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What We Learned from the Spurs loss to the Rockets

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When an easy win becomes an obvious loss.

Houston Rockets v San Antonio Spurs Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

In retrospect, of course the Spurs were going to lose this one. Teams that just traded their franchise player always win the next game. Especially when said franchise player spent the past few weeks dumping kerosene all over the building before flinging a match over their shoulder on the way out. Is there a more pure motivation in this crazy, mixed up world than spite? Spite alone can’t necessarily make up for a talent deficit over the course of an entire season or anything, but a quick national TV appearance against an old rival the day after someone embarrasses you? Spite is more than enough for that job. It’s here for a good time, not a long time.

The Spurs didn’t have anything like spite in their arsenal last night. The Spurs were, oddly enough, looking pretty satisfied for the moment. They’d just completed a tidy little road trip and logged some decent wins. Guys were playing well. Everyone was getting along. It’s all one big happy family in Spursville. The franchise headed in the right direction, the old guys buying in and the young guys flashing potential. I mean, with a situation like that, how on earth are they supposed to compete against a team with Big Wounded Animal energy over there? I don’t care how many players the other team is missing, that’s an impossible task.

I’m not trying to excuse this no-show from the Spurs by any means. In fact, if you haven’t picked up on the subtle undercurrent of irritation by now, then let me make it clear: that game last night annoyed me to distraction. It was the basketball equivalent of a rock in your shoe. Within three minutes of realizing the Christian Wood was about to spend the rest of the night channelling the ghost of Moses Malone, I almost turned my TV off and went to bed. I hate watching games like this. I hate when, on paper, your team has every single advantage but the paper doesn’t account for things like “Star player just spent a stressful week with his ailing father” or “playing in an empty home arena is still disorienting” or “opposing team is possessed by the ghosts of franchise greats for one night if only to restore honor to their team.” Advanced metrics have only advanced so far!

2018 isn’t far enough away yet for any of us to forget how this felt, right? We’ve seen Kawhi go off and win a championship somewhere else. We’ve seen him switch teams again. We’ve watched the career he was supposed to have with us flourish elsewhere and all of that has been painful to some degree, but nothing hurt like the back half of 2018 when it became abruptly and abundantly clear that he didn’t want to be here and there was nothing we could do about it. All the plans we’d made, all the hopes we had just...slowly leaking out the back door with a string of questionable DNPs and mysterious reports from “sources close to Kawhi.”

It feels silly to be melodramatic about this stuff, especially in light of everything else going on right now but, within whatever context you think about your relationship with basketball, that was likely the most painful experience we will ever have as Spurs fans. It’s worse than Derek Fischer’s miracle. It’s worse than Manu fouling Dirk. It’s worse than Ray Allen from the corner. Losses are nothing because at least when we lose we do it together. Kawhi deciding to leave was intensely scarring because it was someone we cared about looking us up and down and saying, “I want something different.” That hurt then, it hurts now, and it’s probably going to hurt forever.

I hope the Rockets and their fans enjoyed that win last night, I really do, because they’re going through it right now. James Harden sat down at a press conference after a game and said to the world, “I’ve literally done everything I can. I don’t think it can be fixed.” That’s brutal. It’s especially brutal because as much as everyone else clowned on Harden for a variety of reasons, Houston fans never did. They never wavered because James Harden was their guy. Players are entitled to do whatever they want with their careers because, at the end of the day, franchises are fickle and fans can be fickle and if you don’t look out for yourself then no one else is going to. I get all that and I support all that — but it makes me extremely sad all the same.

The Rockets have a long road ahead of them and the nice moments are going to be few and far between. We know this because we’ve been there. We know how long it takes to get back to the point where you feel good about the team you’re watching and the direction they’re headed in. We know how long it takes to adjust your mindset from “how do we compete for a title?” to “how do we get a little bit better every night?” It’s hard and it’s annoying and, frankly, it’s not a process that we’re all the way done with yet. But we’re doing so much better then we were in 2018. We’ve mourned the end of era. We’ve mourned the loss of a star. We’re finally excited about the future.

The Spurs lost a game last night because they’re in a better place than the Rockets. All things considered, I think that’s something I can live with.

Takeaways:

  • This season is so weird and some nights it’s easy to ignore the one hundred reasons why it’s weird and other nights it’s the only thing you can focus on. I can’t get over how strange it must be to play in a big empty arena like this. At least in the bubble the environment was so different from the norm that it was probably easier to adjust to because they didn’t have anything to compare it with. Right now they’re out there playing in front of 18,000 empty seats and it’s got to be disorienting beyond all reason. It’s a miracle that any of the basketball we’re watching is even halfway normal looking because if it were me out there I would probably be having an existential crisis halfway through the 2nd quarter every night.
  • It’s almost comical how easy a win this would’ve been if either LaMarcus or DeMar had been able to get anything going last night. Anything at all! The Spurs just aren’t going to win if those guys are scoring in the teens. The formula for success doesn’t work with otherwise. Keldon Johnson can score as much as he likes, but at the end of the day, everything good about this team has to flow through those dudes and when they aren’t right, it feels like everyone else is just holding things together with duct tape and hoping that the building doesn’t fall down around them.
  • I don’t want to focus too much on the fact that that Spurs were up 9 with 4:30 left to play and couldn’t put this thing to bed. Why? Well, because if I focus on that then I might have to think really hard about the defensive shortcomings of this team or the fact that they don’t have much of a plan for things down the stretch beyond “Clear out and hope DeMar can just take care of it for us.” That doesn’t seem like a fun use of our time and I just think we’ve all been through enough lately.
  • Keldon Johnson rules though, roll that beautiful bean footage!

WWL Post Game Press Conference

- You mentioned the probability of ghosts inhabiting the bodies of Houston’s players twice over the course of this post. Once and I’d excuse it as a joke, but twice and, well, I have to ask, do you believe ghosts are real?

- I don’t want to spend too much time getting bogged down in metaphysical theory here. Are ghosts real? Is anything real? What does real even mean anymore? I don’t have those answers for you this morning and I probably won’t have them any time soon.

- That was a fancy way of dodging the question.

- I have not seen a ghost before. I have also never been to the Pyramids, and yet we know they are there because learned men have told us so.

- So you’re open to the idea of ghosts?

- I’m open to the idea the Sterling Brown didn’t drop 23 points on us last night without a little help.