There was not a snowball’s chance in South Texas that the San Antonio Spurs would wander through the bulk of their Wednesday night game against the Phoenix Suns as they had on Monday night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Of the many tenets of the Gregg Popovich era, approaching every NBA opponent with what the coach calls appropriate fear remains among the most revered.
Coaches and players alike rued the lack of respect shown the Timberwolves in what became a closer-than-expected 101-95 win on Monday.
It took only eight minutes of what became a 112-79 drubbing of the Suns for the Spurs to put to rest any fear even one player in silver and black might be presumptuous enough to believe victory was a matter of just showing up.
They may even have gotten a pre-tipoff reminder from Popovich that lassitude would not be tolerated.
“We basically broke the game in 20 minutes,” said Manu Ginobili, who scored 17 points and had three of the Spurs’ 13 steals. “Yes, we know we are playing a team that is struggling with injuries but, still, they are in the NBA and you’ve got to play well to have the opportunity to win games like this. We’ve got to be pretty satisfied with the way we competed today.
“We all were sharper and we all were a little frustrated because of the way we played last game and we executed much better. We brought it. We played great defense. It was great to see the team bounce back like that.”
It speaks volumes about what the Spurs have done through the 2015 portion of the season when Ginobili describes Wednesday’s effort as a “bounce back.” They did defeat the Timberwolves, after all.
San Antonio remained perfect on their AT&T Center home court, 19-0, and ran their record to 28-6, now just two-and-a-half games behind defending champion Golden State. Playing without reigning MVP Stephon Curry, nursing a bruised lower left leg, the Warriors lost at Dallas on Wednesday, just their second loss of the season.
That the Spurs are just two-and-a-half games behind the Warriors, who won their first 24 games, boggles the mind a bit, and Ginobili knows the reason why.
“The most important thing is that with that type of record we have a feel we can do so many things better,” he said. “That’s a great situation to be in. We know we can improve a lot and we have a great record. Hopefully, it happens before the end of the season.”
Team captain Tim Duncan, the 39-year-old anchor of the Spurs defense, missed his third consecutive game, which would be concerning were it not for Popovich’s insistence that he is not concerned about what the team calls a sore right knee. Most avid Spurs fans know the surgically repaired knee that always is encased in Duncan’s “Punisher” brace is his left knee. No tests have been required on the sore right knee and Duncan was a partial participant in a practice session on Tuesday.
In all likelihood, the Spurs’ gaudy record and the week’s schedule was a factor in the decision to have Duncan sit out Wednesday’s game. The Houston Rockets, who defeated the Spurs on Christmas Day in Houston’s Toyota Center, will be at AT&T Center on Saturday for a re-match.
The Suns not only came to the game on a five-game losing streak that included a loss in Phoenix to the 3-31 Philadelphia 76ers but they arrived without leading scorer Eric Bledsoe, ruled out for the season on Tuesday after surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee. Backup guard Ronnie Price, with a sprained right big toe, also sat out. That left Suns coach Jeff Hornacek with few options in the back court. Devin Booker, a 19-year-old rookie, and Bryce Cotton, who played last season with the Austin Spurs of the D-League, were force fed into his playing rotation.
Popovich knew the Spurs had easily handled the Suns on Nov. 23, when they had a season-high 18 steals. Why risk Duncan against a team that is reeling?
The Spurs took a 28-point lead to the halftime locker room, whereupon Popovich had them watch videos of nearly every mistake they had made in the first half.
“Details,” Ginobili said. “It’s not that we struggled in the way we did against the Timberwolves but there’s always mistakes, even in a game you win by 40. You’re going to see things you can do better. Pop is pretty intense on the situations that you are not close to perfect. He wants us to be better in April, not today. That’s the goal.”
Popovich never stops teaching, and with his team ahead by 28 early in the fourth quarter he saw something on the court that sent him scurrying down the bench to make a point to newcomer big men LaMarcus Aldridge and David West.
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re ahead or behind,” Popovich said, “every game is a teaching situation. You take positives and negatives from every game. You can’t just assume because you won everything is good and if you lose everything is bad.”
For the Spurs this season the good has far outweighed the bad, but Popovich never rests. Veterans like Ginobili absorb the barbs and strive for the perfection the coach demands, even against a team struggling as mightily as the Suns.
Top Image: The San Antonio Spurs 2015-2016 Roster and Coaching Staff. Photo by Scott Ball.