutes and that is good after resting as long as he did. I wanted to make sure he didn't re-injure it."

I'll be very curious what the next game's injury report has to say about Parker nonetheless.

In the end it's another unexpected, come-from-ahead home loss, in a season filled with them. "Things like that happen against anybody," said a somber Ginobili. "Things that you learn from, but we are learning a lot lately."

I'm not sure the Spurs are learning all that much, really, except that A) it's really tough to win the year after a championship and B) they really miss Kawhi Leonard. He may not be a Jedi, but the Spurs sure could use his return, annnnnnny day now.

Your Three Stars:

3. Danny Green (34 pts)

2. Manu Ginobili (44 pts)

1. Jeff Ayres (6 pts)