About 90 minutes before his team handed the Spurs a fourth defeat on their AT&T Center home court on Tuesday night, Orlando Magic coach Frank Vogel praised Gregg Popovich as “the godfather” of NBA coaches.
He punctuated his praise with what seemed, at the time, like sarcasm.
“I look forward to beating him tonight,” Vogel said, whereupon a dozen reporters did their best to suppress laughter.
The Magic had come to San Antonio with a four-game losing streak – all to teams with losing records – the last three on their home court. They ranked last in nearly every NBA offensive category. They were playing a team with the NBA’s third-best record (14-3), one that had just run its road record to a league-best 10-0.
After the Magic put the finishing touches on their 95-83 victory, nobody was laughing about Vogel’s pregame assertion anymore.
Instead, the Spurs were left to ponder how they have achieved a tie for the best 18-game record in club history while losing four of their first eight home games on a court where they went 41-1 last season.
It is an upside-down reality that defies understanding and nobody seems able to explain it.
“No, really, I can’t,” said 39-year-old veteran guard Manu Ginobili, who has seen just about everything in his 14-plus seasons in silver and black. “We know we haven’t been playing well. We’ve lost too many games, and a couple we won we didn’t play well, either, but on the road, it’s not the same. I can’t really point to what’s going on but it’s very unusual for us. We’ve got to fix it.”
Popovich can’t figure out the dynamics of the home woes either – “If I knew, we wouldn’t lose,” he said – but he had a theory about Tuesday’s outcome.
“I thought their defense was really solid,” he said. “And I thought it put us on our heels most of the game. We held the ball a lot because of their defense.”
The result was horrid shooting and 19 turnovers. Kawhi Leonard scored 21 points, high for both teams, but missed 10 of his 16 shots and three of four from long range. The Spurs made a season-low 36.8% of their shots (28-for-76) and just 25% (5-for-20) from 3-point range.
“It’s always offensively, is the problem,” Ginobili said. “We are forcing the issue too much. We are kind of stuck. Hopefully, we get the ball moving better and sharper.”
Popovich lamented the lack of ball movement and failure to respond to Orlando’s physicality.
“You can’t hold the ball against that (physicality),” he said. “You’ve got to make officials make calls. You can’t let people climb into you. You’ve got to be in attack mode.”
Ironically, attempts by some Spurs to turn things around by attacking in the second half played into the Magic’s hands.
“We got a little antsy because we were not scoring and we’ve got a bunch of talented players who, in good faith, were trying to solve issues playing more one-on-one or trying to force all the way to the rim,” Ginobili said. “Some games it’s going to happen. Some others, it’s not, especially against a team with that type of size and good shot blockers and presence in the paint. I think it was more about moving the ball better.
“With all that in consideration, I think we should have got to LaMarcus (Aldridge) a little more in the post. We didn’t get anything good in the first half there and then we just forgot him. I think he could have given us some solutions when nothing was going on.”
Aldridge had success scoring against Serge Ibaka in last spring’s playoff series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, but it was Ibaka, traded to Orlando in June, who had the better of the matchup on Tuesday. Ibaka made 7-of-11 shots, grabbed seven rebounds and scored 18 points.
The win was just the third of the season for Orlando but their second over one of the Western Conference’s playoff level teams. They beat the Thunder in Oklahoma City on Nov. 13, but had lost five of their next seven games before upsetting the Spurs.
“Winning this night doesn’t turn our season around,” Vogel said, “but it keeps us believing in what we’re doing. If you commit to the defensive end of the floor, you’re going to have a chance to win every night, and if you’re a great defensive team, you’re going to go to the playoffs.”
If this sounds like Popovich’s career-long mantra it is because Vogel makes no bones about stealing whatever he can from the Spurs coach.
“We all look up to him,” Vogel said. “We all respect the heck out of him. We’re all grateful for everything we’ve learned from him and every opportunity we’ve had to compete against him. He’s the greatest. I love him. Every coach in the league just loves him and respects him.”
Especially after they have beaten him on his home court.