George S. Patton famously asserted that Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser, and that the very idea of losing was hateful to the American mentality. And while I can’t speak to the accuracy of everything that came out of that eternally braggadocious tactician’s mouth, this statement has always struck me as an accurate one, especially within the context of competitive sports.
There’s a particular agony in watching a team lose. It’s hard to describe, and even harder to quantify, but emotional investment as a whole is something that makes human beings identify with as secure and as known a quantity as possible. And that’s a large part of why for so many years, as a Spurs fan, it was hard to even watch as so many other teams and fan-bases experienced the repetitive agony of defeat. There are eighty-two games in an NBA season (for now) and that’s a lot of agony, even for teams that hover around .500, but for franchises like the Sacramento Kings and New York Knicks it must feel like an eternity.
That made a team like the San Antonio Spurs easy to like, follow and support. For nearly two decades they were reliable winners, featuring the sort of grit and seamless deployment and coordination that Old Blood and Guts himself would have approved of. And after such a long time at the top, you’d think that some inevitable degree of slippage would might be looked upon more sedately, but as it turns out, Patton was absolutely right.
You could kind of sense that the tide of favor was shifting just a bit during the course of two consecutive 46+ win seasons, but after a brutal performance for the first quarter of the season, the mere idea of continuing to maintain the current course has driven some as far as to suggest that Gregg Popovich’s job should be on the line.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Pop’s rotations don’t sometimes baffle me. At one point Thursday night he employed a lineup that placed Marco Belinelli at power forward! (Conceptually, after 19 seasons of watching Tim Duncan at that spot, it bordered on absurdly funny.) But on the other hand, it’s hard to rate a partial season with a .407 winning percentage as a fire-able offense after 21 consecutive seasons of .573 or better.
But what’s important to remember is that this reaction is a reaction to loss. And opinions made on the heels of loss (be it personal, financial, or otherwise) are colored by the nature of that loss. For many Spurs fans (myself included) this season thus far has arrived as the removal of a veil of protection that has shielded them from the harsh realities of not only the NBA, but the sporting world at large, and has yielded a formidable question for the children of one of the most prosperous eras for any team. Did we love the Spurs because they so often won, or did we love them because they so rarely lost?
For one night at least, that’s a question that can be put off for another time. The Spurs are winners once again, no more beloved than in their moment of triumph. The heroes of the game are immortal until the events of the next game, the scapegoats receiving respite from their flaws.
And this is a well deserved reward for a team that has struggled to put it all together this year. On a night that the Spurs managed to score at least twenty-three points in any given quarter, they showcased their most balanced performance since their stirring victory over the Los Angeles Clippers. Both the starting and closing units featured three players in double digits, giving San Antonio six on the evening, but it was the defense that was equally on display as the silver and black kept the Nets from scoring 25+ points for three consecutive quarters.
Even more impressive was that they pulled this off in the closing three quarters, managing to close out a team effectively and with a relative minimum of drama for the first time in quite a while. That’s no small thing considering San Antonio’s history of late-game collapses, the most recent against the Houston Rockets just earlier this week. Brooklyn made a push in the final frame, but the Spurs stayed the course thanks to the trusty Patrick Mills, who accounted for seven of San Antonio’s thirteen made threes.
While the Spurs couldn’t contain a scaldingly hot Spencer Dinwiddie (41 points on the night), they managed to suppress the rest of a remarkably streamlined Brooklyn offense to the tune of a rare 10+ point win. It’s hard to know whether this is a sign of things coming together, or just another teasing outlier as in the past, but any game in which San Antonio managed to avoid burying themselves in a massive hole and defensively survived twenty-six(!) minutes of our favorite Italian matador is a game to be celebrated. But then, so is any win if deceased four star generals are to be believed. For one night at least, Patton and the Spurs reign supreme. Tomorrow has yet to be won.
- On a night in which Patty Mills and LaMarcus Aldridge each tallied an efficient 20+ points, it was a pair of nondescript stat-lines that most aided and abetted San Antonio’s initial comeback effort. In spite of their limited scoring contributions, Jakob Poeltl and Lonnie Walker functioned as linchpins on both ends of the court, clogging lanes and crowding defenders on one end and creating opening for others with sharp off-ball movement and timing. Lonnie in particular had some difficulty finding his shot, but led the team in +/- until garbage time, as his presence led to a visible change in momentum for a Spurs team the Nets had held at arms length for most of the first three frames. It’s clear that the book is out on Lonnie, at least in respect to other teams regarding him as a legitimate offensive threat, and rightfully so. San Antonio probably would have been able to empty their bench earlier if some of his shots had gone in. The kid is a bloody marvel.
- Speaking of Jakob Poeltl, he was a fundamentals menace for every minute that he was on the floor, screening with aplomb, narrowly missing getting his mitts on just about anything within reach, and passing not just to open shooters, but to shooters that he anticipated being open. There aren’t many players who can function as an offensive asset without having much range, but Jakob is one, and combined with his defensive excellence, that makes him one of San Antonio’s most critical performers.
- However, if there’s another player whose stats never seem to do him justice, it’s Derrick White, who quietly dropped a 13/5/3/3/1 stat-line and led the team in plus/minus. White was everywhere in this one, creating deflections when he couldn’t quite add to his tally of steals, and knocking down critical shots throughout the course of the game, though not so much that you focused your attention on him. That seems to be how White likes to function, and it suits him, though he will need to get used to attracting attention if he keeps it up.
- Less quiet was the performance of Dejounte Murray who almost mirrored Derrick’s stat-line and trademark efficiency. He had a tough match-up in dealing with Spencer Dinwiddie (made even tougher by some of the defensive personnel on the starting unit), but he never let it shake him, and once again avoided unbalanced over-zealousness on the offensive side. Slowly but surely Murray is becoming a more discerning distributor and shooter, and the starting unit is improving along with him. I imagine that after some time gestating in this environment he’ll eventually unleash a trademark performance a-la Lonnie, but for now, this a very acceptable version of a player starting to really find his footing after coming back from a rough injury.
- On the more problematic side, Rudy Gay is going through a tough patch. Maybe it’s fit, maybe it’s erratic usage, maybe it’s declining athleticism, but he has really struggled over the last few games, and tonight was no different. He looked lost on the defensive end during several stretches, and was one of the two worst players off of the bench, going 1-8 on the night. It makes me wonder if he’s nursing some minor injury, but until we know for certain, it’s definitely something to watch.
- Patty Mills is a backup point guard legend. Seriously, name me a backup PG who’s been in his galaxy of excellence this season. More than any single player it was Mills who slammed the door shut on the Nets with a barrage of clutch fourth-quarter threes. It’s easy to forget how reliable Mills has been over the years; it’s easy to focus on his flaws, but he’s been a big part of the perennial excellence of San Antonio’s bench, and he deserves to be celebrated for it. What a game for the Balla from Down Under. He won’t win it, but he should absolutely be in the conversation for 6th man of the year if he can keep his mojo going.