They are winning games at a truly historic clip. They have transformed their home court into an impregnable fortress. They are pushing the basketball forward in ways we’ve rarely seen before. They are almost impossible to root against, thanks not only to their skill, but their collection of beloved personalities.
Yes, the San Antonio Spurs are having a season for the ages.
Or, were you thinking of some other Western Conference powerhouse?
— NBA (@NBA) March 20, 2016
Saturday night’s 87-79 victory over the Golden State Warriors ensured that these Spurs would sit under the radar no longer. And that’s only fitting for a team that, yes, just like Golden State, is undefeated at home, on pace for one of the greatest seasons in NBA history, and, oh by the way, still has a real chance to catch the Warriors, deny them history, and enter the playoffs as a number one seed. But then, of course, in true San Antonio fashion, they don’t appear to be too worked up about any of it.
“Hard to say that it’s even,” explained the ageless Manu Ginobili after the game, “They have a better record. They are playing unbelievable basketball, and they played yesterday. That’s an advantage. They were missing a few guys. So of course we love the win. We enjoyed it, I think we did a great job. But if we happen to face them in the playoffs, we’ve got to be very humble…They are a very tough team to beat.”
And no, as hard as they might appear to be trying, it’s not as if this team truly snuck up on anyone. Plenty of people have been keeping a close eye on San Antonio. Most everyone in the basketball intelligentsia is aware of exactly how good they are. And the internet continues to share Gregg Popovich 3rd Quarter intermission interviews like they’re going out of style.
Gregg Popovich vs. Craig Sager
Winner: Popovich by a million pic.twitter.com/vxLJBcPtYR
— Rob Perez (@World_Wide_Wob) March 4, 2016
So sure, we know the Spurs. Hell, we’ve known them for almost two decades now.
But there’s no denying that this latest edition of the San Antonio epoch, which may, in fact, be the greatest of all, has been obscured, if a bit, by the ongoing basketball bacchanal that emanates from the Bay Area. Golden State currently sits three games ahead of the Spurs in the standings, but in those three games, lies a narrative chasm. The Warriors, down the stretch, are still chasing that holiest of hoops milestones, the 72 wins of the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls. The Spurs, meanwhile, would have to win their final 13 games simply to tie that mark.
And so, for that reason, it’s Steve Kerr’s team that generates the bulk of the Sloan Conference ready deep dives. It’s Steph Curry who inspires your favorite basketblogger to write sonnets in his name. It’s the Warriors that pull Rick Reilly back into the pages of Sports Illustrated, fill your timeline with mind-blowing vines on a nightly basis, and inspire crotchety stars from past generations to air their grievances. Oscar Robertson has yet to share his slightly salty scouting report on Kawhi, after all.
Here are some numbers for everyone to chew on. This magical, breathtaking, once-in-a-generation Warriors season? It’s seen Golden State outscore their opponents by an average of 11.2 points per game. San Antonio, meanwhile, has maintained an average scoring differential of 12.2. That impossibly beautiful Warriors offense? It’s impressive, to be sure, at 114.8 points per 100 possessions, which places it in the league’s Top 10 all-time since such stats were recorded.
But the Spurs defense has been, arguably, just as impressive, allowing 97.9 points per 100 possessions. That ranks them 40th all-time, since such stats were kept, but it’s even more remarkable when you consider that it’s the only defense from the past decade to rank in the Top 50. This is an era, after all, that has been defined by the elimination of the hand check, far less physical defense, and improved long range shooting. For the Spurs to “make defense great again”, in this era of prolific scoring, shows an astounding ability to go against the grain. And it was that defensive intensity that was the key on Sunday, holding the Warriors to a season low 79 points on 37.8% shooting from the field.
“I told the guys I thought their execution and their competitiveness defensively were outstanding,” noted Popovich, “That’s something you can depend on night after night. You never know if you’re going to make shots or not, but if you can be consistent with your defense, you’re in the ballgame, and I thought that our guys, this was one of their better execution games, in following what we were trying to do.”
“It’s a scramble for everybody,” added Boris Diaw, whose surprise appearance in the starting lineup, in place of Tim Duncan, proved an effective early counter for the Warriors’ small-ball lineup. “You saw it tonight. But the whole team was ready for that. Everybody was very active, and that’s what we’ve got to do. Everybody has to switch at any time, there was backscreens, there’s always guys running around and so, you keep your head on a swivel, ready to switch, and ready to guard anybody at any time.”
The Spurs and Warriors have two more meetings remaining in the regular season, meaning that both teams will have one more shot to do what’s been impossible thus far this season, and hand their rival a home loss. Watching each team’s strategy in those matchups, seeing just how close the two clubs play it to the vest, should prove fascinating, given that a Western Conference Finals matchup seems fated, if not entirely inevitable. But the Spurs’ Saturday night win did more than simply eliminate the sting of a 30-point blowout loss back in January. It also cemented San Antonio as worthy rivals to Golden State’s marvelous year.
Make no mistake, the Spurs are not mere spoilers, nor cagey veterans ready to swoop in and crash the Warriors’ party. They are, instead, very much equals, with FiveThirtyEight’s projection model now rating San Antonio as slightly more likely to capture the championship. And indeed, given the rather anodyne, unassuming, muted nature of the Spurs’ dynasty to this point, one kept help but wonder if the team has things positioned exactly as they like heading into the stretch run.
As the Warriors continue to chase a record, making no apologies for their desire to make history, the Spurs will wrap things up at their own pace, without the same focused gaze of the national media. Compared to the high stakes ahead, the remainder of the regular season seems like mere exhibitions after all, something the team’s superstar seemed keenly aware of, even after one of the biggest triumphs of the year.
“Whoever won this game doesn’t automatically advance to the Finals,” noted Kawhi Leonard, just above a whisper, in his postgame media availability, “It’s another game, just trying to get better, each and every game, going into the playoffs.”
So sure, the San Antonio Spurs made plenty of noise on Saturday night, in front of a raucous home crowd, on national television, in arguably the greatest matchup of two teams in league history.
Now don’t be surprised if they do their very best to quiet things right back down again.