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What we learned from the Spurs win over the Suns

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A win is a win, but this series of narrow escapes is more than just a bit concerning.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Phoenix Suns Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Watching the San Antonio Spurs Monday night, I found myself thinking of Steve McQueen. With both sets of my grandparents hailing from the Silent Generation, I was indoctrinated into the church of McQueen early on, starting with that long-standing classic film ‘The Great Escape’. And though I would soon defect to the congregations of Wayne and Eastwood, I was absolutely mesmerized as I watched the ‘King of Cool’ vaulting twelve-foot tall barbed-wire fences on his motorcycle.

His failure to jump the second fence was not lost me however, as I watched so many of the would-be escapees fail in their attempts to flee Nazi Germany. All in all, seventy-three of the seventy-six prisoners of war are recaptured, fifty of whom are killed for their attempt. The film ends with a dedication to the fifty who were slain rather than a celebration of the three who succeeded, and it is there where my already strained point of comparison must diverge.

Aside from the very obvious differences in stakes and historical weight, the individuals involved in both the real and semi-fictionalized accounts of the escape from Stalag Luft III were painfully aware of their chances of long-term evasion. Their primary goal was to create chaos behind enemy lines, diverting German resources and manpower and birthing a panic amongst a native population that had become increasingly concerned with successful Allied advances in Africa and Italy. And in that sense, failure was more of a part of the plan rather than an exception to it, which is more than I can say for the veritable parade of late-game collapses that this Spurs team has treated us to this season.

Yes, the San Antonio Spurs managed their own great escape Monday evening, as they have done several times already this year. But at 19-23 it wouldn’t be unfair to suggest that their success rate hasn’t exactly been overwhelming for a team hoping to do more than serve as a significant distraction. And it is fair to wonder how long they can keep this sort of late-game survival going.

As has so often been the case this season, the Silver and Black entered the fourth-quarter with a double-digit lead only to see it disappear, as both the offense and defense simultaneously suffered a tunnel collapse and the officiating crew appeared to go fully myopic at the sight of such well-coordinated dysfunction. There were bright spots to be sure, with Bryn Forbes setting a career high in three-pointers made, and Dejounte Murray defensively wreaking havoc on the Suns’ guard rotation, but by the final minutes of the fourth frame that array of wonderful moments were once again overshadowed by the specter of yet another allergic reaction to prosperity.

Though not the first of its kind, the runaway financial and critical success of ‘The Great Escape’ led to a series of escape pictures. The 1970’s alone accounted for a number of well-known films that fall within the genre (several of them featuring McQueen), and they’ve become a staple within the realm of television and cinema. Some (Rescue Dawn, Escape from New York, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) have been excellent. Others (The Poseidon Adventure, The Way Back, Prison Break) were simply exhausting.

There’s a reason that the 1980’s saw a decline in interest in escape films. After such a proliferation of those features, the public needed a bit of a break before they were willing to submit themselves to another constant barrage of near-misses. Studios had devalued the thrill of the narrow getaway by saturating the market and pushing the envelope on what could realistically be achieved. And while I remain as devoted a fan as ever, the San Antonio Spurs are threatening to do the same.

McQueen ultimately perished before his time, in the midst of the removal of a giant tumor. For the purposes of this discussion that’s fitting, as (defensively speaking) these Spurs have some tumors of their own to deal with. And as in the case of Steve McQueen, there’s some question as to whether or not the Spurs can survive the removal of the growths in question (supposing they can even be excised) or if they can indeed be dealt with in a different way. I suppose there’s a warning in there somewhere considering that neither option worked out well for McQueen.

But ultimately this misses the greater point of the nature of diminishing returns. Though I have since seen many an escape film, and thoroughly enjoyed them, it’s hard to not to point out the genre’s inherent flaw; that re-watch value is lower for most of these films than a great many others that I enjoy. No repeated viewing (except perhaps in the case of The Shawshank Redemption, an exception that proves the rule) can elicit the same degree of excitement that the first viewing did. The Great Escape will never be better than it was when I was six years old. Robert Horry’s three will never move me more than it did in 2005; Manu’s block never more than in 2017.

Certainly the close finishes of this season pale in comparison to those moments, but I can’t help but worry that this season’s version of the San Antonio Spurs is destined to continue saturating the market with inferior products. To borrow the words of the late poet-philosopher B.B. King, the thrill is gone. And I find myself wondering if by the end of the season (as in the case of The Great Escape) I’ll end up remembering the losses more than the victories.

Takeaways:

  • On a night in which Forbes stole the show for at least half of the game, it was the play of Derrick White that defined many of the better parts of the evening. White led all Spurs with 25 points on the evening, led all scorers not named Devin Booker, and narrowly missed leading the team in assists with seven. His defensive play however rendered him just as effective an influence on the contest as Booker, lacking the flash of Dejounte Murray’s steal count, but making up for it with the positioning that allowed teammates like DeMar DeRozan to tally a number of takeaways. More so perhaps than even Murray (who went 2-2 from three on the evening) it is White’s level of play (and aggression) that raises all boats, even when the rest of the team is struggling.
  • If you’re waiting for me to stop praising Jakob Poeltl, you can keep waiting. I sincerely doubt that anyone is considering what an absolute force Jakob has become in every area outside of shooting, as he matched LaMarcus Aldridge in block count (3) in exactly half the court time, while slightly exceeding him in both rebounds and assists. As ever, his usage remains confusing, but there should be no confusion about his value to this team. Other than Derrick White, no one contributes as vitally and good-naturedly as Poeltl, and I personally hope he’s a Spur for years to come.
  • Patty Mills had a strangely off night in which he only played 12 minutes. Since some kind of illness seems to be sweeping through San Antonio’s locker room, it’s fair to wonder if Patty wasn’t coming down with something as well, but it also could have been the result of his poor shooting and Forbes’s torrid first half. Can’t say that I’ll like it if it becomes a regular occurrence, but it’s something worth noting for now.
  • I’m not fond of a lot of the trades that I’ve seen bandied about this season, but Kelly Oubre Jr. would definitely be someone I’d be willing to give up some assets for. He’s a more than solid contributor on both ends, and seems like an ideal Spur. It’ll never happen, but I wouldn’t be mad if it did.
  • As much as we’ve collectively written about/discussed it, I still don’t think we’ve properly appreciated how seamlessly LaMarcus has made this transition to stretch five. That kind of instant change in volume + success is almost unheard of for any player, much less for an elder 7-footer in the middle of a season after so many years of success without it. He went 1-4 tonight, but he’s still shooting 43% on the season in spite of his late start. Just remarkable.

Playing You Out – The Theme Song of the Evening:

The Thrill is Gone: by B.B. King