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Spurs trying to figure it out in Year One A.D. — After Duncan

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On a night when not much went right, the Spurs scraped together enough composure to beat the Heat.

In the midst of figuring things out without Tim Duncan. Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Boy, am I glad I sent my 5-year old to bed before the second half of this game started. It was a burn-the-tape affair Monday night in San Antonio, where a healthy Spurs squad “won” a race to the bottom, 94-90, against a less-than-healthy Heat squad playing without Chris Bosh, bench totem Udonis Haslem, and starting point guard and old Spurs killer Goran Dragic. Josh Richardson started in Dragic’s place alongside more recently-minted Spurs Killer, Dion “There’s an Elbow in my Soup” Waiters.

On a night in the NBA when losing teams put up scores of 69 and 77, the shorthanded Heat’s 90 almost qualified as a victory. Throw in separate in-game collisions that knocked out the Spurs’ Dewayne Dedmon (sprained knee) and Danny Green (knee to the Brussels sprouts) and gave Pau Gasol a hyperextended neck, and the postmortem might actually show advantage Miami from a healthy personnel standpoint. In terms of the game being a healthy watch, I’m sorry to report that we have all been stricken with bubonic plague.

Viewed in a vacuum, this was the type of game only a very committed masochist or fan of 90s Heat could love (just sub in Alonzo Mourning for Hassan Whiteside and have Dedmon drag Erik Spoelstra around on his bum leg). Within the context of the first three weeks of the season, the Spurs’ eighth victory encapsulates the inconsistency of effort and quality of play which has made each game something of an adventure thus far. Follow pro sports for any length of time, and you’ll find such inconsistency tends breeds an atmosphere of overreaction among us hoi polloi. After the Warriors win it felt as if the Spurs would treat the entire season like a 3-1 series deficit, bulldozing their way into a post-Tim future. Then they lost three straight games and the South Texas sky began to accelerate rapido toward the tops of everyone’s heads.

1 A.D. (After Duncan) was always going to be hard. 1 A.D. is about a continual process of discovery. In 1 A.D., Kawhi Leonard (24 pts on 19 shots with 12 rebounds) has to figure out how to play elite D with one hand and sustain a Kobe-like usage rate on the other. In 1 A.D., LaMarcus Aldridge (18 pts, all in the first half) has to get to the line when his jumper stops falling and teams are sending double teams. And Pau Gasol (12 points on 15 shots) has to figure out how to keep Pop’s finger off the Dedmon emergency switch or, I don’t know, just stay upright on the majority of plays. 30-something bigs aside, the Spurs are loaded with young athletes eager to carry the mantle. But in 1 A.D., it will take time figure out where this team’s spiritual center rests.

Tim was a city on a hill, a landmark in turbulent times. Big men kind of have a biological advantage in that respect, but Tim earned it with his play and his way with the team. Now the team looks to Leonard, who is a bit more task-oriented, like the tractor that pulls the team up the hill rather than the hill itself. From a basketball standpoint, he already has enough tools to compensate when teams wall him off at the rim and his jumper isn’t falling, and he has the composure to keep the team from running off the rails against compromised squads like the Heat. On most nights, the basketball skills will be enough to propel the Spurs to a win. But what the Spurs will have to figure out between now and April is how to maximize themselves beyond the sum of their parts. It’s what the Duncan Spurs, and all the great teams, were always about. Maybe the Warriors can cheat the system by just buying all the best parts, but these Spurs won’t be able to.

Victories like the one against Miami are one step toward self-actualization. There were so many possessions last night when the Spurs looked tentative, like they were staring into an invisible brick wall trying to figure things out. Tony Parker threw a pass off of David Lee’s shoulder, and a pass intended for Manu Ginobili in the corner instead sailed into the not-cheap seats. Tony and Kawhi had an extended discussion after a play went awry under the basket.

During the broadcast I kept watching Pop and noticing how calm he seemed through it all. Reading this magnificent article by Jonathan Abrams reminded me of how much Pop has evolved from screaming sideline hawk to serene grandpa (relatively speaking, of course). Maybe Duncan’s retirement has freed him from the burden of expectations, or maybe, it being 1 A.D. and all, Pop has already taken the temperature of this group and knows that without the good cop around, the bad cop has to mellow a bit. That’s not to say you’ll never see him barking at his own team this season. But on a night like this, everybody had already suffered enough.

Besides, even teammates who are new to each other can see the obvious problems without much help, as Tony and Pau demonstrate:

An ugly win counts the same. Right now the Spurs look like Edison trying to figure out all the ways not to invent a lightbulb. While Duncan was around, they remade themselves often - at least three times by my count - and more often than not the bulb stayed mostly dim until springtime. How long you give this team to produce a warm glow might depend a lot on your love of trial-and-error and a little on your pain tolerance.

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