San Antonio Spurs 100, Detroit Pistons 89: No one knows what makes the Spurs so good

by

Palace of Auburn Hills — Another night, another ho-hum victory for the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs might become the first team in NBA history to accidentally back their way into 65 wins.

Through three quarters the Spurs and Pistons played themselves to a push. The Palace was half-empty and each team had all the spunk of a cat beneath the wheels of an 18-wheel haul.  The game simply lacked energy, save for the occasional Will Bynum highlight.

The most fascinating part of the game—at least from my position behind the Pistons’ bench—was the crowd’s constant yell of “Rip Hamilton”, or some close variant, in the direction of Pistons coach John Kuester.

“Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiipppp!”

“HamILton! HamILton! HamILton!”

And so on.

48 uninterrupted minutes of and so on.

Some of the Pistons’ players noticed, and seemed to tease Hamilton a little. And when Antonio McDyess entered the game for the first time, he gave his former teammate a good-hearted ribbing.

Gregg Popovich summed up the game afterward. “We played pretty good defense in the second half. I think we held them to 38 points.”

And, in truth, that was it. The Spurs’ energy and defense picked up at the start of the 4th, and it was enough to transform a game that featured over a dozen lead changes through three quarters into a quiet double digit victory. The Spurs are closing in on some sort of one season record for quiet double digit victories.

In many ways, this game is representative of San Antonio’s entire season. Here the Spurs are, sitting on a .843 winning percentage, and it’s not always easy to say why.

Sure, DeJuan Blair played well. He contributed 18 points and 12 boards. And sure, the Spurs’ big three all contributed solid lines. Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili did what they do, and they did it the way Popovich likes them to. That is, they only played 28 and 31 minutes respectively.

Matt Bonner finally returned from injury. He’s still possesses that Matt Bonner awesomeness. 50% on threes, plus 6.

After the game, everyone lazily made their way to the locker rooms. San Antonio won. Detroit lost. What should we write about?

While we were waiting for Coach Popovich to assume his usual postgame spot against the outer wall of the locker room, some of the local reporters began to quiz Jeff McDonald and myself about the Spurs.

“How do you guys explain it? You follow the team night in, night out. What makes them so special? 43 wins already? They’re good, but it doesn’t seem like San Antonio is that good. What gives?”

We tried our best, but what do we know? We’re tourists with typewriters. Like the rest of those who follow the Spurs, we’re enjoying the view. We can name the flora and fauna. We’re excited by the color of the leaves. But the winds blow where the winds blow, and there is a whole world of conjecture that exists beyond our view of the weather vane.

Still, we tried our best.

“It’s basically the same team as last year. Same rotation, save Gary Neal for Roger Mason Jr.”

“Sometimes it takes players until year two before they click within the Spurs’ system.”

“Oh, and the Spurs are healthy. That’s a big deal.”

If answers were pullups, ours struggled to lift their chins higher than the level of cliche.

But really, what accounts for it? What makes San Antonio the best team in the league?

Gregg Popovich won’t hear anything about that.  There are some questions he won’t dignify, and that’s one of them.

“Just because we have the best record does not mean we’re the best team in the league. There are still other teams who are better than us. We have to get better defensively to compete with those teams.”  And that was about it for the postgame presser. He was done. On the bus. Off to Toronto.

Richard Jefferson was a little more forthcoming.

“That just what this team does. We grind it out one game at a time. We prepare. We get our sleep the night before a game.”

Yes, he really did add that bit about the extra Zs. You get his point. The Spurs do the little things.

Matt Bonner was nonplussed when, for about the third time in our lives, I asked why he was so good at crushing plus/minus. Actually, I asked what it felt like to be the team’s centerpiece, to have all of San Antonio’s offensive movements choreograph around him in perfect harmony. I was joking, but, you know, I’m not sure if he knew that. He didn’t laugh; he didn’t answer. There is a first time for everything, and tonight I was cool-shamed by Matt Bonner.

Why are the Spurs so good? How is it that they keep punching the victory ticket?

“We just do what the coaches ask of us. We try to get better as the season goes. I don’t really know. There isn’t anything magical about it.”  Bonner offered this, and nothing more.

