December in the NBA: Where contenders don’t make statements

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There are times during the NBA grindhouse of a schedule when treading water is a perfectly acceptable course of action. For the Spurs, that time is now and potentially for the near future after Tony Parker left the team’s 115-92 loss to the Clippers on Monday with a right shin contusion.

And this was not pretty, especially without the team’s All-Star point guard. San Antonio committed a season high 22 turnovers that Los Angeles, as it’s wont to do, turned into 37 points off extra possessions in its various high-flying, deep-shooting ways. The Clippers have not been playing great basketball, and through most of three quarters last night they hadn’t seemed to flip a switch. But forcing turnovers is that team’s lifeblood, and the more often L.A. is spoon-fed the basketball, the more likely it is to run you out of the building.

The Spurs obliged on Monday, throwing errant passes over teammates’ heads and flipping the ball right to the white jerseys of the home team. And despite turning the Clippers over 18 times and shooting nearly 50 percent from the floor themselves, San Antonio was never able to overcome the proverbial hump. Even when Los Angeles tried to implode over the first half of the third quarter, the Spurs unsheathed the fire extinguishers and kindly doused their opponents’ flames while igniting a few of their own.

A sweet gesture, to be sure, but one that has sent portions of Spurs fandom spiraling into a pit of holiday despair.

Our Trevor Zickgraf wrote about the concept of the “signature win” in his preview of Spurs vs. Clippers. After the loss on Monday, San Antonio is now 19-5 with losses in Portland, in Oklahoma City, at home to the Rockets, at home to the Pacers and in Los Angeles. The most recent sparked a twitter movement to embark on the journey of naming the team’s most notable win, which as it turns out, is a difficult proposition. It has been the topic of conversation surrounding this team so far, and the narrative remains burning: Why haven’t the Spurs defeated any of the league’s elite?

First and foremost, these discussions can’t be had in a vacuum. Every bit of the NBA schedule deserves some sort of context, and just like a blowout victory against an injury-ravaged Milwaukee team is nothing more than a mark in the win column, a loss to a very good team on the road in mid-December can be viewed as nothing more than that. Regardless of team or opponent, nearly every loss in the NBA to this point of the season can be viewed in a legitimate form of context, whatever it may be.

On Monday, the Spurs played their fifth game in seven nights, all of which came in a different city and four of which were played in a different time zone. And the Clippers are not the Raptors, Bucks, Jazz or even the Timberwolves in terms of talent and skill; they’re much better, though they were also coming off a long, seven-game road trip of their own.

And let’s go back even further on the calendar. The Spurs first loss was in Portland on the second night of a back-to-back, which is a nearly impossible scenario. The second loss was in Oklahoma City, where the Thunder have yet to lose a game this season (Manu Ginobili would also call this an “acceptable loss” later). The third was on the second night of a back-to-back against the run-and-gun Houston Rockets, and the fourth occurred with a gimpy Tiago Splitter against an elite Pacers team. (If you want to poke holes in that Indiana loss, please do so liberally. It was an ass-kicking that deserves a large chunk of criticism.)

A loss is a loss, to be sure. They all count the same, but some are more palatable — and even expected — than others. The Spurs just haven’t been through a stretch of tough matchups that are actually played under conditions favorable to both teams. (Ya know, no back-to-backs or games at the end of crazy road schedules.) If, as we near the midway point of the season, the Spurs are looking up in the standings at teams that are consistently beating them, then there’s probably more cause for concern. But given San Antonio’s reputation as a team that goes into cruise mode early in the regular season, they’ve earned the benefit of the doubt to this point.

Isn’t that the storyline every year? It’s almost never worth talking about the Spurs on a national scale until probably the All-Star break or beyond. Their current minutes leader is Tony Parker at 30 per game, and even youngster Kawhi Leonard is only registering 28 minutes a night. If San Antonio was interested in making a statement right now, its certainly going about this in a very odd way. Nobody blames the fan who’s angry about his or her team losing on any given night, but trying to extrapolate this into something more meaningful in the future is not the best way to occupy your time.

Most people watch these games on a nightly basis because they love the entertainment and need context to apply to the here and now. And that’s great; it’s essential to the coverage of this league and it’s part of the enjoyment of being a fan. But it’s also important to provide current context while still maintaining long-term perspective. Of course games in December matter, but these sorts of performances happen over the course of an 82-game season, and they will continue to happen. I’m going to go way out on a limb and predict the Spurs will have a few more clunkers over the next three or four months, because it’s par for the course in the NBA. I need not remind you that the Spurs lost by 30 points at home in a game in March last season, and that they finished the final 20 games of the regular season with a 10-10 record and basically limped into the playoffs.

Every year is different, however. We may look back at these games months from now and think, “We should have seen that coming.” But maybe, once again, the Spurs will make another deep run in the playoffs and these games will long since be forgotten. Who knows? It’s OK to be frustrated by an ugly loss against another good team, because it didn’t look good at all against one of San Antonio’s main contenders in the conference. But there are 58 games left to be played in the regular season, and the Spurs have their health, relatively speaking. (I say this with the thought in mind that Parker’s injury shouldn’t be anything serious long term.) For this team, that is absolutely the most important thing at this juncture.

If you’re concerned with yet another loss to one of the better teams in the league, I’d recommend you not be. Context and extenuating circumstances aside, the idea that this team needs a “signature win” at this point of the season is borderline ridiculous. What in the world does that accomplish beyond gauging your current position in a league that will go through flux as early as this week (now that newly acquired players are eligible to be traded) and that won’t crown a champion for another six months?

And the state of the league is another thing to consider. At this point, there might be six teams (Miami, Indiana, Portland, OKC, Houston and LAC) that would represent a “signature win.” You don’t have a ton of chances to prove your worth or establish yourself through 24 games, nor is there any viable reason to do so if you’re the Spurs. We know what the regular season means to them, especially before the turn of the calendar year. Not to mention, they’re still within one measly game of first place in the West, and they still boast the NBA’s best differential at plus-10.3 points per 100 possessions. That’s really good.

If you’re truly looking for context, you must look beyond just the wins and losses; you must look at the circumstances surrounding them, as well. Things aren’t going to get any easier in the coming days for San Antonio, either. They face a very good Suns team in Phoenix on Wednesday and the Warriors in Oakland on Thursday — their seventh game in 10 days — and they might not have Parker (and others, for that matter) for one of both of those games. Then, they get to return home to face the Thunder on Saturday night, and homecomings after long trips are often no better than road games in terms of physical energy and stamina.

By the time the Spurs arrive back in San Antonio following the Golden State game, they will have traveled nearly 11,000 miles over the course of just a week and a half. At this point, self-preservation is a hell of a lot more important than coming up with a mythical December statement game.

  • Ray Briggs II

    I wholly agree with this. December ‘statement’ wins are for teams that get ousted in the first round of the playoffs, not for teams with the history of excellence the Spurs have. And would fans feel any better if the Spurs were 19-5 with loses to Charlotte, Phili, NY, Utah and Sacramento. I view almost every game for the Spurs until the Rodeo Roadtrip as warm up for the stretch run. It’s time to feel out lineups, try different things and do their best to keep everyone healthy.

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