In the cold, unfeeling grasp of a four-game losing streak, one must avoid the solipsistic attitude of measuring oneself by oneself. With that in mind, a thing has come to my attention over the course of this year's Western Leg of the Rodeo Road Trip: Each of the teams to which they have fallen would eagerly accept the "problems" of the San Antonio Spurs. Let's start with Wednesday night's opponent, the Portland Trailblazers.
Hipsters in Portland are watching this and desperately trying to find this woman’s Etsy so they can buy this sweater pic.twitter.com/x0u0HMnM7Q— Dane Carbaugh (@danecarbaugh) February 26, 2015
In game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals, Portland held a 15 point lead over the Lakers in the 4th quarter. Had they held on, the Blazers would have advanced to their third NBA Finals since 1990. Their last two trips ended in defeat, most notably in 1992 when Michael Jordan did this to them.
By the way, that would be the same Jordan who the Blazers bypassed in the 1984 draft for Sam Bowie. More recently, Portland passed up Kevin Durant in the 2007 draft for Greg Oden. They've also seen the untimely demise of Brandon Roy's career, the JailBlazers era, Darius Miles, Rod Strickland, Ruben Patterson, and pre-title belt Rasheed Wallace play crucial minutes. What all this means is that the highlight of Portland's last two decades falls somewhere between that WCF loss to the Lakers, and Damian Lillard's series-ending shot against Houston. (That shot, as Mike Tirico helpfully reminds the audience, marked the only playoff series win in between.)
The only Finals trips for the Utah Jazz happened to coincide with Jordan's return from baseball in the mid-90s. In the 1997 Finals, Utah was on the cusp of taking a 3-2 series lead over a depleted Bulls team when "The Flu Game" happened. In 1998, Utah had a 3 point lead with under a minute left in game 6; then, in front of their home fans, Jordan hit a lightly-contested layup, stripped Jazz franchise icon Karl Malone, and drained a quasi-legal step back jumper over Bryon Russell to ice the series.
Since then, Utah's only deep playoff run was a WCF appearance in 2007, the peak of the Deron Williams-Carlos Boozer-Matt Harpring era. Their executioner in that series? The Spurs, who were bound for their fourth title in eight years.
About the only reason the Jazz even made their run in '07 was because the Golden State Warriors had upset 67-win Dallas in the first round. Prior to that, Golden State's glory days consisted of the Rick Barry/Al Attles team that won a title in 1975 (when few if any were paying attention to the NBA) and the "Run TMC" era (where their greatest accomplishment was upsetting the 55-win Spurs in the first round of the 1991 playoffs.)
Then there's the Clippers. They've never been to the Western Conference Finals, not even with Chris Paul at the helm. The Sacramento Kings have played in three different cities, and peaked with a 2002 fall-from-ahead WCF loss to the Lakers. The Phoenix Suns are one of the winningest franchises in NBA history and played in the greatest game ever, but they've hung no championship banners and are mostly a study in unfulfilled potential.
I bring all this up because of another West franchise, one not on this year's RRT itinerary. This week, the Minnesota Timberwolves brought back Kevin Garnett, on-court architect of the franchise's greatest run of success, which culminated in a 2004 WCF Finals appearance but otherwise consisted of a string of first-round losses. Garnett, traded in 2007 for Al Jefferson, was welcomed back like a conquering hero. His return catalyzed a comeback win over a talented Washington Wizards team that's become the Spurs' Eastern Conference doppelganger.
Watching Garnett interact on the court with the Wolves' present (Ricky Rubio) and future (Andrew Wiggins) must have put Minnesota fans in a strange emotional place. Their greatest player, the one who garnered his own fireworks display during his pregame introduction, won his only title away from Minnesota. Rubio's career has been marked by a string of injuries. And let's not forget that Wiggins is only on board because Kevin Love had grown (understandably) surly under the regime of GM David Khan.
Meanwhile, Spurs fans have watched their team's past, present, and future take the floor continually since 1997. Like KG, he wears #21; unlike KG, he's never left.
