I'm always entertained by Jeff McDonald's twitter feed. The SA Express-News Spurs beat writer seems to take personal joy in responding to the Chicken Littles of Spurs Nation with a dose of realism and dry wit. Of course, I'm a typical SA fan with a penchant for believing the cold, uncaring universe is just itching to turn on my teams' fortunes at the slightest provocation, so it's always nice to have my soul soothed by Jeff's particular brand of basketball antacid. That's what makes seeing tweets like these sent out during the Spurs' 118-111 win over the moribund Phoenix Suns all the more concerning:
Over last 10 games, not counting today, Spurs' defensive rating is 13th in the league. Giving up 103.9 points/100 possessions— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) February 21, 2016
Suns are kind of carving up the Spurs with 40 paint points already. Figure Leonard would clean some of this up, but still ...— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) February 21, 2016
Much like against the Lakers, Spurs up on Suns but unable to gain much separation. Lead is 60-57 early 3Q.— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) February 21, 2016
If Jeff McDonald sees a problem, doesn't that mean there's a problem? Granted, he never explicitly says there's a "problem", since he's one of those annoyingly rational people who ladle out facts and then wait for you and I to make the necessary inference; but it's impossible to argue, either from the numbers or the eye test, that things haven't looked the same for the Spurs since their ill-fated trip to Oracle Arena in late January. The defense hasn't just fallen off its historic pace, it's become positively accommodating - even to lousy teams. The bench has been up and down. The 3 point shooting has been hit and miss.
Then you look at a calendar and see that we're still in the doldrums of February. And you realize that even those indestructible, effervescent Golden State Warriors are getting blown out by 32, and then nearly giving away their next game as well. And it's not just them: the Thunder can't stop anybody, and just got rocked by the Cavaliers in their own building; you know about how things are going with the Clippers, the Grizzlies lost Marc Gasol, the Mavericks have long since fallen off from their unexpected start, and the forgotten Jazz and Blazers have managed to pull themselves into playoff position (potential debate question for Bernie Sanders: "Senator, how do you fix the shrinking middle class ... in the Western Conference?") In the East, the Bulls have capsized, the Raptors didn't make a move to get themselves over the top, and with the season the Wizards have had, you've figure they couldn't have done worse in their recruitment pitch to Kevin Durant if they'd insulted his mama.
Here's the take home: things look rocky for the Spurs right now, but it would be just as much of a concern if their peak were happening now. To borrow a baseball adage, you can't win the championship in February, but you can lose it. This is the point of the season where injuries start to creep up, along with fatigue, and malaise, and seasonal affective disorder, not to mention the mental toil that comes from pounding a rock well over 82 times a year, every year. So Tim sits, and the defense suffers; Manu goes under the knife, and the bench gets disorganized; Kawhi misses 3 games with a calf strain, and suddenly we're the Doug Moe-era Nuggets.
Only it's not that bad. We aren't last in the NBA in defense (to be fair, we aren't first in offense, either.) Kawhi's status was upgraded to questionable for yesterday's game against Phoenix, meaning it's very likely we see him Wednesday in Sacramento. And in case you've forgotten, we still have three other current and recent All-Stars. LaMarcus Aldridge tallied a double-double against a feisty Phoenix interior, Tony Parker stomped out the Suns' campfire for good late in fourth quarter, and Tim Duncan even got a technical foul - his first of the season!
Oh, and Kyle Anderson did this:
OH. MAMMA. pic.twitter.com/qsy0pQbBQ0— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) February 21, 2016
Leonard's return won't fix all of what ails the Spurs' defense, just like Manu returning won't guarantee a dominant bench. But the Spurs work through problems as a team, anyway. No one player bears responsibility for mediocre play, and no one player is expected to carry the team through a storm.
Even Gregg Popovich has to fight the urge to win now at the expense of later, giving up some losses and closer-than-expected wins in the name of preserving his players for the real games.
Spurs don't play again until Wed in Sacramento. Prospect of getting KL two more days off must be alluring to Pop.— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) February 21, 2016
Pointed out helpfully the Spurs have given up a ton of points since A-S break. Pop, playfully: "I'm done talking to you."— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) February 22, 2016
"I'm concerned. It's terrible," coach Gregg Popovich told NBA.com's Bob Baum. "We stink on D right now. We'll see if we can get better."
A full compliment of healthy bodies would go a long way. But it's February, and no one is completely healthy. Or, if they are, they have personnel problems. The good news for the Spurs is that they've sustained their record start 2/3rds of the way through the season, which has given them a measure of insurance. They are - amazingly - still only 3 games back of Golden State with three games left against the Dubs. Given that these wins against the Suns and Lakers have felt like moral defeats, the East Bay Massacre might have felt like it knocked SA out of contention for good. But the Warriors, with their Pop-trained coach and selfless approach to hoops, know exactly what the Spurs know: championships are won when the summer sun is shining. Best to wait out the winter, rest your wounded, and try not to peak too soon.
We've all been watching the Spurs do this for so long, we tend to think there's a script that must be meticulously followed in order for the team to have a successful season. Cruise November to February >>> gel during the RRT >>> hit the gas in March >>> Championship. But there are as many paths to a championship as there are potholes, flat tires, breakdowns, and dead ends. I'm reminded that it will soon be the tenth anniversary of the 67 win Mavs team that was blown out of the first round by the Warriors. That team had it all, talent, pride, health, motivation. But sometimes when everything goes right, you wind up just waiting for something to go wrong. The Spurs are trying to avoid that self-fulfilling prophecy so that their season ends more like last years' Warriors, instead of the team they defeated nearly a decade ago. To do that, they have to get through the valley and survive the inevitable darkness that will assail them, just as it does every team. It will make the end result that much sweeter.
Just ask Jeff. He covered a championship team recently.