As long as Tim Duncan can't go, as long as the Spurs' transition defense continues to be more like a sieve than a wall, as long as opponent's three point shooters are left open -- expect San Antonio to keep losing to the rest of the league's best teams. But that's not necessarily a bad thing, and I'll tell you why.
We know what we have in this team. The record-setting first half of the season has shown us what this year's Spurs are capable of when they're healthy and running on all cylinders -- which they have been since the beginning of December, Danny Green's struggles aside. With Duncan, they have the league's best defense and one of the top three offenses. They can win slow or fast, grind-it-out games or track meets, score in the paint or from outside.
The Spurs are a juggernaut that the league rarely sees, and it's a weird twist of history that their dominance of the NBA is happening at the same time that the Golden State Warriors are good enough to beat them as thoroughly as they did last Monday night. I agree that the Warriors are better than the Spurs right now, but that doesn't mean that the season's over. Championships aren't lost in a single January matchup except in the NFL.
But the Spurs didn't just lose big against the Warriors, they were also blown out by the Cavaliers in prime time on Saturday. At first that was the more troubling loss to me because I expected them to win, whereas I'd just hoped they'd beat the Warriors. And it wasn't the offense that was the problem against Cleveland, it was that vaunted defense. Or was it?
There were the Spurs in the opening minutes of the third quarter playing a zone. Now, at first they kept the Cavs off balance enough to cut the lead to single digits while threatening to make a game of it, but then they did something that Pop's teams have rarely if ever done. They stayed with the zone the entire quarter (far longer than I can ever remember the Spurs ever playing a zone) and the Cavaliers carved them up.
NBA teams rarely face true zone defenses, and Pop has often used a switch to a zone to throw off a team, or disrupt the rhythm of an opponent. But staying with it so long was downright odd. Especially when it was consistently failing to get stops.
If it wasn't David West trying to stay with a driving Kyrie Irving, then it was Manu Ginobili on LeBron James. Even worse, the end of the third quarter saw a series of Cleveland plays with James matched up against Patty Mills over and over again, with predictable results. When you play man defense, you have some say in who guards whom, but with a zone you're at the whim of the team you're trying to defend.
How can you blame the game on the Spurs' defense (like Mark Jackson did on the broadcast, saying San Antonio's problems defending were bigger than just missing Duncan) when they didn't even play their defense? The Spurs didn't get their top-ranked defense with a zone, and they've been without Duncan often enough to know what it's like to play without him. Not every team is Cleveland gunning to avenge a recent loss to the Spurs while fighting to prove they can play for Tyronn Lue, but still.
Saturday's game reminded me of a jockey reining in his horse on the backstretch, knowing that the race will come down to who has the best kick at the wire. For years, Pop has been quick to pull his starters when a game gets out of hand, sending in the subs long before most teams would cede the win. To me there were far too many decisions that looked like someone playing the long game, instead of pulling out all the stops to win.
There was the previously mentioned zone in the second half and Kyle Anderson guarding Kevin Love, in the first. Duncan was held out of the game for his knee, but LaMarcus Aldridge was left in the game with two fouls, getting his third early in the second and sitting as the Cavs outscored the Spurs by 10 in the quarter.
This isn't a question of Pop throwing the game, it's more about how he's choosing to bring the team along -- the choices he's making while developing the players. You've probably heard the story about his training at the Air Force Academy, and how the cadets' exercises were regularly interrupted with unexpected twists, forcing them to adapt and change tactics on the fly.
So the game begins with Duncan out of the mix. Now take LMA away, then sit Danny Green for an unusually long stretch in the first half. Now let's see how Jonathon Simmons reacts when faced with a growing deficit in a hostile environment. Can Anderson rise to the challenge against a veteran player with something to prove?
I don't see Pop sabotaging his team's chances in the short term. I see him putting them through the fire now so they're ready to contribute when the season is on the line.
Which is why I'm changing my expectations for the time being. Not that these recent games have changed my view about whether they have a shot to win it all, but I'm changing my mindset about the best use of the games in this stretch leading up to the All Star break.
No one's catching Golden State in the regular season, and the Spurs still have a four game lead on the Thunder. What better time for Pop to put his players in the pressure cooker and see how they react? They'll keep getting better. They'll keep improving, even if that means they lose a few games we'd prefer them to win.
So expect the Spurs to keep losing for the time being, if need be. Then get ready to be pleasantly surprised when they play these teams again in the playoffs.