There you have it. The Spurs, not so magical, but still pretty freakin’ impressive. The San Antonio mystery tour picks up tomorrow in Toronto. They’ll probably grind out another victory, all to the tune of “huh” and “yeah”.

  • Titletown99030507

    @rj, Also I would like for Tiago to play 25 min every night switching in and out for Timmy till we get our 5th trophy this season. Sure it’ll leave somebody out but in with the new and out with the old. He’s the future at that spot. Might as well start now.

  • TD = Best EVER

    @ rob

    “However…to think Novak is an answer to those defensive liabilities is not a realistic option. Even coach Pop (and Novak’s career) has expressed and shown he IS NOT a defensive player.”

    I do agree but the point I’m making is neither is NEAL. So if all things are equal and they both shoot similar percentages from 3. Then give me the 6-10 guy because J.Rich, JR Smith DWill and others will not post him up. They may take him off the dribble, but they are doing that to all of our guards.

    @ ThatBigGuy
    “I thought we already had a 3 shooting 6’10″ guy who played suspect D?”

    Not at the SF position. Pop loves to out RJ( a SF at 6-7) at the 4 spot this year. Picture if that was a 6-10 SF instead. Once again – not thathe is a better player than RJ or NEAL, but size matters. And in situations where going small with RJ isn’t working, we can stay small but still get bigger.

  • rob

    I don’t know TD=BE…Neal is pretty good at penetrating/creating in the lane and gathering rebounds as well. Something Novak has never been good at.

  • TD = Best EVER

    I agree Rob…. Neal is an Excellent rebounder for his size and at his position. His is also good at penetrating for himself, not creating for other though. So those are 2 areas where he is far and away better than Novak. It would be cool to see if Novak has a little junk in his game. Having never really seen him play, we really won’t know unless he can get some more time. But I do know that playing Neal/Hill together is asking for trouble against alot of out Opponents.

  • Ian

    @TD = Best EVER
    Size doesn’t matter when the player in question is too slow or not strong enough to defend either of the forward positions. If Pop ever entertained the idea of going big at the SF position, he would never have let go of players like Marcus Haislip or James Gist.

  • Tyler

    @TD

    One thing – Novak is not a SF, he’s a PF all the way. I guess you mean playing Novak at the PF position instead of RJ when we go small? In that case, Novak at the 4 isn’t going small, that’s his natural position.

    And all things being equal, why rock the boat when we’re 43-8, take out someone who’s been playing well and is familiar with the system and replace him with someone new that doesn’t know the system? Not to mention, that when Bonner fully recovers – he looks close from last night – Novak won’t see the court. Even at his best, Novak wouldn’t be able to give us what Bonner does right now.

  • Hobson13

    I can’t believe there’s so much talk about Novak. The guy’s 27 yrs old and can’t stay in the league. He is a poor man’s Matt Bonner and that’s saying something. My god. It took me several years to warm up to one 6’10” white guy who consistently gets beat on defense and can only shoot 3’s. Please don’t tell me that this Novak character is going to be Pops new pet project.

    In the end, I think Novak will only be with the Spurs for 10 days. I was surprised we rushed Anderson back from the Toros so quickly. I thought he was supposed to be down there for at least 2 weeks when instead, he barely played for Austin for 2 games. Let JA get his legs back under him and the Spurs will probably call him back up. Novak is just filling time and space.

  • soulidefy

    all things equal? gary neal and novak? novak guard jrich dwill and jrsmith? oh man. not on his best day. i cant think of one thing novak can do better than neal, even with this great height advantage. not rebound, not block shots, shoot, defend, dribble, create, anything. the only thing he does well is spot up shoot. you cant teach height, true, but you can teach basketball iq either. thats why neal has fit in so quickly and why he gets playing time as a rookie despite the “spurs first year hijinks.” we are running neal out there like he is ray allen….shooting off screens and such, and he is doing his job. hes not trying to do too much and thats why the spurs are a team. to say all thing equal, is off base.

    and while neals on ball defense is average, his team defense is pretty good. thats why pop is playing him.

    to clarify, i did not say neal is ray allen, but that he is playing a simlar role on our team.

  • duaneofly

    I’m with Hobson13, Novak’s played with us one game and now someone is talking about having him replace Neal in the lineup? Lol wow.

