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Spurs comeback falls short in season finale against Pelicans

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The Spurs dominated the final third of the season, but were reminded what it feels like to try to defend a high-functioning, desperate, and determined team.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

It's funny what hope and a little bit of success can do to your emotions.

If you go back about eight weeks to Feb. 23rd, you'd find a group of despondent Spurs fans. The Spurs were mired in the 7th seed and nursing a four-game Rodeo Road Trip losing streak. Sneaking into the playoffs seemed like a realistic goal, but not a guaranteed outcome by any means. Hope for Spurs-threshold success wasn't even a dream.

A few powderpuff opponents later and the Spurs were taking on the Chicago Bulls, again on National TV, after being de-pantsed by a momentarily healthy Derrick Rose a few weeks earlier. Fans were now closer to the "Don't embarrass yourselves again guys. And another win would go a long way in restoring some of our confidence that this thing is completely over." Hope was on the horizon, but it still wasn't verbalized.

Soon after was the overtime loss to the Cavaliers and a nuclear Kyrie Irving (he has averaged a more human 20.3 ppg in 13 games since going for 57). This put us more at "maybe we are a good team, and are within a few bounces of the ball from beating the best teams on any given night." Hope was bubbling just beneath the surface.

A reservoir of pride and belief,  the second greatest natural resource in Texas, was ready to be tapped and refined. The swell of hope was only momentarily "knicked" (ahem) by New York before being utterly palpable after toppling the mighty "Spurs East" and Coach Bud in Atlanta.

The ensuing 11-game win streak, including a dismantling of the presumptive favorite Warriors, saw Spurs fans claiming that they "never doubted for even a second. This team will probably win out and probably sweep the first two rounds, if not the entire playoffs." Hope wasn't even the feeling; there was no need for it with the newfound abundance of confidence or even...hubris.

After beating Phoenix and with two days' rest for the first time in a month, the second seed and Home Court Advantage were all but guaranteed for the Spurs. Maybe it was overconfidence, entitlement, or a late night quantifying how to convert viral videos into assets on their 8954s, but the Spurs did not come out to play. Beyond Tony Parker scoring or assisting nearly all of their first quarter points, the Spurs looked helpless while allowing a 14-1 run in the final three minutes of the opening quarter.

The Spurs got in a hole that they would spend the entire game trying to dig out of. While they enjoyed double-digit leads in nearly every game over the last quarter of the season, coming back from double-digit deficits requires a bit more work. It is especially difficult when only attempting 11 three-pointers in a game where they trailed throughout. Admittedly, the Pelicans rank second in the NBA in opponent 3PT% and allow the fourth fewest attempts, but outside of Patty Mills and Manu Ginobili, the Spurs only attempted one. That includes zero from Marco Belinelli and Danny Green.

The game appeared to be about over as both teams looked lifeless for the final few minutes of the 3rd quarter before the Spurs snapped off a 90 second, 8-0 run. They extended this at the start of the final quarter to a 19-6 run that chopped the lead down to five points. Popovich then employed the "hack-a-free throw hack" method that in this case I've taken to calling "Twerk-A-Turk" on Omer Asik.

The Spurs made it a fight, but could never fully dig out of the 23-point first half hole the Pelicans put them in.

***

Coming into the game there were so many articles detailing how the Spurs ultimately finished 21-3--one of the strongest kicks in the history of this 82 game marathon--since that turning point in February. But even with the two-seed dangling before their eyes and being on the championship shortlist of any talking head worth their salt, the Spurs will enter the 2015 NBA playoffs exactly one seed better than when they were at mid-Rode Road Trip.

A loss to the Pelicans ultimately puts a drastically different perspective on the upcoming playoffs, though it really shouldn't. Even in a ridiculously talented Western Conference, the Spurs at their best have no peer other than Golden State. This loss was something of a reset button for the emotions and aspirations of the team and the fans. Hope is an inspiration, it keeps you hungry. That was evident in the desire of the opponent the Spurs faced.

No longer on a pedestal and with no assumption of greatness, the Spurs may very well come out of a loss the better. It will be a far more difficult road, but it will make the hypothetical finish line that much more satisfying...we hope.

Game Notes:

  • Boris Diaw has been nearly as much of a revelation down the home stretch as Kawhi Leonard, Superstar. The Spurs dominance has coincided with his improved play. There were times on Wednesday that he looked like the best player on the floor without a unibrow.

  • The juxtaposition of the "Boris and Norris Show" in the second quarter was wonderful. Young, undersized, overconfident Norris Cole scored all 13 of his points during a ten minute stretch in the 2nd quarter. Not Young, not undersized, Frenchly-confident Boris effectively cancelled him out with a line of 12/2/2 on 6-for-7 during the same period.
  • Danny Green got two quick fouls and was taken out five minutes into the game. He played five minutes in the second quarter and a completely forgettable eight in the third quarter. He managed zero shot attempts, two assists, and one rebound. He was so passive and invisible that a definite "off-night" Ginobili, and Belinelli's defense were the preferable choices.
  • Tony Parker cooled off drastically as the game progressed. In the first half he had 16 points (8-for-10) with four assists. In the second half, he scored 7 points (3-for-7) with two assists and two turnovers.
  • The backup Point Guard position still does not seem to have magically sorted itself out after 82 games. Cory Joseph has done a lot of things right, but Patty Mills has been the catalyst in the Spurs last two close games. Mills was very solid tonight, scoring at crucial times and accounting for two of the Spurs paltry three makes from deep.
  • The Pelicans will be an interesting playoff team. Anthony Davis and Steph Curry headline the "League Pass Alert" All-Stars (though another such star, Russell Westbrook, will be watching on television like the rest of us), and I hope it goes at least six games for pure aesthetic reasons.
  • I kept looking at the box score to try to make sense of this game. The Spurs shot 57%, with the stated caveat of very few attempts from deep. But I think the biggest factor was the team steals/blocks. The Pelicans had 18 combined (11 steals), while the Spurs had 5 (3 steals). As we've seen with Kawhi's DPOY-worthy post-All-Star break performance, steals are so much more valuable than simply being a turnover. They are one of the most valuable plays on the court.