Today we continue our journey back through “Marco Watch,” coming out of the nightmare that was the 2019 Rodeo Road Trip and transitioning to a strong finish to the regular season, largely thanks to the comfy confines of the AT&T Center. If you missed anything up to this point, here is Part 1 and Part 2 to get you caught up.
Fortunately for everyone, the Spurs made it home out from that disastrous road trip and their fortunes started to change for the better. Just like that, the magic started to return, including for Marco Belinelli.
February 27 vs. Detroit
Marco really brought all of his tricks out in this game after spending a few nights wandering in the wilderness. There were normal wide open threes, pull up threes off the dribble, and lean-heavy, catch and shoot adventures ending with him on the floor or in the stands. He even had one nifty little reverse layup that resulted from running absent minded figure eight patterns for 20 seconds before Derrick White finally realized Marco was open under the basket. Most importantly, there was the pièce de résistance. I’m talking of course, about the 26 foot three point shot he hit at the 3:47 mark of the first quarter. After catching the ball way out beyond the three point arc, he swiftly shimmied his shoulders and surged past a screen set by LaMarcus that swallowed up his defender, Luke Kennard. Almost immediately he was met by noted very tall man Andre Drummond. A lesser genius would maybe swing it to a wide open Patty Mills in the corner or slip it to a rolling LaMarcus, who now had a clear path to the basket, but Marco found a different way out of the darkness. No one had thought to try jumping off one foot, spasming in the air, and launching the ball over the outstretched hand of a seven footer. Why would they? They have neither the style nor the elegance to execute such a maneuver. Marco Belinelli does. Marco has it in spades. He thrives on the impossible. This shot capped a truly bananas 72 second stretch of game that saw Marco score eight points, fire up the crowd, and show his teammates that all is not lost. When things seem at their bleakest, when life throws a proverbial seven footer at you, there is always a way out for those who truly believe.
March 2 vs. Oklahoma City
Marco’s best play of the night came in the first quarter when he deftly slid into the lane and super athletically bobbled the ball roughly one thousand times before “passing” it off the backboard into the safety of LaMarcus Aldridge’s hands for an easy layup. Marco is, for the most part, always making things up on the fly and this play was emblematic of the attitude that something good can come out of anything. When life give you lemons out on the wing, blindly drive into the lane and make lemonade. I know this play is silly, and I know it’s crazy to try and assign it some sort of virtue when the “reality” is that an out of control weirdo almost turned it over and the Spurs got lucky. Here’s the thing though. Plays like this give me hope. They buoy my spirit. Basketball isn’t some algorithm where you plug numbers into the formula, sit back, and see what the outcome is. Basketball is sweat and blood and tears. It’s human beings constantly scraping against the limits of their own abilities in an attempt to wrest some semblance of control away form the chaos of life. Marco doesn’t fear the chaos. He is the chaos. He shepherds it into the game and embraces it like an old friend. This play isn’t a series of mistakes. This play is a miracle. Rejoice in it.
March 6 vs. Atlanta
Sometimes we focus on Marco’s offensive creativity only in terms of the shots he takes. Stuff like the 45 degree angle shots or the ones where he kicks his legs out into a triangle or the ones that make everyone go, “no, no, no, no, no, no, YES, wait, what?” Truly that is how the Marco bread is most often buttered, but please for a moment consider that he also has the capacity to throw bananas passes into the low post as well. For example, in the 2nd quarter he pump-faked poor Alex Len up into the air and then proceeded to blindly toss a pass underneath Len’s outstretched legs perfectly into LaMarcus Aldridge’s hands for an easy bucket. This one was right out of the Manu Ginobili playbook of passes filed away in Popovich’s office entitled I Can’t Believe You Pulled That Off, How Did You Pull That Off, Please Don’t Try To Pull It Off Again, But I’m So Glad You Pulled It Off. If you are really looking for a link to the Spurs past, I can assure you that the spirit is alive and well in the heart of Marco Belinelli.
March 10 vs. Milwaukee
Marco Belinelli did a lot of great things in this game. He played good defense, he poured in 16 points off the bench, and he even had a few beautiful little assists that would be more than deserving of a full “Marco Watch” dedicated to lionizing them. However. I think the true Marcoheads out there know which play really set fire to the eternal flame of our devotion. Near the end of a great 3rd quarter from the Spurs, LaMarcus Aldridge picked up a loose ball and got it out to Patty Mills on the break. On the far side of the court, a blaze of cosmic light in a tactical camo jersey shot towards the rim with one thing on his mind: Glory. Mills, ever the showman, saw what was happening and quickly fired the ball between two hapless Milwaukee defenders and now it. was. on. Our patron saint of 45 degree angles caught the ball in stride with a wide open path to the basket. Two quick steps later he was flying through the air full of grace, wonder, and a wild-eyed sense of possibility. Oh, it was beautiful. Giannis and his spider-like limbs almost got there but even they missed the mark. The ball was already in the basket and Marco’s physical manifestation was already flying off into the sunset. That the ball ended up bouncing up and back out of the basket is besides the point. This play is a beautiful monument to the hubris of mankind. This play embodies the spirt of our people, the same spirit that said we’re going to sail across the oceans or construct buildings into the heavens or send a man to the moon. Marco was on the ground and then Marco chose to rise up. May we all have that same courage to do so when life presents us with an open lane to the basket.
