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Spurs outlast competitive Sixers squad on second leg of the Rodeo Road Trip

The Spurs got their star back, the Sixers were still without theirs and the result was predictable esult was predict

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Game 52 @Philadelphia: Spurs 111, 76ers 103 Record: 40-12

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

Gregg Popovich has often stated how fortunate he’s been in life for the opportunities that have come his way, foremost among them having had the privilege of coaching Tim Duncan, a once-in-a-generation talent who also happened to have the perfect temperament to be the type of leader on and off the floor that every coach dreams of. Pop is lauded, deservedly so, for his ability to connect and inspire all kinds of people from all walks of life and his open-mindedness and flexibility to adapt not only to the strengths and weaknesses of his teams but also to the evolution of the game itself.

All that being written, I really do think Pop is lucky to have come along when he did because I really don’t think he could’ve handled being an NBA coach in the 80’s or —God forbid— being an ABA coach in the 70’s.

The lack of defense being played would’ve driven him insane.

If you’ve been paying attention you’ve no doubt noticed that defense is slowly but surely being legislated out of every pro sport except baseball. Some of it has to do with the analytic boom, with coaches and front offices scheming to make offenses more efficient as possible, but some of it has been the respective leagues tweaking their rules to draw in casual fans with short attention spans and a bevy of entertainment options for their disposable income. Every action movie has to have more impressive CGI effects than the one before, every comedy has to be more daring and ribald, every pop-star more risque and every game more highlight-driven.

The way the NBA has evolved, with post play going the way of the dodo, the dizzying back-and-forth pace, the elimination of hand-checking and the reliance on the three-pointer, has been anathema to a defensive-tactician like Popovich. The games now bare little resemblance to the ones he coached in leading the Spurs to championships from 1999 to 2007. To his credit, Pop’s always found ways to adapt and thrive, but the pendulum has never swung this dramatically against defense.

Consider that just last season the Spurs led the league in Defensive Rating at 96.6. In the 1998-99 season, when they won their first championship, they also led, but the figure was 92.1.

They’re also leading the league this season, but that number is at 101.3 now. That would’ve been seventh last year. It would’ve ranked 24th in 1998-99.

So because we’ve all watched the Spurs for a million years, it feels like they’re a middling defensive team. But it’s all relative. They’re still the best in the game. It’s just a different game now, and one that Popovich is still trying to come to terms with. Where once his squad would routinely hold opponents in the 70’s or 80’s, now a terrific defensive showing is keeping teams under a 100.

Wednesday night’s ho-hum win at Philadelphia was a perfect example. The Sixers came into the game in their customary DFL spot in Offensive Rating. But even their meager 99.3 rating would’ve ranked 28th just a year ago. And they’ve got talent, even without wunderkind Joel Embiid, who’s missed the past few games. Jahlil Okafor, Dario Saric, Ersan Ilyasova, Robert Covington, they’re not complete players by any means, but they can all score.

And the Sixers wound up playing a fairly decent offensive game. They only shot 41 percent from the field, but they only turned it over six times, they dropped in 13 threes and probably most annoying to Pop, they got to the line 29 times. It made for a more competitive game than one would’ve predicted, considering not only Embiid’s absence but also the fact that the Spurs should’ve been in a foul mood after playing so poorly at Memphis the game before.

It certainly started off well enough, leading 29-23 after the first quarter. Tony Parker had more zip than he’s shown in a while and both LaMarcus Aldridge and Dewayne Dedmon were active on both ends of the floor, with Dedmon in particular doing what he could to stymie Okafor, who the Sixers are trying to showcase in hopes of a trade. The Spurs had 17 points before Kawhi Leonard even scored, which was a far cry from their previous game at Memphis, where the team decide to pay their respects to the ailing small-forward by also not scoring any points against the Grizzlies. Parker scored three buckets early, the two bigs combined for nine with the assistance of some free-throws and then Leonard got going with five late. Predictably, there wasn’t much in the way of ball movement til the bench got involved, but the Spurs shot 71 percent for the quarter regardless, and only some hot shooting early from Covington kept the Sixers from being blown out immediately.

San Antonio poured in 29 more in the second period. Leonard stayed hot and scored a dozen in the quarter, including a pair of bombs, and Parker, Patty Mills and Manu Ginobili each tossed in one as well. The Spurs assisted on eight of their 10 made field goals and looked like themselves again offensively, but this time the Sixers hung right there with them. Okafor scored nine in the period, causing Aldridge fits, and Nik Stauskas hit two late threes, with Saric and Ilyasova also connecting from outside.

The Sixers slowed down a bit in the third, but so did the Spurs as per usual. Leonard rung up another seven points, but no one else could do much and the visitors could never put a real run together. Philly wasn’t making the mistakes that lead to easy points and no one the Spurs was hot enough to ride for a few possessions. Only a hustle play by Ginobili late —a tie-up for a jump ball— kept the Sixers at arm’s length after three quarters as it led to a Davis Bertans three-pointer to make it an 82-75 game.

Fortunately, the Spurs closed with another productive quarter, and very much needed to, because the Sixers just wouldn’t go away. Parker had an acrobatic and-1 as part of his seven points down the stretch, Leonard knocked down all six of his freebies to finish with a game-high 32 and Danny Green canned a pair of threes to put it away. All five starters finished in double-digits and both Aldridge and Dedmon had quiet double-doubles on the night. The Sixers got 20 and 16 off the bench, respectively, from Saric and Stauskas to complement 20 from Okafor and 18 from Covington, but were missing the star power to get them over the top that the Spurs had in Leonard.

Afterward, Pop had a long heart-to-heart with his good friend and longtime assistant Brett Brown, no doubt telling him he’s got his team on the right track, that they competed harder, deserved to win and all that jazz. He wouldn’t have been lying, really.

So it’s another game off the schedule and one where the Spurs didn’t necessarily impress. It was a failure of sorts in that they didn’t win by enough of a margin to get reps for Dejounte Murray or rest for their vets, and those things may matter with a back-to-back coming up. More than anything it was an ordinary performance in a game no one will remember a week from now.

The thing we’ve got to wrap our heads around in the modern NBA is that when it comes to defense ordinary is the new good.

Up Next: Friday, @Detroit Pistons (25-28)

The third leg of the RRT has the Spurs visiting the Pistons, coached by Pop’s good friend and fellow political commentator Stan Van Gundy. They had been in a tailspin there for a while, but the team has adjusted to Reggie Jackson’s return to the lineup and improved once SVG put Jon Leuer in the starting lineup in Tobias Harris’ stead. They blew out the Lakers on Wednesday, with Andre Drummond going off for 24 and 17, Leuer adding 20 and Harris 19 and now they’ve sneaked into the eighth-seed in the East. The Spurs won the first meeting between these teams in San Antonio 96-86 on Nov. 11, but that game had no Jackson, no Green and the leading scorer, of all people, was Pau Gasol, so expect some differences in this one. Also of note, the Pistons are reportedly trying to trade either Aron Baynes or Boban Marjanovic, both of whom were fan favorites during their time as Spurs.