This may be the measure of the Spurs thus far this season: After a sixth straight win that put them at 11-3, the fourth best record in the NBA, Gregg Popovich’s post-game summation of his team’s 96-91 win over the Dallas Mavericks lasted exactly 30 seconds, all of them consumed by a denigration of his team’s energy, effort, and execution.
“That was a pathetic performance on the part of the Spurs,” Popovich said. “You know, they had some guys out. We had some guys out, but they had a lot more out than we did. I thought we showed a lack of humility, a lack of respect for the opponent, a very pathetic performance at both ends of the court, both in execution and in grunt, in fiber, in desire. It was an awful performance.”
With that, the Spurs coach turned and took a step towards the door leading to the team’s locker room before wheeling back around to face the inquiring minds still pondering his rant.
“Oh, and they deserved to win the basketball game,” he said. “I forgot to say that.”
By “they” he meant the Mavericks, who instead had to swallow a sixth straight loss that pushed their record to 2-11, worst among all 30 NBA teams.
Indeed, Monday’s game was one of the more bizarre games at AT&T Center since Manu Ginobili snatched a Mexican freetail bat out of the air during a Halloween night game against the Sacramento Kings in 2009.
The Mavericks came to Monday night’s game against the Spurs with a five-game losing streak and the NBA’s worst record, 2-10. Without future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki, point guards Deron Williams, Devin Harris and J.J. Barea, and starting center Andrew Bogut, Mavs coach Rick Carlisle started four players who had not been drafted by NBA teams.
Casual NBA fans likely know a bit about veteran Wesley Matthews and Seth Curry, otherwise known as the brother of a two-time NBA MVP, but if you have heard of Dorian Finney-Smith and Salah Mejri, you spend way too much time watching NBA-TV.
Popovich fretted about the seeming mismatch some 90 minutes before tipoff. When a reporter made a jocular suggestion that he sit some of his players just to “level the playing field,” Popovich scoffed at the notion that any combination of Spurs would be enough to beat the shorthanded Mavs.
“I’m not sure what we are going to do, but I wouldn’t take Dallas lightly,” he warned. “It’s always a team’s worst nightmare when the other team isn’t whole and you psychologically let down a little bit, so hopefully we won’t do that.”
What Popovich decided to do was rest starting point guard Tony Parker and starting power forward LaMarcus Aldridge. Both players suited up for the game but the head coach made it clear before tipoff he had no intention of playing them. If his intent was to gain the full focus of the remainder of his lineup, the ploy failed. By the end of a first quarter that produced five Spurs turnovers and a 28-24 Mavericks lead, Popovich knew his team did not have the appropriate fear required to compete against a Mavericks team playing with desperation.
“We didn’t bring the energy that we needed to bring against any NBA team,” said Manu Ginobili, now the Spurs’ oldest player and still their most competitive. “Probably the fact (that) we had a couple days off; that we are seeing Dallas struggling and hurt didn’t help to bring the concentration and the attention we needed. They got up at halftime – most of the game, actually – and they got confident, and that’s what happens in the NBA. Every team has a lot of talented guys that can get hot, that can make things happen.
“We were kind of irresponsible. We were not as sharp as this league demands you to be every game and we almost lost the game.”
Indeed, the Mavericks were within one point with 1:14 remaining, 92-91, but the Spurs were able to close out the victory by making four free throws in the final 15 seconds.
“There is such a thing as an ugly win and that’s probably it,” said guard Patty Mills, who scored 17 points. “But we probably let ourselves down in terms of bringing that energy and effort, that usually we’re pretty solid at. I didn’t think we were consistent with that throughout everyone tonight. We win them together, and we lose them together, and we get better together.
“A lot of things that we can obviously work on from that game to move forward for the next one. We’re getting there,” Mills added.
In the end, they got there on Monday because Kawhi Leonard scored 24 points and grabbed 9 rebounds and because David Lee was one of the few Spurs who brought enough energy and effort, scoring a season-high 12 points.
“I don’t think (Popovich) was real thrilled with us tonight,” Lee said, “and (he) let us know about it. Rightfully so. Watching the film, every guy had a couple plays where he could have been better. That’s basketball. You’re not always going to play your best.”
It may be a measure of this Spurs team that a “very pathetic” performance was enough against the Mavericks.