March 15 vs. New York
When one attempts to understand the way that Marco attacks the game of basketball, you must think about it in similar terms to the way a Jaguar stalks its prey. There is a natural grace, athleticism, and beauty to be sure, but there is also a base, unexplainable instinct that drives each and every movement to culminate in a desired outcome. A Jaguar on the prowl is doing something basic and fundamental, something that’s coded into its DNA dating back thousands of years. Marco, too, must enter into a similar sort of sort of primal fugue state that allows him to let his body take him where he needs to go. Watch this series of events from the 3rd quarter on Friday night. He catches the ball out on the corner and immediately, without hesitation or thought, puts the ball up into the air with both hands. A “pump fake” in the broadest sense, but look me in the eyes and tell me there is any discernible attempt at real shooting form there. You can’t. This is not a man doing a basketball move, this is simply a man whose body is at one with the universe. As he begins to drive, he does not in any way attempt a direct line to the basket. Instead he moves in more in a half moon shape, as if tapping into some unseen gravitational force in order to slingshot himself up into a beautiful little scoop layup/reverse somersault finish. Is any of this necessary? Could he have just done a regular layup without falling down? I’ll let the scholars waste their time debating those questions. All I can tell you is that this play is a masterclass in instinctive motion put on by one of the foremost purveyors of such maneuvers this league has ever seen and I feel humbled to have borne witness to it here.
Again, I can’t stress enough how little I cared about the Marco signing in the off-season. The Spurs were square in the middle of their most tumultuous offseason since the 90’s and everything just seemed so wildly in flux that, like, who had time to care about Marco being back? Tim was gone. Tony was gone. Manu was gone. We, uh, traded for DeMar DeRozan. This past summer was total chaos, and in hindsight it makes perfect sense that Marco found his way back home amidst all that noise. Reflecting back on all that turnover, it also becomes a little clearer as to why his game may have begun to resonate a little more this time around. He wasn’t just a cog in the machine anymore, now he was one of our last remaining links to the past.
March 20 vs. Miami
The easy Marco Belinelli comparison has always been Manu Ginobili. They share the same zest for life while out plying their trade on the court. They both hunt in the wildest corners of the basketball world to bring us joy, pain, and general astonishment at what can be accomplished in this game if you’re just crazy enough to try it. I love the Manu comp for Marco and I think, honestly, squinting my eyes during games this season while Marco flails about on a wild adventure into the lane makes me feel close to Manu in a way that I didn’t think was ever going to be possible. For this, I will always be eternally grateful. However, I would like to posit another little fun ode to the Spurs of yore that Marco has been doing lately. On a few recent drives, Marco has busted out this old Tony Parker maneuver I like to call, “Surprise! I already shot it.” Tony used to do this thing all the time to confound would-be shot blockers where he would release the ball up towards the basket at various different parts of his drive that make almost no sense if you are even remotely familiar with the proper technique for how to shoot a layup. It’s not a floater, that’s a whole different thing. This is a layup done off the wrong foot or with the wrong hand or even at the wrong angle. Obviously this technique would appeal to a basketball anarchist like Marco. After holding his defender with a little hesitation, he charges forward and then begins the layup before he even really gets into the lane. Whiteside comes out to do what he was put on this earth to do and send this ball into the fourth row of the stands but, before he can get there, Marco has already whisked it away high up onto the glass, literally as high on the glass as it can go, before it drops back down to earth for two. Never try to block Marco’s shots where you think they are. You have a much better shot aiming for where you know they aren’t.
March 26 vs. Charlotte
Marco had a wonderful game here, pouring in 17 points and going 4 of 7 from three point land. This is all well and good and awesome but there’s something more pressing that we need to dig into here on Marco Watch today. While casually scrolling through twitter during the game, I came across something that has honestly been dominating my thoughts ever since. Mike Finger, a veteran columnist for the Express News, casually tossed out this anecdote and set my brain on fire, “I’ve been to maybe a dozen NBA arenas this season and in every single one of them I’ve seen Marco Belinelli greet an usher like his long-lost friend. Everybody loves this guy.” Excuse me? Say more right now! Marco has a secret underground network of friends posing as ushers in every arena around the league and, most likely, the world? Is that what you’re trying to tell me? I’m imaging this being sort of like a John Wick situation where this is a mysterious society that you belong to and can only access with a special coin or something. They move about in the shadows, collecting on debts, harboring rogue fugitives and carrying out various acts of benevolent kindness or nefarious mischief depending on who’s paying the highest price. It actually makes a lot sense the more I think about it. Do you think Marco functions within the organization as some sort of prized up and comer or is he comfortably settled in to more of a Godfather by now? Are the ushers there for his protection or ours? Do they keep a weathered eye out for threats while Marco takes care of official business on the court? You know what, let’s take this conversation offline. You never know who might be listening. I’ll see everyone at the usual meeting spot. The truth is out there.
March 28 vs. Cleveland
Was Manu ever as weird as Marco Belinelli? Is Marco as weird as Manu? I’ve found myself thinking about this a lot during this season of paying particularly close attention to Beli’s exploits. It’s been brought up before, but it’s impossible not to compare these two. They have a very similar sort of crackling energy on the court that really grabs your attention. It’s their creativity that sets them apart and draws us to them. They see different angles and shots than everyone else. It’s like they took the rules of basketball and translated them into their own special language and then went ahead and translated it back into ours. It looks pretty much the same but, you know, slightly off-kilter. In spite of their similarities, they are relatively distinct in how their eccentricities actually present on the court. Manu was all passion and fire and intensity. He attacked the action and erupted with joy when it worked. Marco is so different in that way. He drifts into the action, not lazily or anything, but almost with a purpose that seems detached from the actual game-play. Manu was locked in a never ending battle to defy the basic laws of physics while Marco is engaging in a delicate dance with them. The end result is that both of them end up creating moments and plays that are unlike anything else we usually get to see in this sport, and that’s where the similarities snap back into place. They are both purveyors of wonder and magic, and we’re all just fortunate enough to be along for the ride.
Continue on with Part 4.