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Marco Belinelli had the same winter highs and lows as the Spurs

Revisiting “Marco Watch,” Part 2.

NBA: Utah Jazz at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Today we continue our journey back through “Marco Watch,” wading through the highs of January and lows of February. If you missed Part 1, be sure to go check it out.

As we neared the midway mark of the season, I was no longer the only person fascinated by the splendidly strange tapestry Marco Belinelli was weaving with each new time out on the floor. Chris Herring at FiveThirtyEight wrote a piece about him entitled “Meet the Spurs Sharpshooter Who Refuses to Shoot Straight.” Within it he’s compared to both Michael Jackson and Armadillo in the same breath, and neither one feels out of place. “It looks crazy when I’m off-balance all the time, but I just want to be quick with the ball,” said Belinelli . . . “That’s the life of a shooter, I guess.”

Indeed. Gregg Popovich could only shrug his shoulders when asked to elaborate on the method to Belinelli’s madness. “I don’t know who taught him that, but it can’t be untaught at this point. It’s just there.” It’s sort of hard to tell if Pop is pleased, perplexed, or pissed off about Beli’s antics, but hey, that’s sort of par for the course with him anyway, right?

January 17 vs. Dallas

Poor Devin Harris. Early in the 4th quarter last night, he attempted a “Marco.” He came around a screen and hoisted a three while kicking out his legs, falling to the floor, and missing the basket entirely. Did Bryn Forbes hit him on the elbow? That’s besides the point. A true “Marco” means you are always in a perpetual state of fouling, getting fouled, or getting fouls called for you that you probably don’t deserve. You have to commit to the bit or it doesn’t work. Harris went back down the floor complaining to the refs. He even committed a foul of his own just so play would stop and he could get a few more words in with the ref. The telecast looked over the replays, discussing it and having a laugh. While all this was happening, our elusive chanteuse was poised and ready to strike. Literally before the replay was even done playing through, the real Marco had already scored. SURPRISE. Never try to out Marco a Marco. That’s how people get hurt.

January 20 vs. Clippers

I spend a significant amount of time thinking about the Spurs resident philosopher-poet and the ways in which he chooses to play the game of basketball. It occupies my thoughts while I’m at work or walking my dog or cooking dinner. It seeps into my reality and shapes the contours of my universe. How does he do the things that he does, sure, but more importantly, why does he do them? What purpose is there to be found in a man who defiantly turns his back on the architecture of this game? These are rules and norms that have been carefully laid out over many decades and Marco has decided that they no longer matter. Set your feet. Square your shoulders. Finish towards the basket. These are rules for the jump shot that might as well have been chiseled on to stone tablets by James Naismith himself. Marco has seen these rules and found them wanting. Take a look at this picture below. The ball is in the basket and Marco, with nothing more than a quick look back, has decided that he must ride on to his next adventure. There are secrets out there to be discovered. The perfect shooting form has it’s place, of course, but perfection indicates a period at the end of a sentence. Maybe Marco has simply decided to start a new one.

There’s a possibly apocryphal account of Tommy Lee Jones meeting Jim Carrey on the set of the movie Batman Forever. Carrey walked over to say hello to his fellow co-star and got a pretty frosty reception. After pulling up a chair and asking Jones what the problem was, he was then told by the famously serious actor, “I simply cannot sanction your buffoonery.” As we charged deeper and deeper into the heart of the season, I thought about this quote a lot. Marco is by no means a perfect player and he is certainly prone to intermittent peculiarities that were not exactly net positives for the Spurs. He would airball threes, he would waste offensive possessions, and he was notoriously “trying his best” on defense. Was I causing more harm than good by ignoring Marco’s obvious pitfalls in order to gawk at some highlights that I thought were fun? Was I, in a sense, sanctioning his buffoonery?

January 29 vs. Phoenix

I spend a lot of time glorifying the exploits of Marco in this space because, frankly, Marco’s exploits are almost always worth glorifying. He’s an impish rouge of a player who also happens to be scoring at an incredible rate right now. He’s scored in double digits in 9 of the last 10 games he’s played. No longer is he merely a firebrand used by the coach to come in off the bench and provide a spark before returning to his slumber. No, Marco is a key part of what makes the Spurs tick. He’s not putting up numbers against the other teams scrubs during some off minutes in the 2nd and 3rd quarter, he’s out there in crunch time. When the Spurs need a lineup that is designed to get buckets, Marco is in a lot of those lineups! This is a great development for us Marco Watchers out there. However, with that power comes great responsibility which means that today we must use this space to acknowledge . . . the turnover. Up 2 with 24 seconds left, all the Spurs needed to do was catch an inbounds pass, make some free throws, and escape off into the night. Marco had one job to do and when the ball came to him . . . he failed in his task. Two players swarmed him, knocked the ball out of his hands, and sprinted down the court to tie the game up. You hate to see that. But maybe we can learn from this. You wouldn’t hire Picasso paint the wall of your house blue, right? You wouldn’t expect a wild wolf to run out and grab the paper for you in the morning would you? Simple, mortal tasks like catching an inbounds pass are so foreign to a man of Marco Belinelli’s proclivities that you have to wonder whether or not this is really everyone’s fault BUT Marco’s. I know I do.

