OAKLAND – Monday’s game between the Spurs and Oakland Warriors already is guaranteed a spot in NBA history: Never before have two teams that have won at least 85% of their games met so deep into a season.
At 40-4 (90.9%) Golden State is on a path toward the best regular season record ever, the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls mark of 72-10 in serious jeopardy.
Extrapolating the Spurs record, 38-6 (86.4%), produces 71 regular season wins.
The participants couldn’t care less about such arcana. Every attempt to make something epic of the showdown between the league-leading Warriors and the No. 2 Spurs is met with a shrug from players and coaches.
The first tangible hint that perspective is required came with an announcement delivered a few minutes into a closed practice session at Memorial Gym on the campus of the University of San Francisco on Sunday morning: Tim Duncan, the 39-year-old Spurs captain, will be held out of Monday’s game because of a sore right knee.
Duncan already has missed two games this season with the same ailment so no one should question the reality of his condition. That didn’t stop the most cynical of social media commenters from deducing some sort of strategic mind game from Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. The Twitter posting from the NBA website Hardwood Paroxysm read “Queen to Rook 5.”
Make no mistake: The players and coaches from both teams understand there is something special about the game. The Spurs, in particular, want to test themselves against the defending champions who have dominated so often this season, including a 132-98 demolition of the Cleveland Cavaliers one week ago that played a factor in Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert’s decision to fire head coach David Blatt despite his team’s 30-11 record and status atop the Eastern Conference.
The Warriors crushed the Cavaliers in Cleveland just four days after the Spurs had to play to the finish to beat the Cavs at AT&T Center by just four points, 99-95.
“You want to play these kind of games to see where you’re at,” said Tony Parker, the Spurs point guard who will match up against reigning NBA MVP Steph Curry. “Cleveland was one of them, and this is another. It’s going to be a great test.”
Popovich understands the added motivation his players will bring to the game.
“When you’re playing the best team in the league it takes on a little bit more competitiveness, a little more fire in the belly I would imagine,” Popovich said. “It makes you stand up and take notice a little bit more because you don’t want to walk in there and get your fanny handed to you. It can still happen but without a doubt you take it seriously.
“At the same time all these guys have been through this before. They know you’re going to play people four times and the league goes for another half a year, half a season. Winning it or losing it is probably not the point. Both teams are going to learn a lot about each other so that’s really what it’s about.
“Of course, you’d like to win. Everybody likes to win. It’s why you do it.”
The Spurs have done it at a pace this season that exceeds any team in franchise history, even the five championship teams of the Popovich-Duncan era. They are the NBA’s No. 1 defensive team, giving up only 93.5 points per 100 possessions.
Led by NBA scoring leader Steph Curry (30.1 points per game), the Warriors have the No. 1 offensive efficiency rating, producing 112.7 points per 100 possessions.
But this is not offense vs. defense.
“No,” Popovich said, “that dichotomy isn’t accurate in the sense that we’re both good offensively and we’re both good defensively. It’s not like one is the best defensive team and the other is 29th, or vice versa. I think we’re 1-2 in both defense and offense. It’s like playing yourself in a way.”
Nobody wants to face the Spurs disruptive defense this season, not even the Warriors but no team, not even the Spurs, enjoys facing one of the most potent offenses the league has seen in years.
“Obviously, they have the best offense,” Parker said. “We have the best defense. I think the whole game is going to be (about) how can we slow them down? Transition ‘D’ is going to be the key.”
That the Spurs and Warriors have yet to play is a quirk of the NBA schedule. The two teams met in just the seventh game of the 2014-15 season. Nobody made a big deal of that game.
History demands we all make a little something extra of this one.
Try your best to maintain perspective.
*Top image: The San Antonio Spurs 2015-2016 Roster and Coaching Staff. Photo by Scott Ball.