By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com
It happens every year. After all the wind and sleet, the snow drifts and frozen highways, the crippling storms and blinding blizzards, spring arrives.
So do the Spurs.
The Heat cool off, the Pacers wobble and the Thunder roll in and out. But the Spurs simply hum. Electricity through a power line.
Every year they’re supposed to get older. Every season they seem only to get wiser. And better. About managing their minutes. About healing their aches and pains. About avoiding the lows and managing the highs.
The Spurs stepped on the necks of the Lakers on Wednesday night, for the second time inside of a week, pushing their win streak to 11 in a row, their longest of the season, heading into Friday night’s game at Sacramento (10 ET, League Pass).
They are 13-1 since the All-Star break and have extended their NBA-record streak of 50-win seasons to a mind-numbing 15 in a row. The Spurs even won 50 in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, finishing 50-16.That is the real March Madness.
So while Phil Jackson gobbles up the headlines in New York, the Spurs keep their heads down and chins up. And now look who’s sitting on top of the standings with the best overall record in the league, 1 1/2 games up on slumping Indiana.
All of which is as surprising to coach Gregg Popovich as gravity.
“That’s what we usually do, right?” Popovich told Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News. “Historically, we’ve always tried to play our best ball after the All-Star break. This year it also coincided with everybody getting healthy, but we’ve done that before. It doesn’t mean we’re going to be the last team standing, but it’s what we usually try to strive for.”
It’s been a habit for nearly a decade to write off the Spurs. That seemed valid after they let the 2013 championship slip through their fingers in those final 24 seconds of Game 6 in Miami. The players have acknowledged that it’s still kicking around in the back corners of their minds. Popovich admits that it rides like an 800-pound gorilla on his back every day. Yet they don’t let it chase them into dark corners each time they step out onto the court.
That ability to stay in the present has been constructed from those 15 consecutive years of 50-win excellence.
“It’s better than losing 50 I guess,” Popovich said, “but we are thinking about other things. We’ve just had a great group of guys for a long time, I guess, and that is the reason we have been able to win. Records and that sort of thing, streaks, aren’t really on anybody’s mind.”
What’s on their mind is getting back to The Finals, though not with a sense of vengeance or redemption. It’s the only goal that matters.
These Spurs are deeper, more balanced, just plain better than a year ago. They have nine different players averaging between 17.6 (Tony Parker) and 8.3 (Tiago Splitter) points per game. There are eight players with a Player Efficiency Rating — ranging from 21.3 (Tim Duncan) to 15.2 (Marco Belinelli) — above the weighted average of 15.0. They have a deep bench led by Manu Ginobili, who is back to his former Sixth Man of the Year level, and a corporate knowledge that allows them to assimilate new pieces into the mix easily.
Belinelli has been a perfect addition, hitting career highs in shooting percentage, rebounding and, soon, assists. Patty Mills has stepped into Gary Neal’s old backcourt role off the bench and has been at times a distributor, a spark plug and a basket filler. Over the past month or so, Boris Diaw has virtually turned back the clock years to his old Phoenix days.
All that comes on top of the continued under-the-radar growth of Kawhi Leonard, who can attack the basket, pull up and stab in shots from the perimeter, completely disrupt passing lanes with his long arms on defense and barely bat an eye or show a twitch of emotion when he puts the wraps on the likes of LeBron James.
There was a time earlier this season when the Spurs were 1-10 against all of the top level playoff contenders and yet there were no team meetings (a la the Pacers) and no talk of being in “uncharted territory” (the Heat).
When they embarked on their annual Rodeo Road Trip, starting shooting guard Danny Green was just coming back from an injured wrist. During the trip, seven other players missed games due to injury or, in the case of Parker, overall aches and pains. Yet they still came home 6-3. Since then, they haven’t lost a game.
“We stuck with it,” said Duncan. “Through ups and downs, we try to play as steady as we can. It helps that we’re back to full strength. We have all the guys out there. We’re starting to, I think, turn that corner.”
An annual rite of spring.