As a war historian or anyone who’s watched the 2022-23 Rockets might tell you, not all tanks are created equal. There are multiple paths to a 14% crack at Victor Wembanyama — you can elect to place a wobbly object at a precipice and let gravity do its thing, or you may make your way down the mountain through a more elaborate set of dips and hedges that, hopefully, end with you on your feet when you hit the bottom.
It’s not that the Spurs wouldn’t have been bad this season regardless, but it’s also fair to credit the midseason moves, cautionary DNPs for key players, and a complete lack of lineup continuity for further abetting their bottom-three positioning, all while maximizing on-ball reps for rookies and letting nearly every piece settle into an elevated role. Wins be damned.
Which is what can bring you to games like the San Antonio Spurs’ 128-120 win over the West-leading Denver Nuggets, a night that built up from a typically flat first quarter and virtually insurmountable 15-point deficit (as Project Spurs’ Paul Garcia has tracked, they were 0-35 this season when falling behind by 15 or more), and which was pulled back into contention one determined drive at a time, then jolted by a multi-ejection scuffle between Zach Collins and Michael Porter Jr.
And as a raucous AT&T Center crowd gave Collins a Maximus-esque send-off in the third quarter, the rarely-whole Spurs kept their foot on the pedal and sustained an equally rare 24 minutes of quality execution in the second half. Doug McDermott chipped in an ultra-efficient 20 points (on 7 of 8 from the field) while Collins’ ejection forced (allowed?) Gregg Popovich to look to newly acquired Sandro Mamukelashvili (11 points and 4 rebounds in 12 minutes), who was equally comfortable playing in the flow of the offense, popping threes and rotating the ball, as he was absorbing body blows from Nikola Jokic on the block.
Said Mamu afterwards at the podium: “I didn’t know if I was going to play or not, so I just stayed ready and whenever they called my name, I just came in focused. As I said, I wanted to play Nikola [Jokic], so I brought my ‘A’ game today.”
Through each spate of losses this season (and perhaps with the serendipitous waiver claim of Mamukelashvili), the Spurs’ process has quietly set them up for the only goal Pop chases each year: that the team is the best version of itself once it’s all over. With Devin Vassell (14 points) and Tre Jones (14 points, 8 assists, 3 steals and a game high +21) working their way back from injury, Keldon Johnson (23, 8 and 6) finding ways to remain effective through his shooting woes, and Sochan (19 and 8) getting increasingly adept both on and off ball and repeatedly cracking Denver’s zone, the Spurs are back to a tough out, and one that’s clearly benefited from the individual strides taken through the lumps. Even Malaki Branham in one of his roughest nights as a pro (4 points, 5 fouls in 26 minutes) will gain tremendously from being able to stay on the floor through his struggles.
As an idiot on the outside, I choose to believe in an unknown calculus that weighs banking an L versus long-term teaching moments. Friday seemed on course to prioritize the latter even before a quick Pop timeout with 6 minutes left after the Nuggets trimmed their deficit to 4 off an open corner three, and the team answered with a 5-0 Mamu run, taking each remaining blow the Nuggets delivered: a Jones floater; another Mamu three; a Sochan three-point play. Amid a season of more cynical macro moves, the Spurs rewarded a packed house (and themselves) with a winning effort.
“It’s a big confidence builder,” said Pop afterwards on the importance of experience like this for the young group. “It helps them understand what they’re doing individually and teamwise is pretty good. If it can get a win against a team like Denver, it’s a positive for sure.”
“It means a lot,” added McDermott. “It shows we are growing. Showing we are doing the right things every day. It’s great to see us get rewarded with a great win against the top seed in the West.”
The Spurs are still on their preset path towards the bottom, a decision that could net the biggest individual payoff if the lottery balls shake out right. And while we won’t likely see many more nights like Friday this season, the win is a reminder of the various positives they should be able to carry through; a bit of welcomed madness to lend credence to their methods. If nothing else, it’s a reason to stay tuned in and see this year through.