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  • TD = Best EVER

    So I guess that means you all are all OK come playoff time with our small guards getting beat up in the paint. Even Neo is too small to play the 3 position. We don’t have the interior D that we have had in the past to cover up mistakes as well. Every player has to be able to limit mistakes on D.

    Come playoff time teams will have 3-5 days to prepare for you and several days off in between. Just look at last year playoffs. Cavs and Mavs had 2 of the best records and that meant NOTHING when it came down to the matchups. 2nd round we couldn’t match the SUNS BENCH. All it takes is an advantage that you can ride all the way to crunch time and then its anyone’s game.

    We already have an issue with Blair starting for teams to exploit, why give them a small guard lineup to further use to their advantage.

  • Titletown99030507

    @Spurredon, your missing the point, as Blair has been playing for 50 games at a significant amount of min per game and has performed decent on the most part with the exception of some bad games. Wouldn’t you think having played that much has helped him developed. So why not do it for Tiago? Doing the same for Tiago at this point would assure you confidence going into the playoffs knowing you have someone that can be a presence in the paint. I do. And so do a lot of people. You just are plain wrong there. Blair is not enough in the playoffs. You’ll need Tiago to pick and roll and cut to the rim on offense and cut to the rim on defense to stop that big like he did when Caspri or whatever his name tried going to the rim to get some. Tiago was there behind him to swat it away.
    You just don’t realized how important that is when you got two aging dudes in a 7 games series. Think about it. And really going for trades to solve this problem is asinine. Who you gonna get and give up to do this. You have it right here , use him. That’s what he’s getting paid for. And no I won’t let it go because that’s a stupid thing to say.

  • Titletown99030507

    @jwalt, you are so wrong. who’s gonna pick up the slack if Duncan or Dyess really show their age in the later rounds of the playoffs? And it could happen. Timmy looked frikin old against Portland and we should have beat them nasty. Just sayin, Bonner and Blair on the court leading this team, get real! they’re good role players but not to depend on them if Timmy and Dyess by some unexpected event happen to start tanking late in the playoffs. I would not have said that2 years ago or maybe even last year but ol Timmy is showing his age. Be realistic you do need more than those two guys for insurance.

  • Ryan

    @TD

    Dude… relax. I’m gonna keep it short and simple. You know what you’re talking about, but you’re a looking way way WAAAAY too much into each of these games. There’s 82 games in a season and after each one it almost sounds like you wanna blow the team up or get into the Melo talks for some nonsensical reason because Melo happens to be 6’10” or whatever…

    Winning is winning.. whether it be by 2 pts or 30 pts. I appreciate you’re analytical view, but if you dig deep enough you’re eventually going to find what you’re looking for… regardless of it being good or bad. You’re probably chewing through more game tape than the players are and, while I think thats awesome, you gotta just take it easy bro… relax, have a beer, enjoy the game.

  • Hobson13

    TD = Best EVER
    February 9th, 2011 at 2:50 pm
    “So I guess that means you all are all OK come playoff time with our small guards getting beat up in the paint.”

    How again is Novak going to slow down Deron Williams, Jason Kidd, Chauncy Billups, Andre Miller, and Kobe Bryant? These are the kinds of guards that give Hill and particularly Parker fits. The only way I could see Novak getting any playing time is at the backup SF position behind RJ. However, I believe his more natural position is the 4 spot. This guy is essentially a Bonner Jr and, like Matty, I really don’t see him being able to guard the vast majority of 3’s in the NBA.

    IMO, the most optimistic possibility is for Novak to play 10-12 minutes behind RJ, but in reality, I don’t see this happening. Pop is just biding his time before JA rounds into shape.

  • AmyfromLA

    re: Splitter playing time debacle

    here’s one guy’s theory for splitter’s lack of playing time: http://www.spursplanet.com/spurs/enigma/

  • TD = Best EVER

    @ Ryan

    LMFAO – I know dude. It does sound like I want too blow up the team and trade everybody. Its not that its just we have to win it all THIS YEAR. So I do over analyze everything.

    @ Hobson13
    ESPN has him listed as a SF and we will have to see what his natural position is. If it is PF then you are right, we don’t need him. But if he can play the SF, then we do because its gives us some SIZE off the bench.

