As a team. What a concept!
“That’s just the way we play,” said Gary Neal, the 28-year-old guard in his third season with the Spurs. “If you practice iso’s in training camp and throughout the season, you’ll iso [in those situations]. We don’t practice that and that’s not the way we play. One through twelve, we play the same system – that’s the San Antonio Spurs system. It doesn’t matter whether we’re up 20 or down 20, that’s the way we’re gonna play.”
There’s nothing flashy about Kawhi Leonard catching the ball, immediately heading into the triple-threat position at the top of the key and then firing a chest pass to Neal, who has just come off a down screen, for an open elbow jumper.
There’s nothing sexy about a staggered double-screen that leads to Tim Duncan catching the ball at the elbow, turning to face the defense, surveying the floor and then firing a fluid jimmy in Tyson Chandler’s face.
And flashy or sexy is not what San Antonio has been about since Popovich took over as coach in 1996.
As somebody who has gone from undrafted rookie to starter on a championship contender, Green got the “team basketball” memo early and hasn’t looked back since.
“Last year, when we were up big or we were losing and he would get on me and Kawhi for not moving the ball, penetrating and kicking,” said Green. “I remember in Portland we came in and we were down pretty big. He rested the Big Three (Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili) and he wanted us to work on our games and work on the offense.
“But at the same time it’s not a scoring contest or whatever. It’s about us getting better and playing as a team and doing the right thing. Everybody’s had their times, and I’m sure there’s more than one instance.”
So after dropping a game in the standings – at 26-9, the Spurs are statistically third but virtually tied for first in the West – Popovich and San Antonio leave The Big Apple with positives and negatives of a 7-1 streak as they continue to try to shore up weak points in their game.
“I thought we could have made extra passes,” said Popovich. “I thought we were sloppy in some ways and not very sharp. On the dribble too much, took contested shots. Didn’t go good-to-great as much as we could have, but it happens. We’ve had a pretty good run and they played great. There’s not much else I can tell you.”
Important enough to take a $250,000 fine to the bank to show his team what really matters: Longevity.
“Everybody has to be on the same page,” said Green, discussing what it will take to win a title this season. “It has a little to do with luck and being healthy, but hopefully we can click and execute at the same time and that’s the biggest thing at the end of the year. Hopefully we can continue to get better each day, continue to be efficient. I think that’s the biggest key – playing with each other – because we don’t have as much superstars that can do it all by themselves. We’ve gotta have guys play together to be successful.”
Per usual, it doesn’t seem like playing together will be a problem.
If San Antonio can stay healthy and Popovich continues to find subtle ways to rest his guys – as he did last night when he felt the game was out of hand in the fourth quarter – the Spurs will be spoken about as a Finals contender until they wear down.
For Popovich, the Big Three and the rest of the roster, the season is viewed as a marathon, not a sprint. And while father time is creeping up on them, it’s still just another year to improve and – if they’re lucky – they will have a chance to win a championship.
It’s just another year in San Antonio.