The Spurs won another basketball game on Thursday night, beating the NBA’s third-youngest team, the Phoenix Suns, 107-92 at Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix.
The victory pushed their record to 21-4, second-best in the NBA. It was their 14th road win of the season, more than any team but the league-leading Golden State Warriors, and matched the best 15-game start in NBA history, 14-1 and achieved only twice before, by last season’s Warriors and the legendary, 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers. It was also their sixth win in the second game of seven sets of back-to-back games, always a measure of a team that is focused and prepared.
There were plenty of individual Spurs superlatives as well, including Kawhi Leonard’s 18 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals; Pau Gasol’s 18 points, 9 rebounds, and 3 assists; DeWayne Dedmon’s 12 points, 9 rebounds, and 2 lob dunks; and LaMarcus Aldridge’s 9 points and 3 rebounds in a fourth quarter dominated by the Spurs, 33-21.
None of this mattered much to Gregg Popovich, the NBA’s most grounded coach. Not on the day beloved NBA broadcaster Craig Sager passed away, at age 65, after a long battle with leukemia.
Sager was well-known to NBA fans worldwide, as much for his colorful wardrobe as his informed, fearless reporting. But Spurs fans had a special appreciation for Sager’s in-game interviews with Popovich, who has garnered his own reputation for a churlish approach during league-mandated grilling between quarters of games televised by the TNT Network that employed Sager for the past 26 years.
Sager and Popovich became foils for one another during these seemingly tortured Q-and-A sessions, the Spurs coach as apt to insult Sager’s fashion sense as answer his questions. On one occasion, Popovich pulled a colorful handkerchief from Sager’s coat pocket, wiped his brow and nose, then poked the hanky back in Sager’s pocket.
In fact, the two were friendly adversaries, and the first game Sager worked after a long absence that followed a bone marrow transplant, was a game at AT&T Center last December. The Spurs coach gave Sager a heartfelt welcome back and a hug, a sincere tribute and a rare glimpse at his own softer side. In fact, Popovich was a steadfast supporter during the entire of Sager’s battle with the cancer that eventually took his life.
So, when Popovich met with reporters for his pregame press conference he did not talk about the game about to be played. Instead, he paid tribute to his friend.
“On a day like this, basketball has to take a back seat because we all think about somebody that was very unique and very special,” Popovich told reporters during an interview, shown on KCWX’s telecast of the game. “Whether you knew Craig or not, he was a special person in a lot of different ways. Right now, I just feel for his family. Talking about him being a professional, what it would be doing is a tremendous understatement. All of us who knew him, he was an understanding guy. That fact was what he was all about as far as work was concerned. He was a way better person than he was a worker, even though he was amazing. He loved people and he enjoyed pregame, during games, (and) postgame; he loved all the people around him. Every day he felt that.
“The most amazing part of him is his courage. What he’s endured and the fight that he put up and the courage he displayed during the situation is beyond my comprehension. If any of us can display half the courage he has to stay on this planet, to live every life as it is his last, we’d be well off.”
When the Spurs go through rough patches during any season and critics question the fortitude and dedication of his players, Popovich often responds with a reminder that “it’s just basketball.”
Sager, a standout high school player in his home town of Batavia, Illinois, knew this well, and his battle with Leukemia over the past two-plus years was a reminder to the entire NBA, acknowledged in a heartfelt statement from Commissioner Adam Silver. Tributes to Sager preceded each of the five games played on Thursday, including the Spurs’ game against the Suns.
After his team won for the 15th time in its last 17 games, Popovich praised his team’s crisp play in a fourth quarter that broke open a close game.
“I thought our defense got better, we took care of the ball more and we got it inside; Pau and LeMarcus did a good job inside,” he said. “The Suns are young and they’re game, they never gave in for a minute. They were tough and I thought they out physical-ed us for a whole half. They did a great job. Maybe our experience was showing a little bit on the sides down the stretch.”