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What we learned from the Spurs loss to the Jazz

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The Spurs are dead. Long live the Spurs.

San Antonio Spurs v Utah Jazz Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

I came in to the bubble very cynical about this whole operation. The season ended in March as far as I was concerned and I was borderline frustrated that the powers that be were dragging it around Weekend at Bernie’s style and pretending everything was fine. I didn’t want to watch the Spurs anymore. It was a bad season, but it was over and I was ready to be done with it.

I’m leaving the bubble heartbroken at the way this playoff race has shaken out. I don’t exactly know where the shift happened, but at some point I bought into this whole mess. The playoff streak went from a vanity record that meant nothing, to a holy grail that needed to be captured at all costs. I was on the edge of my seat cheering for three objectively fun and exciting teams, the Blazers, Grizzlies, and Suns, to crash and burn in spectacular ways in order to make way for the Spurs to grab a prize that had somehow become the most important thing in the world. I was stringing together conspiracy theories in my head that Popovich had traded away our favorite son, Boban Marjanovic, for this exact moment so that he could unleash his powers and destroy our enemies from afar. It was real sick behavior that I am not proud of!

These things are all symptoms of a larger, much more positive condition I’ve found myself in. In just two weeks I have been utterly charmed by the San Antonio Spurs in a way I didn’t think was possible anymore. Maybe I’m a sucker. Maybe I’m simply hard up for good news at the moment. It could be any number of things, but this little sojourn down to Disney World seemed to relight a spark that hasn’t been there in a while.

Maybe the playoff streak ending is good. Maybe it’s the right thing to happen to this franchise at the right time. The Playoffs have long felt like a birthright around these parts and we’re probably going to talk about that 22 year streak in hallowed tones for the rest of our lives, but it’s possible the streak was becoming an albatross. Almost every decision made since 2017 was in the service of remaining competitive at all costs. There wasn’t room for growth or innovation, there was only room for tinkering and maintenance. We already had a ship that could float, why build a new ship?

The pre-bubble 2019-2020 season was frustrating to engage with because it always had a ceiling. Even when there were signs of life with the squad, it never read as anything more than a team who might make someone else sweat a bit in the first round. That’s not fun. That’s not exciting. That doesn’t incite the passion of a fan base. It’s the equivalent of ordering a turkey sandwich every day for lunch because you know that it won’t make you sick. It’s no way to go through life.

The thing about the Bubble Spurs is that it finally felt new. It felt like we were dusting off the competitive parts of the war machine for the first time in a while and really fighting for something. Save for Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli, these guys hadn’t won anything at this level. Rudy Gay hasn’t. DeMar DeRozan hasn’t. The new core of young guys sure hasn’t. That playoff birthright may have seemed like it belonged to the franchise, but it sure didn’t belong to them. They were the ones who needed to go out and earn it and it finally felt like they were being allowed to. There was a hunger and a fire about the way they played in the bubble that was surprising and infectious. The team felt alive and I felt alive watching them.

It was gutting to realize that the dream was dead before tip-off against the Jazz. I’d hoped at least someone would fall so that our guys would at least get the chance to go down swinging. Win or lose, I just wanted to get another look at them out there fighting for their playoff lives. I wanted to take a last little mental picture of this scrappy group of misfits trying to pull off a playoff heist before we had to head back home and start answering some tough questions. One more reason to hate the Mavs, I suppose.

The tough questions are certainly looming, but I finally feel like the franchise is ready to answer them. Intentionally or not, I think they stumbled upon something down in the bubble. It may not be a strategy, but I do think it’s a mindset. The lesson isn’t “we have to play small ball,” the lesson is that the time for slow playing the kids is over. There are fun, exciting and talented young guys on this roster and they are long overdue for the chance to prove themselves. Maybe they’ve been doing this behind closed doors, but you’d have to be crazy to watch the last two weeks of basketball and come to the conclusion that they aren’t ready to be handed the keys.

The playoff streak was a beautiful thing. It was built by an amazing group of players who worked their butts off to sustain that level of excellence for so long that we probably take it for granted at this point. I’m proud of it and I’m grateful for it. I’m sad that it’s over but, also, I think I’m actually a little bit excited about it. The Spurs have a young, talented, and hungry core that’s ready to build something of their own.

New streak starts next year. Y’all ready?

Takeaways:

  • Who can say what happened in this game? Did the Spurs win? Did they lose? It was honestly sort of hard to concentrate on it.
  • I know the Spurs have largely eschewed traditional positional designations during their time in Orlando, but one thing I’m fascinated to follow moving forward is how exactly that translates into next year. For all the relative innovation during his career, Pop is pretty traditionalist when it comes to certain basketball things and it’s hard to imagine he’s really going to be able to commit to a free flowing, mind-meld point guard situation for an entire year. If everyone is a point guard, is anyone a point guard? Is that sustainable over the course of a season? Do these guys have the talent to pull something like that off? Tune in next year to find out...
  • Keldon Johnson continues to be impressive which I realize is not exactly the most niche observation I can make right now, but he really jumps off the screen in a way the sort of can’t be ignored. Among the many burning questions that need to be answered during the off-season, the most fun one to think about is what exactly the Spurs are going to do with this new weapon they seem to have unearthed. Is he an energy off the bench guy? Does the fact that he doesn’t seem to be a complete defensive liability mean that he can maybe fill the Bryn Forbes role in the starting lineup? Are we building up our hopes too much based on two weeks of play in a weird bubble tournament? Are you mad at me for bringing up Bryn Forbes?
  • It feels very much like common sense to me that the Spurs need to bring back Jakob Poeltl. I don’t know how it works with our cap situation and I don’t know how it works with our LaMarcus situation, but this guy just seems too good to simply let walk out the door. He is demonstrably better at almost every aspect of his game than when he got here from Toronto and he seems to work exceptionally well within whatever this weird, freeform motion offense that the Spurs had going in Orlando. I don’t know. Maybe I’m just partial to his particular stylings, but it’s hard to imagine a scenario next season where we let him go and I don’t find myself saying, “boy, I sure wish we had Jakob Poeltl type to plug in there.”
  • TIM DUNCAN FIT WATCH: One saving grace of the season drawing to a close is that everyone can finally stop pretending that it’s not super weird to not have Timmy over there on the sidelines in his fresh threads molding the minds of the Spurs young talent. Our long national nightmare is over. The next time we see our guys on the court, Tim is going to be right out there with them in a spectacular blazer. Maybe he’s been in the lab working up some new color schemes for us. I’m thinking a deep purple would look good on him. A couple of new plaid lay outs perhaps? The future is a blank sheet of paper for us to sketch our dreams upon and I, for one, can’t wait to see what Tim’s drawn up for us.