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Spurs still searching for a comfort zone

With their 17th consecutive win over the Wizards, Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs temporarily eased worries about their home performances.

San Antonio Spurs v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

When a team is .500 at home there probably isn’t such a thing as a “trap game”, but game #9 at the AT&T Center against the 6-11 Washington Wizards still came with most of the leading indicators. For starters, there’s the fact that the Wiz had never won in the AT&T Center. Last time the D.C. b-ballers won in S.A., Mitch Richmond led the team in scoring and the Spurs had but one banner hanging from the rafters of the Alamodome. Since then, it’s been a steady parade of blowouts against a revolving cast of cartoonish magicians ranging from Michael Jordan 3.0 to Larry Hughes to DeShawn Stevenson to Gilbert Arenas. The Wizards’ closest margin of defeat over that time was 6 points and their average margin of defeat was 16.

Even when one team has beaten the other enough times that the winning streak could legally buy cigarettes, there comes a point where the other team is going to break through. The Wizards might not actually have magic on their side, but they do have a borderline superstar named John Wall, a human wall named Marcin Gortat, and Bradley Beal, who’s been on quite the hot streak of late with several 30+ point games over the last two weeks.

So there’s a couple of trap game components already in place: an opponent who has had zero recent success in your building, but is also sneaky talented. What else? Well, how about the Spurs’ comeback win Wednesday night against the zombie Mavericks. S.A. had no business being down 13 at any point in that game and had to expend a great deal of physical and emotional capital to climb back and put the game away. I’m not about to suggest anybody involved in that game felt good about the result, but any comeback win has to produce a little bit of euphoria - and some opportunity for a letdown later on. Lastly, Tony Parker (who also missed the Dallas game) would not be available against the Wizards owing to a quad issue. If you said “Big deal, Tony is old anyway” then you haven’t been paying attention to the way the Spurs’ offense runs this year with and without the Wee Frenchman.

So in summary, there’s the overripe winning streak, post-comeback hangover, no Tony, and what might be the biggest issue of all: the Spurs feel less at home in the AT&T Center this season than a bat does on Halloween.

There are as many theories about this problem as there are solutions. Friday night, the team tried wearing road jerseys while the fans tried staying away until well into the second quarter.

My personal theory on why Kawhi and Co. feel so much more confident outside of the 210 area code is pretty straightforward: there are Spurs fans everywhere now. I knew them in Kansas City and I’ve met several since moving to the Metroplex (not to mention the friends of mine who grew up in SA and exported their fandom to North Texas and elsewhere). Every road game, from Charlotte to Sacramento, we’re treated to a montage of folks wearing Spurs gear deep in enemy territory. What’s more, we’ve heard these people from the stands in each of the Spurs’ 11 road wins. In the fourth quarter Wednesday night, they were drowning out Mavs fans despite it being a close game.

Back home in the AT&T Center, where Taco Cabana and plush Coyotes are readily available, folks sound a bit more relaxed. There are cheers when things go well, like when Patty hits a 3 or when David Lee plays like he’s been a Spur all his blessed life. But there’s also tension and disquiet when, say, the second-best team in the West is down big to the Orlando Magic. That tension feeds on itself until you start having the debate - as Sean Elliott alluded to during the broadcast - about whether its fans’ responsibility to encourage the players or the players’ responsibility to give them something to cheer about.

Which brings us back to the Wizards game. Friday night’s 107-105 victory will go down as easily the closest game between these two teams in San Antonio since before y2k. But despite the exciting finish, the Spurs once again spent much of their time playing uninspired basketball save for a pair of Manu Ginobili buzzer beaters in the first half. Nico Laprovittola started in place of Tony and couldn’t get the offense moving, Kawhi hit his first two shots but thereafter looked tentative, LaMarcus continued to play like the world’s smallest near-7 footer, Davis Bertans played as many minutes as Matt Bonner, and Pau Gasol threatened to single-handedly fill the San Antonio River with his missed free throws. On the other side, three Washington players put up double-doubles, including Wall with 15 points and 14 assists, Gortat with 21 pts and 18(!) rebounds, and Otto Porter with 13 points and 12 rebounds. The Wiz took a double-digit lead halfway through the first quarter and it was herewegoagain...

I have another theory, which is that the 2014 “Beautiful Game” Spurs are somewhat of a haunting influence on the present-day Spurs. The 2014 team won a title by preaching the mantra of “good to better”, passing in a perfect synchronicity of art and science. It’s often seemed like today’s Spurs are attempting to emulate that approach with sub-optimal talent. That leads to sequences like we saw during the Wizards game where Kawhi or Jonathon Simmons would pass up an open shot or a driving lane to kick the ball out, fruitlessly passing up “better” for “not that great”. This Spurs team, while possessing capable passers, are much better suited to the pre-2014 Spurs style. Gasol and Aldridge can sling the rock, but neither has the vision and pinpoint accuracy Tim Duncan had. Lee is a hustle guy who is uncanny with his positioning and actually manages flash some finesse, but he’s a Folger’s coffee pot compared to Boris Diaw’s exotic espresso maker. Tony is old and banged up. Danny Green is still Danny Green.

So it was appropriate that Friday’s win came down to what now defines the Spurs: Kawhi Leonard coming off a simple down screen, catching a simple pass from Manu, and draining a fall-away 20 footer. It was the last of Kawhi’s 10 points in the fourth quarter, and the euphoria it brought to the home crowd was matched only by its stark, almost aggressive, un-Spursiness.

With that shot, and the defensive stand which followed, the Spurs climbed above .500 at home and perhaps momentarily put the theories to rest. They avoided the trap. Perhaps more importantly, they established a little bit more of their identity post-2014 and post-Duncan. And they brought 20,000 anxious San Antonians back to life.

You feel comfortable at home when you’re surrounded by people who want to support you. Feeling comfortable in your own skin takes something more. For these Spurs, that something more comes from winning their way, and a 17th straight home victory over the Washington Wizards was an excellent place to find a comfort zone.

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