Playing their most anticipated game of the season, an historic contest at The AT&T Center that had the entire basketball loving world at attention, the Spurs on Saturday slowed the Golden State Warriors’ march to NBA history by taking an approach that was the ultimate example of the Spurs culture of team-first play.

How many coaches ask a future Hall of Fame big man to sit and watch for 40 of 48 minutes? But Gregg Popovich not only asked Spurs captain Tim Duncan, the linchpin around whom the Spurs won five NBA titles over the course of his 18 previous seasons, but played him only eight minutes in what became a monument to defensive effort and execution, an 87-79 win that was just the seventh loss of the season for the Warriors.

The victory pushed the Spurs record to 59-10 and extended their unbeaten streak at The AT&T Center to 35-0 this season. More importantly, it proved they could compete against the Warriors, who had humbled them in Oakland on Jan. 25, 120-90. Golden State still has the NBA’s best record, 62-7, but the Spurs cut their lead in the race for the best record in the Western Conference to three games.

Golden State has been pursuing the best record in NBA history since opening the season by winning its first 23 games with the league’s most productive offense, producing 115.9 points per game. No team had held the Warriors to fewer than 85 points, but the Spurs limited them to 37.8 % shooting and 9-for-326 3-point shooting.

NBA scoring leader Stephen Curry made only 1-of-12 3-point attempts and finished with only 14 points, 16.5 points below his season average. Spurs shooting guard Danny Green did the bulk of the defensive work on Curry, using his 6-foot-7 length to make his shots difficult. He even blocked Curry’s 3-point attempt with 10:02 left in the second quarter, the first player to block one of Curry’s 738 long-range attempts this season.

“It’s not every night you get to block a 3-point shooter,” Green said. “Pop always says don’t foul a shooter. If you do foul, you give him a heart attack. I was either going to block it, or give Pop a heart attack. I didn’t want that to happen.”

Popovich appreciated Green’s concern for his well-being, as well as his adherence to the team’s defensive principles and energy.

“I told the guys I thought their execution and competitiveness defensively were outstanding,” Popovich said, “and that’s something you can depend on, night after night.”

Popovich has depended on Duncan as his defensive anchor for 19 years but when Golden State coach Steve Kerr opened with a super-small lineup that had no player taller than 6-foot-7, Popovich responded by replacing Duncan with Boris Diaw in the starting lineup.

Duncan’s response: Encouraging his teammates from the bench and offering sage advice to Diaw and starting center LaMarcus Aldridge during time outs.

“He’s just a great person,” said Aldridge, who made 11-of-25 shots, scored a game-high 26 points and grabbed 13 rebounds. “He didn’t pout, he was very positive, he was talking to me. I don’t know if many guys in that position would have handled it as well as he did. He was great tonight.

“It says a lot. He’s the ultimate professional. To take a backseat and be our biggest cheerleader on that bench, encouraging guys and not having his head down, and coaching, it says a lot about this team and why it’s been successful.”

It was just the third time in Duncan’s 1,383 regular season games he was not in the starting lineup.

Diaw, who made 6-of-7 shots and scored 14 points in a season-high 35 minutes, called his presence on the court for the opening tip “circumstantial” and explained why Duncan’s acceptance of a minimized role for one game was anything but a surprise.

“That’s what the Spurs are about,” Diaw said. “That’s the culture here. Everybody is selfless and unselfish, so no problem for him. If he knows that is the game plan to win the game he’s going to be on board with it.”

Though the 6-foot-11 Duncan remains the Spurs’ best interior defender Diaw, 6-9, is better at defending smaller opponents. The Warriors dictate the defensive dynamics of nearly every game they play, so Popovich’s decision made perfect sense and he knew there would be no problem with Duncan’s acceptance.

“You make decisions all the time,” Popovich said. “You just try to do what you think is best for the group. It doesn’t mean you’re going to be right or wrong every time but you just make decisions based on what’s going on and what’s in front of you.”

Saturday’s game was going to make history no matter how it turned out. Never had there been a game between teams more than 100 games (104) over-.500 and with the Warriors entering with a record of 62-6 and the Spurs at 58-10, the game also featured the highest combined win percentage ever, 88.2%.

Now it is up to Spurs fans to decide where Saturday’s win ranks among the best regular season victories in franchise history.

*Top Image: The San Antonio Spurs 2015-2016 Roster and Coaching Staff.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Mike Monroe

Mike Monroe is a longtime, award-winning NBA and Spurs reporter who recently retired from the Express-News and is now contributing to the Rivard Report.