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Spurs MVP shines in win over Raptors as Leonard sits again

Are there any players out there surnamed “Smoke” and “Mirrors” they can sign on 10-day contracts?

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Toronto Raptors
“Hey mate, let’s go outplay Kyle Lowry.”
Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

Game 45 @Toronto: Spurs 108, Raptors 106 Record: 36-9

1st in Southwest Division, 2nd in West Streak: W-5

This is going to sound like a hacky sports radio hot take, but I don’t care.

For a few years now we’ve heard pundits debate —on the rare occasions they’ve even chosen to discuss the Spurs, mind you— about whether Tim Duncan or Gregg Popovich was the more essential component in San Antonio’s two-decades-and-counting run of sustained excellence. If you’ve read me at all you know I’ve always been a staunch advocate of Duncan on that topic. Hell, I’ve argued that Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker had more to do with the Spurs being the Spurs than Pop did. And I was comforted by the fact that the ultimate authority on the subject, Popovich himself, agreed with me, at least in his public sentiments.

I’ve gotta admit though, as much as I respect Duncan’s legacy, I’m starting to have second thoughts.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I fully think Duncan was essential in building the culture and getting this machine up and running. We all heard the tributes from Ginobili and Parker of what he meant to their careers and development. But he’s retired now, and he missed lots of games due to rest or injury the past few years, and the Spurs kept winning. Ginobili sitting, Parker sitting, it didn’t matter, they kept winning.

Kawhi Leonard was supposed to be the keystone, the new face of the franchise, vital and necessary, the exception that proves the rule. And he is that. Good heavens is Kawhi Leonard an incredible basketball player. I thank the basketball gods, R.C. Buford, Larry Bird, Paul George, Danny Granger, George Hill and even Richard Jefferson (the Spurs’ own Poochie, only instead of dying on the way to his home planet he won a ring with the Cavs) every single day for the roles they played in making Kawhi Leonard a Spur possible. But, as we’ve witnessed, he’s also someone who can sit, along with Parker and Ginobili and Pau Gasol and even Jonathon freakin’ Simmons, and still the Spurs refuse to not be competitive.

And it’s not that recent of a phenomenon, either.

You may recall the night, back in November of the 2012-13 season, that former commissioner David Stern fined Pop $250,000 for sending most of his notable players home instead of playing them in a nationally-televised game at Miami. So against a squad that featured LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Ray Allen, the Spurs starting quintet –playing their fourth game in five nights, mind you—was Tiago Splitter-Boris Diaw-Matt Bonner-Nando De Colo-Patty Mills. Their four-man bench consisted of Cory Joseph, DeJuan Blair, Gary Neal and James Anderson.

Those Spurs, who Stern fined for seeking to destroy the competitive integrity of the game, led for most of the way before losing by five. That’s basically the equivalent of taking a high school ballplayer, giving him a bat made out of paper mache, sending him to the plate against Clayton Kershaw, and watching him hit a rocket 410 feet to dead center that got caught with a sensational leaping grab over the fence by a Gold Glove-centerfielder.

What these Spurs did Tuesday night at Toronto wasn’t quite of that caliber, but man it wasn’t that far off. Granted, the Raptors are in a bit of a tailspin of late and they were missing their leading scorer too in DeMar DeRozan. But they were still home, they were rested, and they had everyone else. Half of the ten guys the Spurs played are completely anonymous to all but hardcore NBA fans. They ran Bryn Forbes out there for 12 minutes —not garbage minutes but actual important one-possession-game-in-the-fourth-quarter minutes—and he was good!

We hear about the Spurs’ system and their continuity and all that, but half the guys the Spurs suited up at Toronto have been in “the system” for about as long as it takes to eat a ham sandwich.

At some point we have to throw our hands up in the air and acknowledge that LeBron had the right of it. Pop really is the greatest basketball coach of all time. He is, in reality, the personification of what Bum Phillips, the ever-quotable former coach of the Houston Oilers, once said of Miami Dolphins legend Don Shula.

“He can take his’n and beat your’n, and he can take your’n and beat his’n.”

I’m absolutely convinced you give this Spurs roster, with the same schedule and the same injury issues, to any other coach in the league and what you get through 45 games is far removed from 36-9. I doubt most skippers get them past 27-18, frankly.

So you’ll forgive me if I skip the hard-wrought analysis of a game in which the Spurs won by two points by virtue of one more made three-pointer and one more made free-throw. Greg Woods can give you the goods in that regard. Their winning bucket was scored by 20-year-old Dejounte Murray. He was two-months old when Pop took over as the Spurs head coach. The kid is playing more efficiently for the Spurs than he did for the University of Washington. San Antonio could’ve just as easily lost by two and it wouldn’t have made their achievement any less impressive.

They need to retire the Coach of the Year Award as long as Popovich is on the bench. There’s zero point in having it. Pop is one win away now from tying Utah’s Jerry Sloan for most career coaching wins with one franchise.

Pop is showing that as important and helpful as Duncan was, he’s got this whole thing figured out.

Up Next: @New Orleans Pelicans (18-27)

Just to show that improbable shorthanded wins aren’t the sole province of the Spurs, the Pelicans previous game was a 124-122 conquest of the Cleveland Cavaliers in which Anthony Davis didn’t play and the Cavs’ “Big Three” combined for a mere 97 points. Onetime Spurs-killer Terrence Jones led the way with 36 and Jrue Holiday added 33. The Pelicans are only 1.5 games out of the eighth seed that nobody in the West seems to want, but it’s not like they’ve been hot of late. They’ve only won four of their past 10. Davis is listed as probable with a right thigh bruise for Wednesday night’s game against Oklahoma City while the Spurs have an ultra-rare two days off in between road games. I’m assuming they just flew home to San Antonio for some R-and-R. I’d expect Leonard to be back for this one, but who knows? The two teams already met once this season, at San Antonio on Dec. 18 on the night Duncan’s jersey was retired, and the Spurs won that one 113-100 with LaMarcus Aldridge outplaying Davis.