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Don’t call the Spurs athletic

In defeating Giannis and the Bucks, the Spurs proved something about themselves beyond their ability to leap high.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Thank God for League Pass. Even as a Spurs fan living outside the San Antonio television market, these are words I never thought I’d hear myself type. For $199 a season, my typical LP experience is an unholy mixture of buffering, blackouts, hacked accounts and two hour hold times on calls to whatever overworked and underfunded office the NBA tasks with “customer service”. (I imagine a department consisting of a single septuagenarian in a Dave DeBusschere Knicks jersey yelling into a rotary phone while Simon and Garfunkel play ‘The Sounds of Silence’ in the background on a scratchy LP.) I typically regard League Pass with the same resigned disdain that with which regard the toll booths on the George Bush Turnpike. They’re annoying, but necessary to get me where I’m going.

But for Monday night’s game in Milwaukee, boy, it’s like David Stern himself graced my Roku with his godlike authority. Never once during the Spurs’ 97-96 victory did the HD go AWOL. Never once did I see the Blue Loading Bar of Death. It was perfect picture, perfect sound, for 48 minutes. Somebody on 645 Fifth Avenue wanted me to see this game.

For two and a half quarters, I failed to appreciate the gesture. If Friday’s game against Washington was a classic trap game, this one almost felt like a scheduled loss. The Spurs’ now 12-0 road record somewhat diminishes the fact that they’ve, well, played 12 of their 20 games on the road, including trips to the East coast and West coast. The identity of their starting five has been only slightly less inconsistent than their finishing five (for last night’s game, it was Kawhi Leonard - LaMarcus Aldridge - Jonathon Simmons - Danny Green - Manu Ginobili). What’s more, the game was in Milwaukee in December, which is a place they haven’t always had the greatest success despite the Bucks’ recent history of mediocrity.

As something of a preview to the Spurs’ encounter with the Bucks and Giannis “The Greek Freak” Antetokuonmpo, the Express-News did a feature on the number of dunks and alley oops the Spurs have had this season. The numbers were eye opening, even accounting for the offseason infusion of youth and athleticism from Dewayne Dedmon and Davis Bertans and the return of Simmons. The theme continued tonight, as evidenced by this 1:05 video of the Spurs’ various jams.

But the game had so much more than aerial antics. The first half was a defensive struggle in which the Spurs set a season low for points in a half with 35. Leonard had 5 points at halftime on 2-9 shooting (spoiler: he would finish with 21), and SA’s most reliable three point shooters were Aldridge and Pau Gasol. Those two were also the only thing keeping Giannis from setting up a lemonade stand in front of the rim. The Freak (or, as I like to think of him, the 7-foot Russell Westbrook-in-training) had 16 points at the half and the Bucks had a double-digit lead. Here’s where the streak comes to an end, I admitted to myself and my two dogs.

Then Tony Parker injured his knee three minutes into the second half. It didn’t look too bad, but it forced Nico Laprovittola into the game with the Spurs trailing 53-42. As Spurs fans know better than just about anyone in North America, introducing a trigger-happy Argentine into a slugfest is a recipe for intrigue. Suddenly, the ball was beginning to move (Nico had 5 assists in the quarter) and the threes were beginning to fall. The Spurs would go on to outscore their first half selves in the third quarter, 36-35.

But all the brilliant basketballing couldn’t overshadow what happened in the dying minutes of the third frame. Dedmon had entered the game for defense and Bertans for offense. The Bucks also made substitutions, including Greg Monroe for Giannis and Michael Beasley for Matthew Dellavedova. Those four - Dedmon, Monroe, Bertans and Beasley - would have a meeting under the Bucks’ basket with 1:19 on the clock.

Since I’m planning on being a buzzkill a couple of paragraphs from now, I want to go on record as saying that this Spurs team, the first in nearly two decades without Tim Duncan as its on-court leader, already appears to have remarkable chemistry and toughness. When Monroe and Dedmon started swinging elbows and barking at each other over a rebound, Bertans and Laprovittola were the ones who first came to Dedmon’s defense. Now, Dedmon is from Lancaster, California and attended USC. Not only has he never been teammates with Bertans and Laprovittola, they’ve never even played basketball on teams in the same country before this season. Yet there was Bertans rushing in and shoving Monroe away from his teammate. Lilliputian Laprovittola attempted to intercede as well, and in the process brought his face perilously close to Monroe’s giant Elbows. After a review, it was determined that Bertans and Beasley had done enough to warrant dismissal from the game. Dedmon, Nico, Monroe and Monroe’s Elbows were allowed to stay.

The altercation seemed to galvanize both teams. The score was 70-66 at the time and thereafter the margin never swung more than five points either way. Outside, it was Monday night in December in Milwaukee. Usually that’s shorthand for the type of game where everybody gives 60-70% effort at best. This game, like the game against Washington and the game in Dallas before it, had a true playoff atmosphere in the fourth quarter. As long as King James rules the East, I don’t know if the Spurs will ever see the Bucks in the Finals, but if they do, I submit that they should begin with a 1-0 series lead after this game.

So here comes the buzzkill, and it has to do with athleticism. While it’s true these Spurs have a bit less regard for gravity than have past iterations, I’m skeptical that they possess the type of athleticism that will be useful in the playoffs. Of the Spurs’ three human pogo sticks highlighted here, Simmons, Dedmon and Bertans, only Simmons has any playoff minutes, though even he has none outside of the Spurs’ first round series sweep of Memphis last year. And though they are both effective for switching on screens, Bertans and Dedmon lack the bulk to physically punish anyone down low. Simmons also lacks bulk (so much so that there was a Kyle Anderson sighting in the first half after Beasley made a couple of shots) and his non-threatening three point shooting cramps spacing.

Youth movement aside, the Spurs’ two primary bigs on the low block are still Aldridge and Gasol, who are a combined 66 years old but also have a combined 159 games of postseason experience. Pop will experiment with lineups and crunchtime scenarios as he always does, but barring injury, it’ll still be the old guys logging the heavy minutes come spring. And in case I made that sound like some sort of death sentence, remember it was Aldridge who provided the key defensive stand against the Eastern Conference Player of the Week just prior to drawing Giannis’ game-winning goal tend.

Looked at in a vacuum, this is a new and somewhat revolutionary Spurs team. It shoots fewer three pointers, it takes more midrange shots, it dunks! But this is also a team with a minuscule defensive net rating compared to last season. It’s a team which has overcome sustained offensive droughts and scratched out several close victories which could have easily gone the other way. It’s a team that still struggles often to rebound and contain athletic bigs. It’s also team that’s on pace for 66 wins and has the second longest road winning streak to begin a season. And, like all Spurs teams, it’s barely being spoken of in a league filled with nightly-triple doubles and 80 point first half explosions. This is the NBA, and most everybody is an athletic freak compared to you and me. But the teams that survive usually aren’t the most dazzlingly athletic; they’re the teams who do the things you don’t always notice. They’re the teams who have veterans cheering from the bench like it’s a playoff game and not game number twenty.

If the Spurs are going to win another title, it won’t be with athleticism. They’ll win it the same way they beat Milwaukee on a cold December night: with stubbornness and moxie and a willingness to put their noses in the way of giant elbows. They’ll win it on the ground, not in the air. They’ll win it in the huddle, not through flashbulb-worthy dunks and chasedowns. If last night was any indication, they already seem to have the hard part - chemistry and teamwork - figured out.

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