The least profitable death pool in history might be the one that aims to predict the demise of the San Antonio Spurs. It’s been a decade-long exercise that accelerates with each injury to Manu Ginobili, every trade rumor that has Tony Parker being shipped off and every moment when Tim Duncan seems like he might finally succumb to the hands of time. Even those who appreciate the Spurs’ longevity and don’t care that a lot of fans find the team uninteresting whisper every fall that it might be time to blow the whole thing up, lest San Antonio risk descending into small-market purgatory with an aging core.
Then, while everyone is placing bets on their collapse and is distracted by the league’s shiny new objects or sexy sideshows, the Spurs quietly get to work. As the rest of the world has been wrapped up in the Linsanity over the past two weeks, the Spurs have ripped off a 10-game winning streak out of plain view. As metaphors go, the contrast couldn’t be more poetic. Lin breathed life into a team in a death spiral, whereas the Spurs never require any rescue missions. Their mode of consistency is every bit as certain as Lin’s explosion was improbable. In a league dominated by spectacle, the Spurs toil in anonymity.
On Saturday afternoon, San Antonio notched that 10th consecutive victory with a 103-100 overtime win against the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center. The victory was bizarre, practically gifted to the Spurs when the Clippers botched an inbounds pass leading by three points with only 9.5 seconds remaining in regulation. The ball landed, serendipitously, in Gary Neal’s hands. Neal squared up at the top of the circle, and sent the game into overtime with a 3-pointer.
Despite the strange circumstances, the win was, in many ways, a trademark Spurs performance — workmanlike and predicated on systematic precision. When Tony Parker wasn’t penetrating, he was buzzing around twin baseline screens to tip the balance of the Clippers’ defense that was run ragged by the Spurs’ ball movement. The Clippers have had success recently switching their big men onto ball handlers in the pick-and-roll, but the Spurs have made a living turning the tables on less experienced opponents. San Antonio sniffed out the Clippers’ defensive game plan and made a mockery of it. Parker generated three scores in fewer than two minutes toying with backpedaling Clippers forwards.
The game’s most pivotal possession came in overtime when, once again, the Clippers switched on a Parker-Duncan pick-and-roll. With Chris Paul now guarding Duncan on the left block, the Clippers sent a full platoon of help defenders to buffer their diminutive point guard. Duncan has been reading double- and triple-teams for an eternity from the post. All it took was a zippy baseline pass to Gary Neal in the weakside corner for a 3-pointer that put the Spurs up 101-98 with 25.4 seconds to play.
San Antonio has been prospering on its core competence for nearly a generation, but rarely receives anything but a groan from rabid NBA fans outside central Texas. Stylists bemoan the Spurs’ adherence to fundamentals as boring and a betrayal of the league’s new era of supreme athleticism. The Spurs foiled the Suns squad that was everyone’s second-favorite team during the Seven Seconds or Less regime, denying the basketball world a new championship paradigm, and have never been forgiven.
The Spurs’ critics loathe that Duncan has stubbornly clung to a monastic public persona. His on-court success is rarely punctuated with an expression of any sort, and the only time he gets excited is when the NBA offices decree that he must go business casual with a sportcoat when sidelined. Ginobili was booed during introductions on Saturday in Los Angeles, presumably for his flopping. Parker is a point guard every bit as dynamic as the league’s supernovas, but is rarely claimed by the cool kids. Then there’s Popovich, who openly flouts the league’s rugged schedule each season by resting his stars at will, denying the ticket-paying public the as-advertised product.
All the while, the Spurs chug ahead, staving off mortality. In a league where coaches operate in fear, a meticulous Popovich wins games choreographing sets that rely on execution rather than one-on-one play. The front office plucks an all-world backcourt of Parker and Ginobili in the NBA draft with the 28th and 57th picks respectively. Lesser players become greater ones by subscribing to a system built on leveraging the strengths of those who have few. Coaches around the league have appropriated Popovich’s greatest hits. Watch Philadelphia and others run the “Motion Weak” set, which the Spurs rode to their most recent titles. See team after team run a wedge play fashioned by the Spurs for Duncan to free up their own power forwards. Imitation might be the most sincere form of flattery, but few teams can approximate the Spurs’ sturdiness.
On Sunday, the NBA will be enraptured by Jeremy Lin and the Knicks as they host Dallas at America’s basketball cathedral. More than 1,500 miles away at the AT&T Center, the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo will feature a Donkey & Mule Show as the Spurs soldier on to Salt Lake City, where they’ll continue their nine-game road trip in obscurity — respected by many, but unloved by most.