The most striking NBA team for its peers to fear this season doesn't have The Greek Freak or the splendid duo of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry or Oklahoma City's Big Three of fame. Neither does this team dribble near the Golden Gate Bridge, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Mall of America, Boston Harbor or deep in the heart of Texas around Mission Control.
Remember the Alamo?
More than a few folks are ignoring the San Antonio Spurs when projecting ahead to the NBA Finals, and people are doing so because of all of those flashier teams in the spotlight. The Warriors, the Cavaliers, the Celtics and the Rockets. Even the Bucks of Giannis Antetokounmpo are getting love. The same goes for the Raptors, with that aforementioned backcourt, and the Thunder led by Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George. Well, it's that as a reason for the Spurs drawing yawns around the globe, and it's because they suddenly are as familiar with aches and pains as picks and rolls. Take Monday, for instance, when 40-year-old wonder Manu Ginobili tried to crash though a screen in Atlanta against the Hawks during the first quarter, and he spent the aftermath limping toward the locker room. He didn't play during the rest of an eventual 102-99 loss for the Spurs due to a right thigh contusion.
And did you hear that the San Antonio River is wet?
A slew of Spurs have missed multiple games this season, and those players have ranked among the NBA's Who's Who. You've had Kawhi Leonard (shoulder), Tony Parker (ankle), Danny Green (groin) and Rudy Gay (heel). Still, the Spurs are doing the unlikely through 45 games since they've only had their starting lineup intact six times. Somehow, they've tied the Timberwolves for third in the standings of the always rugged Western Conference at 29-16. So, with nearly everybody looking elsewhere around the NBA and with that banged-up roster, the Spurs are lurking in the shadows during the first half of the season (you know, like they always are), and they're waiting to surge down the stretch for a deep run through the playoffs (you know, like they always do).
"We've done it before, but to be honest, I don't know if that's an advantage for us right now or not," said center Pau Gasol, a 16-year NBA veteran, in his second season with a Spurs franchise that has captured five championships during its ongoing stretch of reaching the playoffs a league-high 20 consecutive seasons under Gregg Popovich, their Mr. Everything since 1996. "He's great, given what he's done as a coach, because he's very demanding, and he has great passion. He also makes sure everyone brings it the best they can every single night, and that's why he gets results from his teams. With these injuries, we just have to maneuver the best we can in the situation we find ourselves in. I feel like if we had our full squad together, we would be a lot higher in the standings than we are, and we wouldn't be talking right now about shadows or sneaking up on people.
"At the moment, what really matters the most is that we start peaking at the right time and start putting ourselves in the best position at the end of the season to give ourselves the best chance. Right?"
It makes sense to me. When healthy, the Spurs are better than anybody not named the Golden State Warriors in their conference and maybe in their league on a bunch of days. They've remained a fundamental machine. Nobody has allowed fewer points per game than the Spurs (97.9) They also are in the NBA top 10 for field-goal percentage, points per game differential, blocked shots and fewest average turnovers per game. They've got a future Hall of Fame point guard in Tony Parker, and shooting guard Danny Green is a defensive whiz with a consistently potent jumper beyond the three-point line. Elsewhere, not only has power forward Kawhi Leonard won a couple of NBA Defensive Player of the Year Awards, but he is a splendid offensive force. The Spurs also have power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, a five-time NBA All-Star, who shares the front court with Gasol, the owner of six trips to the All-Star Game after a tremendous career in Europe.
Then there is Ginobili, the Spurs' ageless sixth man who teammate Bryn Forbes said the other day is on "grandpa juice." That is, when Ginobili isn't sidelined in a flash with a bunch of other Spurs.
"We hope we can keep playing with whoever we have available and just try to find a rhythm and try to find a way to get the bugs out of our game," said Aldridge, of whom Popovich revealed earlier this month wanted to leave the Spurs before last season in a trade after just one campaign in San Antonio. The player thought he didn't fit the San Antonio system after nine years with the Portland Trailblazers, but Popovich confessed he "overcoached" Aldridge, and the coach adjusted and watched his 6-foot-11 power forward prosper like crazy in the aftermath. He's still doing so.
As for the team, it remains a work in progress. In addition to missing Ginobili for most of Monday, Leonard didn't play at all, and the Spurs attributed his absence to injury management. There also is "Popovich management" this time of year, when he selectively rests players, either by benching them or by doing what he did against the Hawks. For starters, Aldridge ended with team highs in points (25) and rebounds (11), as one of only two Spurs players to go beyond 28 minutes, and consider this: With 38 seconds left to play and the Spurs trying to overcome a four-point deficit, Popovich used an underwhelming lineup of Patty Mills, Davis Bertans, Aldridge, Green and Forbes.
The Spurs still almost won. Then again, they did lose to a Hawks bunch that had dropped six of its previous eight games along the way to the NBA's worst record of 11-31. More troubling for the Spurs as they continue their current road trip at Brooklyn on Wednesday night and at Toronto on Friday night, they're 10-14 on the road, and they haven't taken their yearly Rodeo Road Trip that will keep them away from San Antonio for the bulk of February.
"We have the experience to have a big run," Parker said, referring to San Antonio's roster featuring five players with double-digit experience in the NBA during his 16th season with the Spurs. "Even with that, at some point, we're going to have to stay healthy, and we have to get it going, and we have to do it by the All-Star break."
They always do.