LOS ANGELES — For Gregg Popovich, the goal is clear.
“We’ll never play better than we did the last three games against Miami (in the NBA Finals) Won’t happen,” Popovich said Monday night before his team beat the Clippers. “We can’t play any better than that at both ends of the floor. If we got to that level I would be thrilled.”
Clear. But it’s not that simple.
From the start of training camp Popovich talked about the long road to get back to that level of play that won San Antonio an NBA title. Sure, the Spurs brought back the entire team who played that beautiful, selfless brand of basketball, but you don’t just walk back in the gym and pick up where you left off. Basketball doesn’t work that way. This is not a video game.
“It’s hard because players change even though you have your same team. That’s what I found,” said Clippers coach Doc Rivers when asked about repeating as champs, which he tried to do with the Celtics after 2008. “I did a lot of research going into (2008-09 season), talked to a lot of NFL coaches, baseball… I thought Michael Jordan told me the most, the best. He said ‘You’re going to be shocked how different your same players are. It’s going to take half the year to get them back into their roles and all that.’ Because they have high character guys in San Antonio it’s probably easier, but it’s still hard.”
Human nature after a great success is to relax, to rest on your laurels and savor the spoils of winning. Popovich knew from the start that was the challenge for this season — the year before a hard Finals loss lit a fire under the team. That fire is not there this season. Not yet, anyway.
“I don’t let (guys coming back without hunger) worry me because I know it’s true,” Popovich said. “Some guys might even be enjoying the championship today. And I think that’s totally reasonable and totally logical because they are human beings. To try to fight that is a waste of time, it will take care of itself as we move along.”
It hasn’t taken care of itself yet.
The Spurs entered Monday night with a bottom five offense in the league, one that saw a lot more of guys trying to beat opponents off the dribble and in isolation than with the crisp passing that carved up Miami (and everyone else) last playoffs. In addition the Spurs are battling injuries — Kawhi Leonard missed time with an eye infection that isn’t yet totally healed (although the Clippers might beg to differ) and Tiago Splitter being out with a calf injury really weakens their interior defense (Blake Griffin scored at the rim all night Monday night without much challenge). They simply have not looked like themselves.
Asked about any of this, Popovich almost fell into coach-speak and talked process. Don’t skip steps.
And the Spurs players to a man echoed that.
“Our goal is to get back to how we were playing in that Miami series,” said Matt Bonner, who started for the Spurs Monday night in Los Angeles with Splitter out. “We know what we’re capable of, and tonight was another day to work toward achieving that goal… It’s a long process. It’s a process of training camp and preseason and 82 regular season games and practices in between that, it’s journey and we’re at the very beginning of it.”
But the Spurs took some steps forward Monday night.
Popovich looked past his team’s 5-of-22 shooting in the first quarter, the 2-of-19 shooting from three for the game, the 9-of-36 shooting (25 percent) on uncontested looks to see a team that did the right things to get those looks in the first place. Popovich called the win over the Clippers clearly the best game the Spurs had played so far this young season.
“We didn’t turn it over…” Popovich said. “We took care of the ball better, our pick-and-roll defense was really good, and although we didn’t make shots in the first half the ball moved really well. We were just more consistent tonight than we have been.”
Then in the final 5:30 of a close game where San Antonio was down 7, they started to look like the Spurs.
Leonard got put on Chris Paul and made his life difficult, including stripping him clean on a key possession late. Players moving off the ball and some crisp passing got Manu Ginobili and Boris Diaw good looks within eight feet that they both knocked down on key possessions. The Spurs forced turnovers with smart play. The Spurs found the best level of execution we had seen from them all season, which was more than the Clippers could match. San Antonio went on a 12-0 run then held on for a quality win on the road.
To a man the Spurs saw it as a step. One that was still filled with all kinds of sloppy, un-Spurs like play. Still, it was a step.
“It was the best win (they had this season),” Tim Duncan said. “I don’t know if it’s the best game we played so far. It was a grind. Tony (Parker) didn’t play well. I didn’t play well. Kawhi really carried us for a while there.”
It was a step, one they couldn’t skip.
They also know they are at mile three of the marathon right now and there are a lot of steps ahead of them.