D'Alessandro: Greg Popovich's Spurs are in the midst of a strange, special season | NJ.com D'Alessandro: Greg Popovich's Spurs are in the midst of a strange, special season
It was 42 days ago, at Madison Square Garden, when Gregg Popovich had his back pressed against a wall by the media horde and declared that the 29-4 pace his San Antonio Spurs had set was not likely to hold up — no way, no how, no chance, and let’s talk a month or two from now.
So now Pop’s team is 46-9, which is still obscene, and nobody really knows how high is up.
“I just assumed it probably wouldn’t last — the record was too good, and a lot of teams were injured, and we’ve been lucky that way, we haven’t had any super (serious) injuries or anything,” the coach said. “But now we’re X games beyond that — maybe close to two-thirds through — and we still have a pretty good record.
“I keep waiting for the hammer to fall — somebody get injured, and we lose five of seven or something like that. But so far that hasn’t happened.”
Teams have special seasons like this. They usually are the culmination of a slow, steady ascent, but rarely do they happen after all their stars get old.
Think about it: On paper, none of this really makes sense, because there isn’t a single player on the Spurs — save perhaps for Tony Parker — who is actually in his prime.
Yet Popovich’s team, which clubbed the Nets by a 102-85 margin at The Rock last night, has somehow attained a level of chemistry that other teams cannot match. He is at a loss to explain it, but he will try:
“Tim Duncan is the least judgmental (leader) I’ve ever been around,” Popovich said. “Just like we’ve had different teams in championship years — with different role players — he helps create an atmosphere where people feel good about what they’re doing, even if they screw it up. And they want to come back and do it right, mostly because someone like him is there.”
Popovich apologized if “that sounds a little sappy,” but he’s right: That’s exactly what Duncan can do for a team, even at age 34.
As for the other reasons, they are clear by now.
Parker — already in his ninth season — has his turbocharger back, looking faster at 28 than he did at 19, as the Nets will attest after watching him fly around their court like a rabid bumblebee bat for much of the night. Manu Ginobili, whose ankle annually petitions the NBA for leniency, suddenly looks more like 23 than 33.
Neither guy played for his national team this past summer. Moral of that story: There is no substitute for fresh legs.
Then there’s Richard Jefferson, who dropped about a dozen pounds after two heavy-legged seasons. If RJ is your fourth-best player, and he’s shooting .427 from 3-point territory, you can basically match up with anybody.
And then there are the role players — George Hill, DeJuan Blair, Antonio McDyess, and Gary Neal. That last kid is a combo guard who bounced around Europe, and Popovich brought him over. He finds contributors like that all the time: Ginobili, Parker, Blair, Hill were all selected no higher than 26. Neal wasn’t drafted at all. But at 27, he’s going to the Rookie Challenge game on All-Star Weekend.
So these are the reasons why the Spurs are the best team in the league, by a very wide margin. And for no other reason than to be consistent, Popovich will remind you that they all start 0-0 come the playoffs in April. In fact, no fewer than a dozen times during the Rodeo Trip — which is only eight days old, with seven to go — Popovich has deflected the attention by stating, “The Lakers are the team to beat in the West,” or something equally monotonous.
Only it’s the Lakers who are dealing with underachievement, age issues and trade rumors.
The Spurs? They only have to deal with obscurity, which they do better than anybody because of the personalities of their head coach and franchise player (rings and all). They are the eighth team in history to win 40 times in 47 games or fewer. Six of the first seven have won the title. The only one that didn’t was the 1972-73 Celtics, a 68-win team that had the Coach of the Year (Tommy Heinsohn) and MVP (Dave Cowens). Bummer for them.
Meanwhile, this season has been all about the Heat and the Lakers, Carmelo Anthony and Blake Griffin, and, for point-and-giggle purposes, the Cavaliers. Maybe that’s why we haven’t given the Spurs the attention they deserve. That’s one of the recurring themes of the last decade, of course: “Why do we overlook San Antonio?”
Because that’s the way they want it. That’s the way they win titles. And at 46-9, we can no longer be surprised if this season follows the same, monotonous, confetti-covered pattern.