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What we learned from the Spurs win over the Thunder

Even the biggest of clocks needs winding.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at San Antonio Spurs Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

A clock is a beautiful thing. Gears mesh with a precise and delicate sort of intimacy. Ornate hands twirl and orbit unyielding numbers. The pendulum lives within its tempo and supersedes all silence; calmly rocking from crescendo to crescendo. There’s a certain unerring quality about the whole operation; an almost romantic je ne sais quoi. It’s very hard not to admire a clock.

Consider the qualities if you will: The elegant yet tireless navigation of time’s circumference; the dutiful and honest reckoning of the hours; the unquenched pursuit of temporal perfection. Unlike human beings, a clock takes nothing for granted and is remarkably consistent. Unlike human beings, a clock never grows weary. And unlike human beings, a clock is faithful.

Surely such qualities demand admiration.

And yet, a clock does in fact share one essential trait with the whole of humanity – a penchant for failure. Because for all its mechanical accuracy, for all its gilded pursuit of the infinite, even the most well-fashioned clock will lose time; will lose seconds, minutes, even hours if let go long enough.

And as it is with all such failures, there can be no gilding of that single and somewhat devastating truth. Perhaps that is why we forgive clocks for their better virtues. A failure can develop a certain regard for another failure; a near desperate desire for the recognition of similitude in others; for a witness – a brother – a tragic sort of comrade. Perfection is too cold for such camaraderie; admirable, but cold.

And this I think is what has made this basketball season such a compelling study in tolerance for Spurs fans.

For the better part of 22 years, the San Antonio Spurs functioned as a well-timed, well-oiled mechanism. Never more in sync than that redemptive 2013-2014 season, but rarely more than a few instants off of the count, even in the seasons that resulted in earlier postseason exits.

Their defensive rotations were as crisp as a timepiece’s revolutions; their vast array of cuts and picks as timely and consistent as a second hand. Certainly, they were an elegant and uncommon merging of mechanics and art.

When it came to reliability and consistency within the wide world of sports (or at the very least, North American sports) the Spurs towered above the rest, not unlike that famous timepiece situated near the top of Elizabeth Tower, Big Ben.

First completed in 1859, roughly two years before the American Civil War, Big Ben is known for the reliability of its mechanism, rarely losing more than two seconds per week. Having survived both World War I and the London Blitz of World War Two, it was considered a relative scandal in 2015 when it was found that the 156 year-old clock had been running as much as six seconds late.

So it’s fitting that first-round exits were often regarded with same air of scandal during the Tim Duncan Era here in San Antonio. But then, those were they halcyon days of invariable contention, before the mechanism slipped even more in Duncan’s absence.

Since then, the franchise has endured a number of indignities, and the reaction, once heated at the thought of an untimely postseason exit, has varied from a chorus of muted acceptance to a throng of front-office criticism. It’s understandable, and thoroughly human to react badly to undesirable variation. But I think it sometimes misses a crucial point.

You see, for all the fidelity of its internal workings, Big Ben is still a chronometer that requires a great deal of maintenance. The clock must be hand wound three times a week in order to maintain that legendary accuracy. The pendulum itself is calibrated with a stack of English pennies, each of which adjusts the time by .4 seconds when they are removed or added. In fact, the entire procedure of winding said clock is itself so arduous, that it requires two people in order to be done properly.

There are 290 steps from the bottom of Big Ben to the clock room. And if you happen to have the good fortune to go on a tour of that tower, there are signs that warn you of the potential for physical strain and the lack of an elevator.

One can imagine the 73 year-old Gregg Popovich climbing a similar staircase to wind San Antonio’s mechanism all by himself for a number of years now, after 19 years of company on the climb. As a task that requires more than one person, I suppose it’s not that strange at all to find the clock has lost some time.

There is, I think, in the depths of the heart of every person, a love for the memory of time. Whether it be for the instruments of timely discernment, or merely the passing of the hours and seasons, matters little. A love for any of these things is in its own misplaced way, a love for the thing itself.

When my father’s father passed, I took a pocket-watch from his things. It’s still nestled safety amongst the socks in one of my dresser drawers, ticking away without any knowledge of the time that it has lost. I haven’t had the heart to wind it.

But I thought about it as I watched Lonnie Walker jab-step his way to a game-winning three pointer, as I watched Tre Jones generate late-game drives to the basket, as I watched Josh Primo put back a missed three-pointer in a dazzling display of athleticism.

Maybe it’s time to rewind it after all. It is, after all, still right twice a day.


  • After all my talk about Josh Richardson as solid sixth man, it appears that Richardson may have played his way into the starting lineup, having slotted in next to Dejounte Murray in each of the last four games. Scoring aside (and Richardson has definitely been a little inconsistent there), it appears to be even more natural of a fit than it was with Derrick White in that back-court, raising the question of whether San Antonio’s front office may have once again come out ahead in dealing with other NBA franchises. It was one thing to have gotten back one of the long-hoarded Celtic 1st round picks, but with the quality of Richardson’s defensive play and seemingly seamless fit, Brian Wright and company deserve some serious credit for having the stones to make what could have an incredibly unpopular move.
  • And for all the (deserved) attention being given to Lonnie’s game winner and recent spate of great play, how about that game-closing block from Josh Primo? Even in a low-scoring appearance, Primo was electric on both ends, but his defensive effort continues to impress. He’s as prone to defensive mistake as just about any rookie, but there’s already an active understanding of how to move and use his length that can’t always be taught (see: DeMar DeRozan), and if Primo continues to grow (as some have suggest he might) Keldon Johnson might eventually find himself in a competition for the small-forward spot. Overall, it’s becoming easier and easier to see why PATFO were willing to take a flyer on this youngster. That kid can play.

Playing You Out – The Theme Song of the Evening:

England Swings by Roger Miller