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What we learned from the Spurs loss to the Mavericks

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Familiar struggles against a familiar foe lead to an increasingly familiar result.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

There’s an oft-misattributed quote floating around about the definition of insanity involving the repetition of an failed process in the expectation of a different result. And while Albert Einstein wasn’t responsible for it, it wouldn’t be completely insane to think that he might have, if he’d been subjected to this season of San Antonio basketball.

That’s not to say that there haven’t been bright spots, but Thursday evening’s contest against San Antonio’s perennial I-35 foes resembled so many of the losses against the silver and black’s most formidable foes. As they have in games against the Rockets, Lakers, Clippers, and 76ers, the Spurs held steady against a superior team for the better part of three quarters. And just as in several of those contests, a number of critical lapses combined with a single stretch of their opponents exerting their will proved to be the difference.

In this case it was a nine point difference in the second quarter that proved to be the coffin nail. But the usual struggles were there: missed rotations, inconsistent offensive execution, a critical lack of perimeter defense leading to a bevy of open looks from three; watching that sort of recurrent plague certainly feels like insanity.

But at this point it’s becoming increasingly difficult to cultivate a positive narrative. It’s hard not to question various rotation and substitutions decisions (or in some cases the lack thereof), and even harder to not to lose one’s cool when those particular choices have been an extremely recurrent theme throughout the past thirty games. And it’s starting to become easier to understand the nature of the malaise that haunts so many franchises mired in decades of disappointment.

To be clear, I am by no means excusing the rabidity of New York Knicks fans, but I’m starting to gain a certain degree of perspective into the trails and tribulations that have made them that way in the first place. The Knicks were once a franchise known for their grit, mental toughness, and superior execution. They took home two titles (in three attempts) at the expense of some very good Lakers teams and a still horrifyingly potent Jerry West.

And they accomplished this on the backs of two slashing and high flying guards, a pair of outstanding big men, and the “hit the open man” mantra of their 2nd generation Eastern European skipper (who at the time of his retirement was the 2nd winningest coach in NBA history and sported the highest winning percentage).

Red Holzman, famous for his love of pressure defense and team basketball (and the pithy originator of gems like: ‘’I don’t think there is such a thing as a coaching genius, just hard workers.’’) got his players to buy in and set a standard for unselfish play that seeped into flashy improvising stars (see: Earl ‘The Pearl’ Monroe) and cerebral bench contributors/future coaching prodigies alike (see: Jackson, Phil), and set up the Knicks as one of the premier basketball franchises with a tradition of excellence. Apart from the difference in market, the parallels couldn’t be more startling.

I say this, not as a guarantee of what the Spurs are to become, but as a reminder to both fan and front office alike: excellence is not forever, resurgence anything but guaranteed, and dignity all the easier to maintain in victory. There are a number of ways in which the San Antonio Spurs of the present could become the New York Knicks of the last two decades, and just as many ways in which both the team and their supporters could avoid that fate.

The San Antonio Spurs lost Thursday night. Tomorrow is another day. Perhaps even the same day in some respects, and how you approach that is entirely up to you. But if the Knicks are proof of anything, it’s that sweeping over-correction is just as rarely a mechanism of success as stubbornly staying the course in the absence of consistently positive results. Whether you believe that madness is repetitive, or more like gravity, the solutions seem just as obscured. There will be no easy fix here, as there have been no such fixes in the past.

But hey, at least we can rule out James Dolan.

Takeaways:

  • Jumbled defensive rotations aside, the San Antonio D actually continued its streak of passable play in this one, holding the Mavericks number one offense to less than thirty points in three of four quarters, and barely allowing more than thirty (32) in the frame that they did. I know it seems like hollow praise, but after 20-ish games in which allowed teams like the Knicks and Wizards to put up those numbers (or better) in multiple frames, it’s actually an incredible relief. In fact, the most crushing factor in this loss was how sure I was that it would be a blowout considering Dallas’s (and Luka’s) recent form.
  • On the other hand, the San Antonio offense also continued the ugly streak of recent weeks (outside of that freakish Memphis game), as Bryn Forbes, Marco Belinelli, and Patty Mills combined to go 0-12 from three. It’s hard for any NBA team to win against a team shooting 40% from three when you’re only shooting 28%, but especially this Spurs squad of mid-range devotees.
  • Foul trouble for Dejounte Murray contributed to the perimeter woes in a game where San Antonio was thin in that respect. It’s worth noting that teams seem to have a lot less success in that area when the Spurs are able to have two solid defenders on that part of the court at the same time, which makes Lonnie Walker’s DNP all the more confusing.
  • Equally problematic was finding LaMarcus Aldridge in foul trouble in the same stretch of the game. San Antonio could really have used his presence against the vulnerable Dallas post players when the offense was sputtering in the fourth quarter. Jakob is a wonderful player, but San Antonio only has so many viable offensive threats, and like it or not, Aldridge is still one of them. It’s a real pity that he’s become almost impossible to use at the four.
  • On a positive note, the contest did feature the return of a critically contributing Rudy Gay. Not only did he go for 18 & 8, but he also added two blocks for good measure. It was nice to see a return to form after his earlier struggles, but even nicer to see him knock down a couple of open threes and defend well against a normally lethal Dallas offense. When Rudy plays like that San Antonio has a chance of taking one away from most teams.