February 4 vs. Sacramento

Not a banner day for those of us heavily invested in the Marco Belinelli stock exchange. He was 2-9 from the field and 1-7 from deep. Not ideal. I like to talk a lot about all the intangibles Marco brings to the table. Things like his raw imagination or his irascible disdain for the normal ebbs and flows of this sport are invaluable weapons that the Spurs are able to deploy against the nightly monotony that can seep into the regular season. However. Even this faithful Marco correspondent is willing to acknowledge that his job is, first and foremost, to actually make his shots. Without the made shots, the shine comes off the apple pretty quickly. This particular game was a stinker. His lone highlight was a layup, early in the second quarter. He drifted around the perimeter, never changing his speed or his angle, as if being controlled by some unseen, god-like being working a protractor. He ended up at the right side of the basket and quietly laid it in with his left hand before swinging into his return orbit back up the court, proving that even his quietest moments are laced with a peculiar measure of grace and oddity. Friends, the magic never leaves, sometimes you just have to look a little harder for it.

February 9 vs. Utah

Marco Belinelli tried a lot of things tonight. He wasn’t quite the fire-breathing, heavy-leaning, angel of death off the bench that he sometimes transforms into, but you could see him working out the contours of some pretty incredible shots in this game. Did a lot of them go in? No, they did not. But they looked crazy. Like, there were some real “What’re you doing, Marco?” shots in this game and I think that’s an important part of his overall process. It is absolutely necessary that your opponents are unable to prepare for what you’re bringing into the field of play. Is he going to start his shooting motion before he even catches the ball? Maybe. Is he going to release the ball on the down slope of this jump? He just might. Is he going to careen through the paint, flail his arms up, and fling the ball towards the basket on a whim? You’re just going to have to find out, buddy. No one can prepare for what Marco is going to do because even Marco isn’t preparing for what he’s going to do. It all just sort of...happens.

February 22 vs Toronto

Marco made a lot of wonderful shots in this game. He missed a lot of wonderful shots too. The Tao of Marco underlies the natural harmony and order in the universe that results from both the makes and the misses. We here at Marco Watch attempt to celebrate the beautiful serenity of his chaos and reject the harsh, binary outcome forced upon us by an unforgiving sport. We take equal delight in the clutch three he knocked down in the 4th quarter to put Spurs back in the lead and the awkward loping drive from the 1st quarter ending in a flat footed miss followed by a weird, stilted fall. They are all beautiful in the eye of a true believer. A point given here is taken away elsewhere. Everything in concert with itself and everything at peace with it’s own existence. Would a few of Marco’s weird shots have maybe been better suited in the hands of others and does that hyper thin margin of error sort of drive us nuts WHEN THE SPURS LOSE BY ONE POINT AGAINST THEIR ARCH-NEMSIS KAWHI LEONARD?!?!?!? Shhhh, hush now child. Makes beget misses and misses beget makes. In the harsh face of an unknowable universe, the only thing that really makes sense is to not make any sense at all. Keep shooting, Marco. Shoot with all your heart.

Now, obviously Marco wasn’t the only person swooning at this stage of the season. The Spurs were smack dab in the middle of quite possibly the worst Rodeo Road Trip in the history of both Rodeos and Road Trips. It was getting harder and harder to delight in the peculiarities of a once-in-a-generation basketball mind while it felt like the entire season was crumbling around our heads. It’s a bad look to be like, “get a load of this goofy shot” when the team has just gotten blown out by the Knicks.

February 25 vs. Brooklyn

Marco Belinelli went 1 for 7 from the field against the Brooklyn Nets on February 25th, 2019. His one make was a three pointer from the corner. It was fine. This has been Marco Watch. We hope you’ll join us next time when Marco snags a season high 28 points behind 8 of 9 shooting from three while the Spurs completely turn things around against the Pistons. You have only to believe, if you wish to achieve.

Continue on with Part 3