  • SAinSLC

    @TD=BE

    I agree with your point that Neal isn’t as tall as Novak, and, respectuflly, that’s about it. While our guards get posted up by other guards, Novak would just get left looking over his shoulder wondering where “that little guy I was guarding” went while the rest of the team is having to rotate, helping off their man and thereby opening up myriad other options for the other team and otherwise creating havoc.

    Think about what happened EVERY time we couldn’t stop dribble penetration against PHX last year, it killed us. Putting another guy out there that can’t keep a rock from getting past him doesn’t help us at all. I’d rather take my chances with who we have.

    Gary Neal puts some effort in on the defensive side of the ball. He’s not the best, but for a rookie he has taken a lot of charges, a call that is typically not handed out to rookies.

    While I think we both agree that size + athleticism is best, Novack only gives us size. I feel that it would hurt us far worse than what we currently have. I’d be interested in your feedback on that.

  • soulidefy15

    tiago is in the game, everyone get a warm fuzzy!

  • TD = Best EVER

    @ SAinSLC

    “While I think we both agree that size + athleticism is best, Novack only gives us size. I feel that it would hurt us far worse than what we currently have.”

    Yes if he can’t do anything but shoot than yes we don’t need him. But I haven’t really seen him play so I’m not sure what he is capable of. But either way we need some SIZE on our bench. So if not Novak,, maybe we just hope for a T-MAC or someone to be bought out.

  • Ted

    dave m said: “The Spurs are just of a different era – lunch bucket guys who get the job done. Or in Bonner’s case, sandwich guys.”

    Matt’s not doing the Sandwich Hunter blog this year. I checked again just now, and everything is from last year. Oh well. Just wish the dude could get back out there. We’ve done pretty well without him, though. What a season this has been.

    I’m seriously considering League Pass and going back and watching all the Spurs games so far. I have a feeling this is going to be one of those years!

  • Bankshot21

    I hate commenting after 70+ comments. It seems like all that could be said has already been said. Lol. I will be 1 of the 1st posters on the game summary of our win against Toronto however. I’m attending Monday’s game against the Nets and will be decked in our team colors and TD Jersey. Just can’t wait! We are witnessing greatness ladies and gentlemen!

    GO SPURS GO!!!!!

  • AmyfromLA

    @Bankshot21: have tons of fun! scream loud and proud for those of us in front of the tv/computer!!! =)

  • Ginobili. 2.0

    I think it’s funny this question being asked because it is both a compliment and sort of an insult in sheep’s clothing (if an insult could wear sheep’s clothing… and if sheep actually wore clothes *by the way, would they be made out of wool? That’s a different story for a different day.)

    It’s a compliment because they are saying that the Spurs are great. But it’s also an insult because it almost seems as if the people outside of Spurs Nation think we have been the suckiest team in the NBA for the past 7 years or something. We aren’t great from out of nowhere, we have been — FOR A LONG time.

    I don’t know, I’m just really sensitive when it comes to my Spurs. You have the Heat who are the biggest deal in the NBA all of a sudden – oh yeah, only took them 3 superstars on the same team to get great but all of a sudden they are the best thing ever. Same with the Lakers during their glory days.

    It’s easy being great when you have a team full of superstars and potential Hall of Famers all together, so it’s expected for the Lakers and the Heat (this year) to be great. But when you have a team like the Spurs who have people who just genuinely play hard and love/respect each other, the fans, community, and the game, all of a sudden it’s a shock that they might accomplish something.

    It’s just weird… they are the only team I know that in this position, instead of people appreciating what they are doing, they are getting torn apart like they can’t possibly be the best team in basketball.

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  • Ed

    I’m loving Splitter getting more time but good greif he has NO range on his shot! He’s terrible on FT’s and I’ve yet to see him make a 10-15 jumper. I wonder if he even CAN shoot a jumper. Now he has a lot of nice moves around the hoop and plays solid “D” and rebounds, but he’s not half the offensive threat that Timmy is. For those talking about Novak? C’mon! ONE game, ONE shot and you want him in the rotation? Can I assume had he missed his ONE shot you’d want him banished back to the D-league permanently? If the guy could help Pop would already have him playing.