Whether you think of time as an arrow, an ocean, or a man draped in black, the ebbs of change come all the same, be it with the tide or swings of a ghostly scythe. In the end, there are only so many adjustments you can make, so many ways you can mentally prepare for the unholy image of Tony Parker appearing in the AT&T Center dressed head to toe in teal.
Year Zero in San Antonio continues to be a reckoning of sorts with the team’s foundational shifts. Through a montage of homecomings and video tributes, these new Spurs have adjusted, stumbled, and adjusted again to a new set of circumstances. The results have leaned far more towards the positive for the now-25-20 group, but Monday’s 108-93 loss to the Charlotte Hornets was a reminder of the shaky ground they’re walking on.
While the story heading into Monday was about the familiar faces returning to San Antonio — not only Parker but former assistant coach James Borrego — the nature of the loss begins with the players that didn’t see the floor. Missing both Rudy Gay — out a fifth straight game with a sprained wrist — and Marco Belinelli — “He hyperextended (his knee); it didn’t feel good in shootaround,” noted Pop — the Spurs struggled to find cohesion in rotations that had thrived through December and early January.
Instead of Gay helping space the floor on one end and adding his combination of size and mobility on the other, Pop turned to Pau Gasol again in the starting lineup, rejoining a group that has evolved through Derrick White’s development. Rather than Belinelli orbiting around the perimeter and firing away off the catch during kick-out opportunities, it was Dante Cunningham and Quincy Pondexter occupying the same space but with an understandably different purpose on the floor. So delicate was the chemistry that the team had built, one that DeMar DeRozan (14 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 6 turnovers) agreed hasn’t been quite the same as of late.
“Yeah, we were running with the lineups when we had everybody,” he said after the loss. “You get shifted a little bit you gotta kinda make certain adjustments... we’ve kinda been up and down the last few games.”
DeRozan himself has seen his play dip of late, prompting fans and media members alike to wonder if his minutes load (he tallied 39 on Monday and sits third in the NBA in total minutes played) is catching up with him. Might it also relate to the injury-related lineup fluctuations, or White’s ascendance as a playmaker in the starting unit? They’re questions the team will have to address on the fly as it looks to remain in the crowded Western Conference playoff picture.
While DeRozan struggled, LaMarcus Aldridge (28 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists) and White (18 points, 7 assists, 4 rebounds) were once again positives. White’s primary focus still seems to be creating for others, as he found Aldridge and DeRozan under the basket on a number of occasions, but he balances that unselfishness and patience with a knack for knowing when to attack.
But the pair didn’t get much help from the rest of the team, who failed to find a single lineup that Pop could ride through the fourth quarter and use to build a run. Perhaps most telling of that futility: no Spur ended the game that was close throughout as a net positive.
To Charlotte and Borrego’s credit, they came into Monday with sharp focus, committed only 7 turnovers, and benefited from the All-Star level play of Kemba Walker (33 points, 5 assists), who was able to shake free of White and whoever else the Spurs threw his way and get to his spots on the floor. His three-pointer with just over 3 minutes left in the game (coming off a Bismack Biyombo offensive rebound) pushed the Hornets’ lead to 12 and had the game out of reach for a Spurs team they were able to keep at bay for all four quarters. Parker’s play inevitably became a part of it, as he scored 6 of his 8 points in the fourth and had a hand in a number of defensive plays in which he seemed to have a better idea than most what his opponent was trying to do.
Gregg Popovich admitted there’s a part of him that feels happy for his former assistants in times like this, although the whole experience of seeing them on the other end of the court remains a difficult one to get used to: “It’s still strange,” he said, “With Brett or Bud or anybody.”
As if the reunions with Parker and Borrego weren’t enough a reminder of how far back his timeline went, the Spurs coach was asked pre-game about the man he’d recently passed for third on the all-time wins list, Jerry Sloan.
“When I think of Coach Sloan, I remember idolizing and watching him play when he was a Bull, and I’d come back to northwest Indiana and sit at this place with my buddies, eating fried mushrooms and drinking Stroh’s, and we’d watch the Bulls, watch him and Norm Van Lier get after people. So, I was able to watch the toughest man in the valley for a while. Those are my biggest memories, how straight and honest he was... he didn’t BS anybody; he was who he was. He’s a hell of a guy.”
Pop’s answer is fitting — both on a night that evoked countless memories, and in a season in which the team has had to reconcile its past to move forward.
Tony’s Tribute Video
Here’s the welcome the Spurs had prepared for Parker, shown before the game:
Welcome back to San Antonio, Tony!#SpursFamily pic.twitter.com/0alzQ5aepF— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) January 15, 2019
It was Tony’s night from beginning to end, starting with the above tribute and finishing in the final moments, as Borrego subbed Parker back on the floor with 17 seconds left and allowed him to dribble out the clock to a rain of applause, even in a loss for the home team.
Pop’s postgame assessment
“I thought the Hornets played very well. We kind of followed them around for a whole half and finally started to get a little bit more physical, a little bit more competitive, in the second half on the defensive end. But we were really soft in the first half and that hurt us. Kemba was great. Tony did a great job. In general, they moved well, they executed well and they deserved to win the basketball game. We’ve got to find more ways to score. We are just a little bit challenged in that way.”
Pop on Parker’s reception
“Well, I expected nothing less. Tony is a wonderful human being. He was a great player for us and he deserved all of the love that he received — that’s for sure.”