It's just past midway of the Rodeo Road Trip. It's time. The mythical "switch" is supposed to flip. The long percolating "chemistry" is supposed to emerge, Heisenberg-like, from a melange of disparate elements. The cloudy is supposed to become clear, the fog is supposed to lift, and the missing piece, so previously elusive, is supposed to materialize before us, as if from the luminiferous ether itself.
The problem is that such a scenario is *never* how Popovich teams have performed. They don't just turn the corner come March. They don't coast through the regular season then wake from hibernation just before the playoffs. Slow starts are nothing new; Spurs fans are used to bad Novembers and lackluster Decembers. We've seen our share of forgettable Januarys and have let the door hit February on it's way out more than once.
We know it's not too late; but that doesn't mean it isn't getting late. The nervous rumblings amongst the Spurs fandom have begun. Is it actually possible that this team, so seemingly invincible mere months ago, might not make the playoffs? In a year where Duncan is putting up effort and numbers almost inconceivable at 38, and where Manu displays more energy and consistency than he had two years ago? In seventh place in the loaded West, the Spurs, same as every second-tier team, are one disaster, one injury, or one bad streak from falling out of contention not just for the crown, but to play past the end of April at all.
That Western Conference glut is what makes games like tonight's so critical; losses to contenders such as the Warriors or Clippers can be deemed acceptable losses. Losses to teams like Utah that couldn't contend in the East are what kill playoff hopes. It's imperative to quickly close the door on teams whose players are already making summer plans for mid-May.
But that's not what we're seeing. The first quarter against the Jazz was a mess; the Spurs were out-hustled, outrun, out-positioned, and out-executed by the fledgling Jazz for the bulk of the period. They were fortunate to find themselves down by a mere 6 points after the younger Jazz all but ran circles around them.
The second quarter was a virtual repeat of the first, as the Spurs made sloppy entrance passes, dribbled the ball of their feet, threw up weak jump hooks against Gobert, and all in all played more like a pro-basketball version of the Bad News Bears than a defending champion. Also, at some point, someone *needs* to point out to Kawhi that he actually has to go for the hoop occasionally on those baseline drives.
Despite holding the Jazz under 40% for the half, the Spurs were out-rebounded 25-19, and had 12 turnovers, many unforced, compared to the Jazz's 6 TOs. One might think that a sloppy first half might inspire some effort coming out of the locker room, but the team's third quarter struggles this year have been well-documented. This game was no different, as it took all of 80 seconds for the Spurs to double their deficit and earn a fresh tongue lashing during an impromptu Popovich timeout. The lead hit 14 with 7 minutes left in the quarter, and the Spurs repeatedly chipped away a few points just to give away those same points a play or two later.
The frustration on the court was evident; with 4 minutes left, the Spurs strung together a few possessions featuring crisp passing around the perimeter, a scrambling, off-balance Jazz defense, and eventually wide open Spurs 3 pointers... which missed. At just under two minutes left in the third, the lead sat at 16, but a late push cut the margin just under 10, courtesy of a late 9-2 run.
The 4th quarter opened up with the Jazz expecting a push from the veteran silver and black team; but keeping in with the theme of the season so far, the Spurs started the 4th with 5 straight misses, including 3 missed wide-open 3s. The Jazz took advantage to push the lead back to 13, and despite the occasional push, the lead hovered around 11-13 points as every Spurs push was tempered either by a Jazz basket or a ridiculously unnecessary Spurs turnover. Leonard was victimized twice by bad passes, one on a potential breakaway from Diaw, and one from Marco as he was cutting toward an undefended basket.
With 4 minutes left, a breakaway Haywood layup brought the lead to 15 points, and Popovich called a timeout to put in his combination white-flag-desperation-scoring team, and the game was all but over. But, just to add insult to injury, Jeff Ayres managed to miss a nearly undefended garbage time dunk. It's disheartening to think that the best case scenario here is that the Spurs are in a full-on 2002 Kobe-Shaq-style regular season funk, and it doesn't help that the Jazz commentators happened to opine that, among the Spurs, only Boris Diaw was showing "effort" tonight.
So... is it over? Should we just hold Duncan's retirement party now, hand Manu his gold watch, and tell Parker that we appreciate his service but his knees aren't needed anymore? Tonight, on perhaps the most futile offensive night of the year, where the Spurs shot 7-16 from the *free throw* line, missed more open 3s than I cared to count, saw 22 turnovers, and tied the season low for points (but only courtesy of meaningless end-of-game freethrows), it's easy to wander into that long, dark, tea-time of the soul.
One recurring theme this year has been how nobody is willing to discount the Spurs; no matter *how* badly they seem to be playing, not matter how *off* they look, no commentator is willing to completely write them off. The retinal burn of last year's push is still too fresh in the memory of all those who follow the game; yet these Spurs seem determined to push the limits of sports commentary cognitive dissonance.
So... will they do it? Will a Popovich team finally "flip the switch"? Will the regular season malaise dissipate forgotten in a cloud of lethe under a hail of progression-to-the-mean 3 point shooting? Will all those passes, so consistently a few feet or inches off the mark, suddenly start hitting cutters in stride, or 3 point shooters in their motion? Will Duncan's 30 minutes-a-night regimen translate into one final Sisyphean push to playoff glory? Will Kawhi suddenly start Kawhi-ing again?
Stay tuned... because if it's going to happen, it's going to have to happen soon.