There are earned luxuries when you've been successful for as long as the Spurs have been. The continuity on the roster contributes to guys making something of broken plays. There is a comfort level in tense situations. Players and coaches might be allowed to occasionally bark at referees more than guys on some other teams.
More than anything though, as we saw Friday night at the AT&T Center against the hapless Lakers, the Spurs handle chaos and distraction better than just about anyone east of Oakland.
From the beginning there was a sense in the air that the Spurs were playing with one foot already aboard their red-eye charter to Atlanta. Because they were the second half of a nationally televised doubleheader (thanks, Kobe!), the game was scheduled an hour later than usual. Everything we know about how Gregg Popovich conducts business would lead us to the educated guess that veterans such as Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili won't be on that flight. Surely they'd deliver the Lakers a proper drubbing and then take their scheduled "L" against Mike Budenholzer, Tiago Splitter and the rest of the Hawks without complaint, right?
Well, maybe not. Before the game the Spurs announced that Tony Parker would sit against the Lakers just for rest purposes. Then Ginobili only played for 5:25 in the first half, an observer for the final 32:36. Duncan played just over 20 minutes and sat for good halfway through the third. I'd guess there's a good chance Ginobili plays tomorrow and wouldn't be surprised to see Duncan lace 'em up as well. No one played more than the 27:00 LaMarcus Aldridge logged.
And it was a very productive 27 minutes at that. Both Ray McCallum and especially Patty Mills were solid in finding Aldridge in his favorite spots to get him open jumpers he could catch and shoot in rhythm, and the Lakers were so disorganized in their rotations and trying to contest against penetration that Aldridge had his fill of put-backs as well. He scored 14 in the first quarter alone on 7-of-10 shooting, displaying similar dominance to what he showed at Philly earlier in the week.
Aldridge played some with the bench toward the end of the period and they bailed the Spurs out of an early hole since Kobe Bryant, D'Angelo Russell and Lou Williams all came out smoking from the perimeter for the Lakers. The Spurs were down 25-17 with less than three minutes to go, but closed with a 14-4 run with Ginobili carving them up and Mills hitting consecutive threes.
The Lakers got back into the game and led briefly midway through the second quarter against a Spurs lineup of all reserves plus Danny Green, and neither team could really separate from the other even though Mills continued to stay hot. None of the starters outside of Kawhi Leonard were doing much of anything.
The game just sort of lurched into halftime, with Williams and Russell very much keeping the Lakers afloat.
Things turned in the Spurs favor in the third quarter, as many games have this season. Surprisingly, Gregg Popovich started Jonathon Simmons in Green's place. Surely by now you've noticed that Green is in the midst of the most prolonged slump of his Spurs career. He came into the game having made just four of his past 24 threes, he's shooting 15.8 percent from downtown in December and just 29.4 percent on them on the season. To Green's credit, his defense has mostly been very good despite his shooting struggles, but that wasn't the case in the first half against the Lakers. Pop looked to Simmons to provide a spark, and the rookie delivered.
Boy did he deliver. Simmons was relentless driving to the rim, with the follow jam of an Aldridge miss from a side angle I can't recall any Spurs wing ever pulling off before, two trips to the line earned the hard way and another one where he was denied but it sure appeared that he was fouled. The record will show that both Aldridge and Leonard outscored Simmons in the third, but all we're going to remember a week from now is that slam.
The Spurs led 79-71 to begin the fourth and Green finally made his first appearance of the second half. It did not last long. He gave Williams too much space for a mid-range jumper and Popovich immediately yanked him in Simmons' favor, and admonished Green once when he was heading to the bench and then again, more animatedly during a stoppage in play a short time later. Duncan, Ginobili and others quickly scurried over to give their teammate some encouragement.
And again, situations like this is where the Spurs are second to none. Even after moments of intense frustration and disappointment, the veteran leadership is so strong within the club and everyone's pulse is so in tune with one another that there is always support to pull guys up from the abyss and not let things carry into the next day or become controversial sound-bites for the national media to run with. The Spurs go into Fort Knox mode when stuff like this happens, and it works for them.
"Every game is different, you play people that you think will help you win and I thought Jonathon was doing great tonight," was all Popovich had to say on the subject when asked if he was displeased with Green, and it's doubtful there will be any carryover from this to the Hawks game.
There was a brief worry from your humble narrator that a lineup of second and third-stringers wouldn't be able to hold the fort against the Lakers, but the concern proved unfounded. Mills drained three straight difficult jumpers to give the Spurs some breathing room, Simmons had another highlight-worthy foray to the rim and Boban smashed everyone in purple and gold during his final five minutes. The Spurs won going away, with the only drama being whether the rim was going to be able to withstand Marjanovic's fury. The last thing anyone needed was a delay with the buses waiting to take them to the airport.
A quick note about the Lakers... I was expecting Kobe Bryant to chuck away like he had been all season in what could be his final ever game at San Antonio, but instead it was as though he was playing tribute to Pop and the Spurs by playing as responsibly and intelligently as he has all season. He forced up maybe two bad shots of the dozen he took, routinely passed to open teammates and competed hard against Leonard defensively. If this was how Bryant played every game, the Lakers would have a lot more than three wins and there'd be no reason for him to retire. He looked really good tonight.
"I love coming here," Bryant said afterward. "I know San Antonio about as well as I know Los Angeles. I know where to go, I know all of the spots. It's kind of home away from home."
On the other hand, it's easy to understand why Kobe wants to call it a career. I have no idea what Byron Scott is doing. Roy Hibbert and Russell tossed up a dozen horrific no-chance shots between them (Russell had a career-high 24 on 9-of-23 shooting), wince-inducing Larry Nance Jr. was starting in place of Julius Randle for some reason and they're playing guys like Nick Young, Marcelo Huertas and Ryan Kelly, none of whom should be in the league. It's not too different an operation than the Sixers, really. Heck, these guys lost to the Sixers.
As for the Spurs, they just keep on keeping on. Aldridge is starting to feel more and more comfortable with the team and they with him, Mills is heating up, Simmons and Marjanovic are starting to find their way all the while Green, one of the league's best shooters for years now, remains in a funk. No team, not even the Warriors will have everyone in the zone at once, but with San Antonio their advantage is you can't ever tell by looking at them who's feeling like a million bucks and who's feeling like the rim is as big as a half-dollar.
Your Three Stars:
1. LaMarcus Aldridge
2. Patty Mills
3. Jonathon Simmons
Up Next: @ Atlanta (14-10): The Hawks got thrashed pretty soundly (on a SEGABABA, to be fair) when they visited the Spurs on Nov. 28 and now San Antonio will try to avoid returning the favor with the schedule stacked against them. Leonard led everyone with 22 in the first meeting and he should continue to have an advantage against their undersized front-line. If the Hawks start the more offensive-minded Kent Bazemore, then Leonard can score at will against he or Kyle Korver. If they start Thabo Sefolosha, then Leonard gets to rest a bit on defense. Former Spur Tiago Splitter missed seven straight games with a hip injury, returned for 12 minutes against Dallas the other night, then rested for the SEGABABA at OKC, with the Thunder thumping the Hawks 107-94. Atlanta is getting good seasons from Paul Millsap and Al Horford, but they miss DeMarre Carroll and just don't look like they have the same mojo they had for most of last season. They can still beat anyone on the right night, but they can't even be considered fringe contenders anymore and the Spurs should be favored against them if everyone plays.