At it's best, sports-as-entertainment mirrors life. I occasionally suspect that this dynamic is simultaneously what made the Spurs so unpopular for so long, then unexpectedly prompted the out-of-nowhere nationwide appreciation-fest of the last two years. It's the redemption story, the ugly-duckling turned swan, or the outcast-turned-MVP stories that make the industry of sports churn. Competition is meaningless if the strongest always wins, or if the prohibitive favorite finishes with a perfect record. No dramatic sports story nowadays is complete without a narrative counterpoint about the struggles an athlete or team had to overcome to reach the pinnacle.
That "perfect narrative" dynamic plays well into the relative malaise the Spurs are slogging through now. The championship high has long since worn off, and every retelling of the 2014 Finals starts to seem more and more like listening to Al Bundy once again repeating the story of his four touchdowns against Andrew Johnson High. We crave a new story, a new struggle, and a new obstacle to be overcome.
And that brings us to the 12th annual Rodeo-Road-Trip. Back in 2003, the struggling champs-to-be dropped the first game of the the trip before running off nine straight wins. That team would lose only six more regular season games, and that tally includes 2 sit-all-the-starters-the-brackets-are-set losses to end the season.
Every season since the AT&T Center opened, the Spurs fan collective has awaited this stretch, praying for the semi-mythical "melding" of the disparate components of this team. The fact that we've seen what this team can do when clicking makes the prospect of seeing the blending happen in real-time all the more tantalizing.
Like all superstitions, the belief in the power of the "Rodeo Road Trip" is rooted more in the exception than in the rule. That one time the Spurs did make a season changing run during the RRT stretch outweighs the 11 years since in which nothing particularly spectacular happened. This is sports; we as fans have absolutely no power over what happens, so we cling to every scrap of significance we can. So we tell ourselves that it's actually a good omen that they dropped the first game of the trip, just like they did in 2003.
I know that's what I'm telling myself.
Tonight, the Spurs visited Indiana, which for many Spurs fans (notably myself) means getting reacquainted with how George Hill is doing. For all the love we show Kawhi, it's worth noting that we didn't exactly give up a scrub to get him. I, for one, still love Georgie.
George Hill was coming off a lackluster game against Charlotte in which he recovered to hit the game winner with 4.9 left. Hill has spent much of this year injured (see, he's still very Spurs-ian!), but has played well when active, averaging 14 points to make up for a rather underwhelming three assists per game.
It often seems that some ex-Spurs try to make a point of playing well when matching up against the Silver-and-Black (I'm looking at you, Beno), but rather than attempting to poke a stick in Popovich's eye, it feels like Hill plays to make Pop proud of how he's done on his own. Tonight, he started out shooting 3-3 in the first quarter, including a nice step back three after getting a switch onto Duncan. However, Hill ended up get eclipsed by Parker early; TP started the game in attack mode, scoring 11 points on 5-6 shooting in the first.
Despite the relatively hot start, Hill didn't make a shot after the first quarter, as he spent a fair amount of time being shadowed by Kawhi Leonard. One might suppose that's Popovich's way of showing respect to a former pupil.
After a high scoring first quarter featuring 58 points between the two teams, both squads cooled off, matching each other with 17 points in the second period. The trend continued after halftime, with both teams only managing single-digits midway through the third.
Once the midpoint of the third quarter ticked by on the clock, the story of the game changed. Four consecutive bad Spurs possessions combined with four consecutive field goals from Indiana led to a Popovich technical foul, and the Pacers started pulling away. Just a few possessions later, what had been an evenly matched back-and-forth basket-trading game had morphed into a 14 point deficit. The Pacers outscored the Spurs 34-18 in the third, despite being essentially tied midway through the frame.
Cory Joseph and Marco Bellinelli led a comeback attempt to start the forth quarter, cutting it to eight with under nine minutes left. Popovich reinserted most of the starters with six minutes to go, but the Spurs struggled to cut significantly into the lead until they got two straight defensive plays by their two premier defenders, Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard. Danny Green swiped a David West dribble off a bad rotation, taking it coast-to-coast for a contested lay-in, and Kawhi followed that play by snagging a long rebound which he turned into a transition And-1 to cut the lead to four points. Parker handled the next two possessions, first finding Timmy under the basket, then hitting two free throws to tie the game at 91.
The end-game turned into a defensive slugfest, with both teams making strong inside plays to block otherwise open chip-shots. Duncan denied Hibbert inside, triggering a transition opportunity, only to have Tony Parker turned back at the rim mere seconds later. Both teams missed multiple open jumpers, including three missed open triples by Danny Green, any one of which could have tipped the balance of the game.
With the game tied at 93 and just over 20 seconds left, Popovich tapped Kawhi Leonard to assume Manu's spot as the end-of-game playmaker. KL took the inbounds to face up on David West near the half-court circle, then patiently jabbed at West before driving right to draw in the defense. Once inside, Leonard made the corner pass to a cutting Marco Bellinelli. Bellinelli pump faked a defender into the air, then stepped in a few feet to hit the game winner with 2.1 seconds.
The Pacers went to Hill to try to recreate his end-game heroics, but his three-point heave bounced off the rim to end regulation.
The individual performances were as up-and-down as the team's. Parker started off the game hot, shooting 5-6, but iced up after the first and ended up 7-17. Kawhi shot poorly too, notching only 4-12. His decision-making, on the other hand, has been improving noticeably from the beginning of the season and it's no small indicator that Popovich trusted him with the last possession. Duncan continued his age-defying play, scoring 15 and grabbing eight ebounds. Danny Green shot a miserable 1-8 from distance, but managed to grab 12 rebounds to lead the team.
This game ends up on the right side of the win/loss column, but it was a struggle against a lower-tier Eastern team, and the Spurs got beaten on the boards and failed to break 25% shooting from distance.
Congrats Pop, that's 1000 wins, and it came in perfect unglamorous Popovichian style. I'm sure he wouldn't want it any other way.