So, yeah, I've spent a lot of time deliberately avoiding the actual game. What's left to say at this point? Instead of coming out in competitive fashion, the Spurs fell behind by 19 in the first half. So that was new. The only thing Tony Parker is hitting less frequently than the hands of his passing targets is the bottom of the net on his shots. He even blew an uncontested backdoor layup. The fourth quarter opened with a 6-0 Spurs run to cut their deficit to four, which was answered by an 8-0 Blazers run. One step forward, two steps back. Only, in the Spurs case, the one step forward is a kind of drunken, stumbling lunge while the two steps back look more like the launch of a fighter jet off an aircraft carrier.
After erasing all of that 19 point hole in the first half, the team gave up an 11-4 run after halftime, which continued a trend of napping through the third frame. The worst part is that the players, outside of Tim Duncan, don't seem to exhibit much urgency about the situation. Every time something happens, whether it be the Detroit win or the Utah loss, you think "This will get them going." So far this season, nothing is doing the trick. The Spurs seem satisfied.
And in case you think it's the job of the coach to light a fire in this situation, the truth is that Popovich is satisfied too. He even admitted as much back in October:
"I’ve appreciated it more and more as time went on after it. And it’s going to be a great memory for all of us. No matter if we’re 0-82 this year. Still be a great memory."
You know what? Maybe the Spurs should be satisfied. They've packed more success into the 17 year career of Tim Duncan than their six Western opponents of this year's RRT have accomplished in their entire franchise histories. Each of these teams is still looking for the prize, still following the carrot dangling from the stick. The Spurs have eaten the carrot, found it to be delicious, and settled down for a nap. Ever napped for too long and wound up stumbling through the rest of your day, more tired than if you hadn't napped at all?
Among all the stats and banners and accomplishments, there's one I find more fulfilling than any other: The Spurs have defeated every Western Conference team in the playoffs (except one.) While this certainly validates and quantifies the team's all-encompassing and transcendent postseason dominance, there's a dark side to having so much success. Just as last year's Spurs were motivated to avenge their Finals loss to Miami, every team that faces the Spurs is motivated to avenge at least one playoff loss to them (again, with one exception.) In particular, the Clippers, Warriors, Blazers, and Jazz have all lost to the Spurs in the past three postseasons. Think about how fired up GS was just to win that one regular season game, then imagine them in a playoff series this May.
So while the Spurs aren't the Lakers or the Celtics, they have accomplished more than any five random NBA teams combined. Not only does that lead to players playing like they're satisfied, it IS satisfying. And it's something to think about as this season seemingly spirals toward the event horizon of the black hole that is the end of the era. Three years ago, Spurs fans wanted just one more trip to the Finals; now, anything other than a sixth title would mark 2015 as a disappointment. Even a Spurs playoff loss would nearly be the equivalent of an 0-82 season no matter how many games they actually win.
Teams always take on the identities of their stars, and the Jordans and the Kobes were motivated by a fear of losing. Conversely, Duncan and the Spurs have have always found their primary motivation from the memory of losses. 0.4, the Lakers, the Mavs, the Heat. So if the defending champs do ultimately fall short this year, just remember that they're the only team this year who couldn't use "Beat The Champs" as motivation.
Like the Spurs themselves, that too has already been satisfied.
Tweets of the Night
Mills hits a 3 to cut it to 4 and I look down cause I thought I saw a spider on the floor but it wasn't then look back up and were down 12— Pounding the Rock (@poundingtherock) February 26, 2015
Duncan will end up like Hulk in that series where he's the last person on earth. Only the roaches will be left to defend his double doubles.— Caleb Saenz (@calebjsaenz) February 26, 2015
Danny Green hitting transition 3's is my Inception totem to know this is real life— Yu (@YucciMane) February 26, 2015
This is like that horrible family vacation where the car breaks down, the kids won't shut up and Aunt Edna dies.— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) February 26, 2015
I don't want to give him the pleasure of a retweet, but a Spurs "fan" actually proclaimed during the first half that he would prefer to have Mario Chalmers than Tony Parker. Yeah, Tony's looked pretty bad, especially the past few games, but come on.